"It was the '70s," one of the participants says at one point in the documentary Project Nim, about an experiment involving a chimpanzee and human language - as though that excused the callous, thoughtless and ignorant behavior of the principals.
Ahh, the 1970s - apparently a period before the law of unintended consequences was written into the books.
Project Nim chronicles the misadventures of Columbia University professor Herb Terrace, who wanted to study whether a chimp raised from infancy by humans and taught American Sign Language could learn to speak in sentences or even paragraphs. Would the language skill be enough to allow us to plumb the animal mind and examine its intellect?
So Terrace got a hold of a baby chimp, which he named Nim Chimpsky after the noted MIT linguist Noam Chomsky. But not having the time or, apparently the patience, to raise the chimp himself, he farmed it out to a student - a woman named Stephanie LaFarge, who brought Nim up in her Upper West Side household, with her husband and their numerous children.
While Nim learned some words, it was, for all intents, an upbringing in the human equivalent of the wild. "It was the '70s," one of LaFarge's children says, which meant that not only was LaFarge sleeping with Terrace - but Nim was smoking pot with her and her family and there was nothing scientific actually being accomplished.
So Terrace took Nim away from the LaFarge family and ensconced him in a house on an estate the college owned in the Bronx, this time with actual lab assistants - but still, scientists with whom he was having sex.
The bottom line is that, while Nim absolutely learned to communicate his thoughts, he also grew into an adult chimp - something human trainers of simians will tell you are both incredibly strong and increasingly uncontrollable. Their animal nature is such that they probe for and attack weakness, usually with bites. (Remember the woman in Connecticut who had her face bitten off?)
Which is where Project Nim turns from farce to tragedy.
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