Throughout Elizabeth Hess’ new book, Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human, it’s hard not to adore the title character. The in-depth piece of non-fiction chronicles the life of Nim, a chimpanzee born in 1973 in an Oklahoma research facility who became the subject of a controversial experiment in language acquisition established by Columbia professor Herbert Terrace.
Throughout Elizabeth Hess’ new book, Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human, it’s hard not to adore the title character.
The in-depth piece of non-fiction chronicles the life of Nim, a chimpanzee born in 1973 in an Oklahoma research facility who became the subject of a controversial experiment in language acquisition established by Columbia professor Herbert Terrace.
The experiment was set to determine whether language is innately unique to humans, from the school of thought of Noam Chomsky, or if it can be taught, an idea popular among behaviorist such as B.F. Skinner. Nim’s name was a jab at Chomsky, who Terrace planned to prove wrong. The chimp would be taught sign language at home and in a one-on-one classroom setting for the first few years of his life, but Terrace himself would eventually conclude that the over 100 signs Nim learned to use were mere imitations and he was incapable of using syntax??that which separates language from symbols.
Nim was raised from birth by an unconventional Manhattan family, then subsequently by a large, rotating family of graduate students, before funding ran low and Terrace abandoned the experiment.
During “Project Nim” the chimp became a celebrity, making regular guest appearances on a local late-night television show in NYC and also on Sesame Street. Raised in the city with a morning routine that included getting dressed, brushing his teeth and helping to make breakfast in the kitchen, Nim’s abrupt transition back to a chimpanzee institute, away from the attention he was used to, was difficult.
Strictly socialized with people his whole life, Nim never encountered another chimpanzee until he returned to the place of his birth, the Institute for Primate Studies, at the age of three.
Though the effects of Nim’s ever-changing lifestyles took a psychological and physical toll on him, Nim lived to be 26-years old and never lost his love of birthday parties, cola (which actually, most chimps enjoy) and communicating, to an extent, with humans through sign language.
Hess tells the story of Nim’s tribulations with much compassion, and also illuminates the power politics at play in Project Nim. Competitive scientists and publicity seekers seemed to get in the way of making the experiment a success, or even conclusive, in the end.
As an animal lover who also wrote Lost and Found: Dogs, Cats, and Everyday Heroes at a Country Animal Shelter, Hess raises questions about keeping animals in captivity, especially animals of suspected high intelligence. The book, like any chimp study, also illuminates the truly fascinating, and sometimes eerie, similarities between animals and humans.
Nim Chimpsky is more than just a biography of a cleverly-named chimpanzee. Hess does an acute job of giving context to Nim’s exceptional life, including the new waves of science and activism that defined the second half of the last century.
If the book suffers from any downfall, besides a bias about ethical animal treatment (which is hard to disagree with), it would be the almost too extensive background on every character introduced. Yes, a lot of people come in and out of Nim’s life??surrogate human mothers, psychologists, students, children and friends??but the fact that the head of a major biomedical research facility is a Polish immigrant doesn’t really serve the story. He is not nearly as interesting as Nim.
In this vein of excessiveness, Hess also closely describes the relationships of Nim’s caretakers, many of whom are couples that later divorce or have open relationships. It is the ’70s after all. At best, this information is anecdotal, sometimes characterizing the decade. At worst, it is superfluous.
Overall, the detail in Nim Chimpsky is impressive and the subject, interesting. Hess’ thorough research is apparent and serves the story well. If the tale of a chimpanzee who can “talk” doesn’t spark your interest, perhaps you are a dull person. Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human***1/2Price: $23