Man creates the world around him in his own image. Or so he tries. It is something of a psychological tic, an innate egoism as human as having a pair of legs, two arms, and opposable thumbs. That other primates share these physical traits and eerily resemble us in multiple other ways makes them an irresistible subject of our narcissistic impulses.
Project Nim, ostensibly a biography about a precocious chimpanzee, is more accurately described as a tale of a quixotic scientist and his accomplices who try to make an animal human—or more human. Their story commences in New York City in the 1970s when Herbert Terrace, a psychology professor at Columbia, decides to take on Noam Chomsky. Chomsky, the noted linguist, famously argued that only humans have the neural circuitry, or “universal grammar,” that allows language to flourish when infants are exposed to the proper stimuli.
Terrace attempts to debunk the notion. Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee taken from its mother two-weeks after his birth and reared by humans, would be Terrace’s foil for Noam Chomsky. So it was that Nim was placed in the Upper West Side brownstone of one of the Columbia professor’s former students (and onetime lover) and her young family. Nurtured in this loving environment, and with regular instruction in sign language, Nim would develop the ability to communicate, perhaps with startling sophistication. That was the theory anyway.
Things initially went swimmingly. Nim’s adopted family of hippies quickly fell in love with their delightfully mischievous rogue, who darted around the brownstone and frolicked in the yard with endearing abandon. He also proved a quick study, quickly building an impressive vocabulary. But troubling signs soon emerged. Nim, like others primates, may have shared 98.7 of his DNA with his human hosts, but the remainder represents a giant chasm. Nim’s growing assertiveness and tendency to bite, indicative of his primal nature, did not portend well.
Nim’s cheerfully oblivious hosts were infinitely tolerant of their human-like plaything, which they anthropomorphized. This strikes the viewer as benign when it comes to dressing the chimp in children’s clothing or attempting (without much success) to potty train him, but it takes on a decidedly creepier feel when he’s breast-fed. Terrace was not pleased. Realizing that Nim needed nurturing in an environment more conducive to scientific experimentation, he moved the young chimp to a country estate where he was surrounded by a team of minders focused on his cognitive development.
Yet this only delayed the inevitable. While Nim’s new handlers more rigorously saw to his instruction, they were as besotted with him as the family they replaced and, critically, were as disturbingly naïve about how dangerously inappropriate the setting was for a wild animal. The delusion came to a head when Nim, now quite strong, assaulted one his handlers by repeatedly banging her head into the ground. Soon thereafter, he bit another handler in the face, causing a severe laceration. After the second incident, Terrace wisely declared the experiment over and exiled Nim to the first of many facilities, including an animal-testing laboratory, where the chimp was caged and forced to interact with a species, his own, with whom he had not had contact since being snatched from his mother.
Terrace comes across poorly in the film. His reflexive fear of lawsuits as a result of Nim’s rampages, rather than concern for the well-being of his maimed assistants, and his sexual peccadilloes paint a decidedly unappealing portrait of an academic snob whose arrogance is reflected in an inhumane experiment that had needlessly sacrificed a chimp at the alter of scientific inquiry. But he’s also intellectually honest. After pouring over hours of video of Nim, his apparently-linguistically talented chimp that had acquired the rudiments of human grammar, Terrace fessed up that all was not as it appeared.
Nim, Terrace admitted, was just a talented conman: the chimp used language in a pragmatic way to curry favor so as to achieve a desired end, such as earning a treat. His was more mimicry than abstract or complex thought that humans develop. Chimsky, then, vindicated Chomsky. But at a cost: Nim’s life was savaged (and two of Terrace’s assistants were injured). The chimp expired in 2000 at the age of 26, tragically young for an animal that can live to 60 years in captivity.
Revealing Nim’s fate does not ruin Academy Award-winning filmmaker James Marsh’s documentary, as the poor chimp isn’t the movie’s main focus. Rather, it is the cast of human characters who seek to create a world in their own image, sacrificing a chimp in the process. This tendency may be reasonable for a God, but for humans it’s monkey business.