Friday, April 22, 2011

On "Nim Chimpsky" by Elizabeth Hess *****

More a biography of a research animal than a text on linguistics, Hess's book is an incredibly moving account of one of the chimpanzees used in the ongoing experiments in which primates are taught a human language. The findings may be fascinating, but the cost to the chimp seem formidable.

Nim was the subject of an experiment conducted by Herbert Terrace at NYU. Unlike previous chimp experiments, Terrace's project aimed to have Nim raised like a human being, while at the same time learning a new language. For this purpose, Nim was brought--at eleven days old--to New York from his earlier home in Oklahoma. His mother, we learn in the book, was used to having babies snatched from her after a week or so (in order to farm them out to waiting circuses, scientists, and "pet" enthusiasts), and she guarded Nim jealously for the short time that she was allowed to keep him. Alas, she was put to sleep, and her chimp taken so that the experiment could begin.

Terrace chose an upper-class family in Manhattan to serve as Nim's. The family was a kind of Brady Bunch, the merging of two former families. The dad, W. E. R. LaForge was from a family with inherited wealth. He'd been formerly married to a woman who, in the book's account, essentially doted on him, while he worked away in his highly conformist role. But he had a mid-aged breakdown when the 1970s rolled around, and off he went, adopting a kind of hippie lifestyle, and to that end, he joined up with another woman who also left her husband and whose own lifestyle was more in keeping with the new person that the LaForge had become. The problem: she was also highly interested in Terrace's experiment (being a former student of his), and she agreed to take in the chimp. LaForge had no real way to disagree if he wanted to keep his new wife, and not only that, he ended up paying most of the bills.

We watch over the course of that first year or so, the LaForge family break apart under the stress of keeping the chimp. And in this is the great irony. Nim breaks up many a family and a relationship along the way. He throws tantrums. He bites. He is, in many ways awful, but people love him, because he is "almost human."

Terrace needs hard numbers, so he begins insisting on training Nim in a more typical classroom manner, much to the disagreement of Ms. LaForge. The project stalls; she leaves. New "parents" take over, and then again, after another set of months, another new set of parents take over. Taking care of a chimp is stressful, and each time, the scientist doing the language experiment (who needs hard data to get grants) seems up against the family taking care of the chimp (who just want to get along).

In the end, after Nim takes a chunk out of the face of one his teacher's, Terrace decides to end the experiment. And Nim is returned to the Oklahoma facilities from which he came but at which he has never actually lived.

It is a far cry from his past surroundings. In Oklahoma, Nim lives in a cage among chimps, whereas he's grown up living in a house, among humans. The transition is stressful, though he manages to come through it all right.

Meanwhile, Terrace, who seemed bound to convince people that Nim can talk, actually comes out with a paper saying that his experiment failed and that chimps cannot usefully use language. This rather surprises many surrounding Nim. On Nim's return to Oklahoma, it's apparent that he knows how to sign, and he does it in a manner that is more fluid than most primates that have been trained, and furthermore he does it on his own initiative, in order to begin conversations. Then again, what does he really mean? As one person noted, after being bitten, Nim kept signing "bite." She had no idea whether he was trying to say sorry or whether he was threatening to bite again. We're not talking significant strings of words here.

Still, in a turnaround of sympathy, one ends up feeling a bit for Terrace. And in this is one of the book's interesting observations. To Hillix and Rumbaugh, Roger Fouts (the owner of Washoe, who also worked for a time in Oklahoma) is an absolute hero; William Lemmon, the owner of the IPS, the primate research facility, is an absolutely evil man. To Hess, those distinctions aren't so clear. Fouts at times comes across as more interested in his research than the chimps; Lemmon, a problematic figure to be sure, comes across as a person who at least has some concern for his animals--and a hard sense of just how much they aren't human and so much be treated as such at times to avoid injury. And Terrace, the cold scientist, is one of those who comes to Nim's rescue, when Lemmon, in financial straits, has to start selling off his primates to medical researchers.

Nim is shipped off to a place that is testing hepatitis vaccines. Terrace, along with a man named Bob Ingersoll and a few others, raise a ruckus, and get Nim shipped back to Oklahoma and eventually adopted by an animal refuge. The problem is that the refuge isn't used to handling chimps, and so Nim's first year there is rather a depressing time for him, cooped in a cage by himself. But finally, wisdom prevails, and someone finally gets the refuge's managers to understand that chimps are social animals and need to be among others--and so more chimps are adopted to give Nim a family.

Throughout it all, Nim continues signing, though less so with age, since fewer humans will sign back. He even teaches some of the other chimps to sign. It is a strange world that Nim inhabits. And I'm not sure, since he's cooped up in a cage, that it's a pleasant one. By teaching such animals language, we are, I suppose, opening the gateway to questions about experiments on animals in general. Just how much is the experiment worth, especially when it makes an animal unable to live in the wild but also unable to live among us?

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