Author: Elizabeth Hess
APA Style Citation
Hess, E., (2008). Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human. New York: Random House.
Nim Chimpsky is well-known for the part he played in a novel study to determine how language is acquired. He worked with a number of instructors who tried to teach him American sign language. Nim was taken from his mother just hours after his birth to be raised in a home with humans. Stephanie La Farge (a former graduate student of the head researcher for the project) served as Nim`s initial mother and treated him just like one of her children to the extent this was possible with a chimp. Nim took part in chores around the house, went to school to practice his sign language and loved roughhousing and getting tickles from his “siblings.”
Chimps share 98.7% of their DNA with humans, so chimps were the logical choice to potentially teach researchers more about human language acquisition. The debate regarding how we acquire language was primarily driven by B.F. Skinner and Noam Chomsky. Skinner believed that language was learned by reinforcements for favored responses, while Noam Chomsky believed that language was inborn and that each person had an innate ability to learn language. Herbert Terrance, of Columbia University, who headed Project Nim was a Skinnerian as he had studied under Skinner himself while at Harvard completing his doctoral degree. Terrance was also hoping that Project Nimwould help shed light on how humans learn and use language. Some believed that chimps could learn signs but not use them in creative and productive ways; Terrance set out to prove them wrong.
The La Farges found that caring for a chimp was more difficult than caring for a child. Nim slept between the couple because he would not leave Stephanie`s side, destroyed many belongings, and while he was usually sweet and kind, as he grew, he became more dangerous and destructive. One of the La Farge’s daughters, Jenny, also played a large role in Nim`s care asked if the family had a new baby or a new pet, it was a difficult question to answer. The La Farges described themselves as the Brady Bunch - plus chimp.
To make the process of learning sign language more official, Nim had multiple weekly meetings at Columbia University. To determine if Nim had actually learned a new word, the sign had to be observed by at least three different people on at least five successive days. At first, Nim was on the same schedule as a human deaf child might be in terms of the acquisition of new signs, but he often was reluctant to learn new signs and resisted his lessons. He often threw temper tantrums to get out of learning. Nim learned signs for the words sorry,stone,give, Nim, orange, and many more. He eventually tapered off in his ability to learn new signs, learning roughly one new sign each month. Progress could be extremely frustrating. Nim did, however, thrive at reading the emotions of other people, and he could be quite manipulative.
The La Farge family had to give Nim up after about a year because he was too much to handle. Terrance was able to find an old mansion on the outskirts of New York City owned by the University to be used for the continuation of Project Nim. While Nim had devoted teachers and handlers, he was growing quickly and would escape or bite his teachers with increasing frequency. He surprised neighbors by showing up at a birthday party and nearly bit a young child walking with his family nearby Delafield. Finally, Terrance had to conclude Project Nimand send him back to the Institute for Primate Studies (IPS) affiliated with the University of Oklahoma where Nim was born. Here, Nim lived a cage rather than being tucked into his bed with his stuffed animals after brushing his teeth. Nim gradually adapted to this life and bonded with the other chimps, some of whom also had been involved with studies involving American sign language. Perhaps the most famous of these was Washoe who had been taught sign language from Roger Fouts who conducted the language research at the Institute. Nim, and the other chimps were frequently observed signing to one another and even were able to teach other chimps some basic sign language to communicate.
When Terrance published his findings on Project Nim, many were surprised that he concluded Nim had not really learned language. Terrance claimed that Nim was imitating his handlers and teachers, but it was just mimicking rather than productive language. Nim did not often create new combinations of words, or if he did, they were often nonsensical such as “Give Nim orange, give, give.” He concluded that Chomsky was right about the innate ability to learn language was exclusively reserved to humans.
Eventually, the Institute for Primate Studies was disbanded after Oklahoma University cut funding of the research conducted there. The chimps were gradually sold off, and Nim was sent to the Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery (LEM-SIP) in New York to be part of a study on hepatitis. This was just a few miles away from where he had lived with the La Farge family but a completely different type of existence. Because of Nim`s notoriety, he was saved after public outcry, but many of his fellow chimps did not fare as well and died in the hepatitis or other studies at LEM-SIP. Nim was sent to the Black Beauty Ranch funded by Cleveland Armory who had made it his life`s work to save animals who had been mistreated or were in danger of being killed.
Because Nim alone was saved from the hepatitis study, he was caged by himself at the Black Beauty Ranch and became despondent and angry. Chimps are very social and need contact with other chimps to thrive. Eventually, Nim was joined by other chimps some of whom he had known at IPS in Oklahoma. The chimp enclosure was gradually expanded to give the animals indoor and outdoor space in which they could thrive and get some exercise. Nim bonded with many of the workers at the ranch, and they often ate their lunches in front of his cage, signing and sharing parts of their lunch. Nim sometimes escaped and would show up at the doorstep of some of the houses on the ranch where he was often welcomed in an offered a snack or a beer. Stephanie La Farge went to visit Nim at the ranch, and he lashed out at her violently, as if he remembered that she had “abandoned” him many years before.
On March 10, 2000, Nim was playing on his favorite tire swing when one of the workers at the ranch passed by on her way to prepare a snack, and Nim signed “hurry.” When she returned with the snack a few minutes later, Nim was on the floor of his cage, he had died suddenly of a heart attack. Nim died roughly 20 years too early, but in his short life, he gave much to researchers investigating language and touched the lives of many people in the process. At his memorial service, many of those who had worked with Nim over the years gathered to celebrate “the chimp who would be human.”
Other Related Resources
Noam Chomsky on Nim Chimpsky and the Emergence of Language
Documentary of Nim Chimpsky
The Sad Story of Nim Chimpsky
Betrayed by Science: The Story of Nim Chimpsky
`Project Nim`: A Chimp`s Very Human, Very Sad Life
A tribute to my friend, Nim: By Bob Ingersoll one of Nim`s handlers at IPS
Columbia University: Herbert Terrance Studies Evolution of Language
On the Myth of Ape Language: Interview with Noam Chomsky
Psychological Figures and Concepts
Franz Joseph Gall
Operant conditioning chamber