Project Nim: James Marsh by Zachary Block

Human intelligence, behavior, interpersonal relationships and an ape named Nim Chimpsky.

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Nim Chimpsky, as seen in PROJECT NIM. Photo credit: Harry Benson.

Project Nim, the latest documentary feature from Oscar-winning director James Marsh (Man on Wire) is as much a history of Herbert Terrace’s eponymous animal language acquisition experiment as it is the real life “tragedy” of the subject of that experiment: Nim Chimpsky. Marsh’s film is a study in its own right of the interpersonal dynamics, hopes, dreams, perhaps even delusions of the parties involved. Adopted from a primate research center in 1973, Nim—named for the linguist Noam Chomsky, who theorized that humans alone were “hard-wired” to acquire language—is placed in the care of one of Terrace’s ex-students, Stephanie Lefarge, to be raised alongside her own children and taught sign language. When Terrace concludes that the project has failed, and returns Nim to his original owners, what ensues is a real life picaresque of Dickensian proportion. As we follow the chimp’s unbelievable peregrinations in the society of humans—from being sold to an animal testing facility and being rescued by a dubious animal rights figure, to nearly standing trial for his life—Marsh explores not only the legitimacy of Nim’s communicative abilities, but what he may or may not communicate to us, as a living symbol. I had a chance to speak with Marsh on his handling of the subject and, naturally, his thoughts on Nim.

Zachary Block Is Nim Chimpsky, either the real life chimp or the one depicted in the film, a “tragic figure”?

James Marsh What an interesting question to start. Well, I would say he was because he had no power. And he’s powerless from the moment he’s born. He’s born in a cage, under our control, and that control becomes lesser or greater as the story unfolds but if tragedy is … well, how do you define tragedy? Yes, to answer your question, he’s a sentient, sensitive, intelligent creature that has no control over his destiny and therefore would be tragic, I would think.

ZB Was it your intention to emphasize the wish fulfillment element at play among the research assistants? Do you think that Terrace was probably correct in his assessment, being the most qualified among the researchers and having access to the data for the longest period of time?

JM I think what was surprising about the conclusions of the experiment was that it took them so long to conclude what was, in a sense, before their very eyes for five years. So I think there are still discussions about primates’ ability to use language and learn language, but I don’t think that anyone’s ever proved that they can be creative with grammar and sentences the way that we are as a species. But then again, they’re not us, they’re chimpanzees: they have a very rich communicative life that’s beyond the limited amount of signs we gave Nim to use. And he’s in a position of powerlessness, as I mentioned to you, so he’s bound to use those signs to advance his own particular objectives which are often very, very immediate and very, very primitive, shall we say, like eating and shagging and … I guess, like ours. (laughter)

ZB Did you want to explore the idea of the assistants wanting to believe what may not have been provable?

JM Yes, but that’s true of almost anything, is it not? That you can’t do anything without having optimistic expectations and pessimistic doubts. I think in this case there was a real hope that he would learn language and therefore revolutionize our ideas about ourselves, as much as about chimpanzees. To find out that language was not unique to our species would be quite a breathtaking thing to have to reckon with. So I think there was a lot of, as there is in any scientific endeavor, a lot of … wishful thinking is not the right word to use, but hoping for a good outcome.

ZB Do you feel that many of the subjects in this film have confused the idea of intelligence with “sentience”?

JM Firstly, I think chimps are intelligent in ways that are different from us. For example, they have an extraordinary visual-spatial memory: they can memorize spatial aspects that we cannot. So they have intelligence in ways that are different, and what the experiment was trying to do was to build a bridge between the two species with language—and it didn’t particularly work. But it would be wrong to say that that proves chimps aren’t smart or that chimps are dumb. I think almost the opposite: he used language, in a way, to deceive us, and you see very specific examples in the film, where he uses words to get out of situations he doesn’t want to be in. But also, what use is language to a chimpanzee? He doesn’t want to hang out with us and talk with us, he’s got better things to do than that. He has different imperatives and therefore, I think perhaps we were asking the wrong questions. What I discovered through making the film was how intelligent chimpanzees were, not how dumb they were.

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Professor Herbert Terrace with Nim Chimpsky in car as seen in PROJECT NIM. Photo credit: Susan Kuklin.

ZB Is it possible they were so impressed that a chimp displayed any kind of intelligence they concluded he was smarter than average?

JM I think he was probably smarter than average, just based on what I heard. When he was taken back to Oklahoma, with Bob Ingersoll and Alyse Moore, who are looking after him, they both say, “well, we see chimps all the time and this is a smart chimp.” And like us, there’s a whole spectrum of intelligence. Jim Mahoney, the vet in the film, says, “well, some of them are just dumb.” (laughter) You get dumb chimps, you get smart chimps, as you do with human beings.

ZB Do you think it is significant that the study was carried out by a behavioral psychologist and not a linguist?

JM Yes I do, actually, though I’m not completely across the ins and outs of what that means.

ZB Well, the idea that they thought Nim’s being “raised by a family” would allow him to acquire human language capabilities.

JM Exactly, well, I think the understanding was that clearly children learn language in that kind of environment, and they do. Therefore, it wasn’t such a strange idea to say if we want a chimp to learn language we have to give him the right circumstances: which is that around him there will be other people using language and he’ll “have to” use it in order to get what he wants. And that to some extent was true. But I’m not sure that putting him in a classroom was such a great idea, nor would it be for a two year–old, three year–old child: children don’t learn language in a classroom. They learn certain other things, but they learn language by firstly being hard-wired in a way that a chimpanzee is not.

ZB Right, so this is very much a behavioral psychologist’s notion, whereas linguists mainly agree that we’re hard-wired to learn languages, that it’s specific to humans.

JM Exactly, but there’s definitely a hope and a presumption that by nurturing the chimp they can go against his nature, and his nature wins out big time in this story: that’s what I took away from it.

ZB Would you agree that there is a significant difference between a chimp being able to sign “play” or “I’m sorry” and being able to understand what prepositions are?

JM Yeah, or being able in a sense to be endlessly inventive with language the way that children are from very early on. Once you have a few words you put them together any way you want to get meaning. I don’t think Nim is doing that, I think he’s constructing signs to get his objectives and using the language that way, playing us for what he can.

ZB I feel that the film is as much about Nim as what Nim means to different people. What does Nim mean to you, personally?

JM It’s interesting: one thing I learned from making the film was that individual chimpanzees have very strong individual characters, they have a personality that’s pretty much unique to them. And you can see in the film that he has a character and a personality and you get to know that he reacts to things in a certain way; he’s often very confused in our story about where he is and what he’s done to be there, and even the hard-hearted professor says as he leaves Nim, you know it’s a very striking thing, he says “Well, I got the impression that I was doing something that he would think was wrong.” So Terrace, who is the unsentimental professor, is ascribing to Nim a sort of moral judgment about what’s going on and I think he’s not wrong about that either, to be fair to him. So yes, you get to know this personality of a chimpanzee and you get to understand the bigger picture: that if all chimpanzees have very particular personalities, what a tragedy it is for them to be locked up and separated from the life they should have. And there are thousands of chimpanzees, as we speak, in captivity, and it’s really the last place they want to be.

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Nim Chimpsky, as seen in PROJECT NIM. Photo credit: Harry Benson.

ZB A lot of attention is paid to the interpersonal relationships of the subjects, specifically the sexual relationships between Terrace and several of the assistants. Why does this interest you?

JM One of the reasons we’re doing the film is because I was interested in behavior. Not just chimpanzee behavior, but what behavior would be flushed out in us in the presence of this chimpanzee and therefore the relationships that kind of form around him and that play out. This I felt to be very much a part of the story: our behavior, what we did, how we are. When we talk about him, and he’s an experimental animal, we’re going to find out what he thinks and what he’s about, but what we are about in the situation too. And it felt like there was a whole human drama waiting to be explored in this story. As for the sexual relationships: that happened in the context of the experiment and indeed the story we’re telling. And if you’re looking at behavior generally, which I think the film does, if you see a human alpha male character behave in a certain way towards the people who had less power than him, the women who had less power than him—this felt to me to be a very interesting comparison between the behavior you see in the chimpanzee who’s striving for dominance, striving to become the top chimpanzee and seeing a human alpha male doing the same thing. The comparison was implicit and interesting and available should you want to go there.

ZB Is Bob Ingersoll in some respects the hero of this film? The only one who really loves Nim on his own terms and wants nothing from him?

JM Bob was free of any kind of specific agenda with Nim. He wasn’t trying to find out anything particular, he was a student at an institute that was breeding chimpanzees for studies. So his objectives are not nearly as reductive as the previous people involved in the experiment, and therefore he also approaches Nim on a much more level playing field, he’s saying: “Let’s meet halfway, let’s communicate not just with sign but with body language and with words,” and so he becomes more of a chimpanzee. That’s why he’s so successful with Nim and becomes Nim’s most loyal friend throughout his life. I think they have a very genuine bond that’s built on Bob going halfway to meet him.

ZB But he does sort of believe in it, a little bit.

JM But I think it’s very clear, he says “he may not have sentences or grammar but he can communicate,” and Bob would know about that, and then you see them having a very rich life of communication in the footage that we have; they can make each other’s intentions known, they can share food, they can share joints, you know, they definitely can understand each other and that plays out in the footage that we see in the film.

ZB Do you feel that chimp figures like Nim, but also Koko and perhaps even Oliver the Humanzee have garnered attention less because they seem to support evolutionary or linguistic hypotheses, but because they are in a sense, magical? In other words, are they symbols of scientific advancement or are they signs of the unexplainable?

JM I think a bit of both, in a way. Clearly the reason why we’re particularly fascinated with higher primates and chimpanzees is there are so many things we can immediately—they resemble us in ways, physically; they clearly have an emotional overlap with us that’s interesting and very instructive and not always what you want it to be. So I think their very proximity to us is seductive and yet at the same time allows many misunderstandings, because they’re actually very different. And that was a thing I learned more than anything else: how different they are from us, given that there is this very interesting overlap between the two species. What’s different about them, and different about Nim in particular, in the story, condemns him to the life that he has; not the similarities, it’s the differences that determine his future.

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Laura-Ann Petitto teaching Nim Chimpsky sign language, as seen inPROJECT NIM. Photo credit: Susan Kuklin.

ZB Was it your intention to blur the lines between the knowable and the unknowable? There are scenes, especially in the Riverdale sequences, which seem to give the lie to Terrace’s theory.

JM I think that the question Terrace was asking is a very simple and perhaps very reductive one: can a chimpanzee use grammar in the same way that a human child can. And therefore that’s his question, and I think perhaps the bigger question, which is still ongoing, is how can we communicate with another species and how can we, in a sense, meet them more on their terms, as well as saying “I’m putting you in a classroom, I’m going to teach you grammar.” I’m not sure that is the way to understand chimpanzees’ communication, but that’s what he was asking, if they could learn it, and his conclusion was that they can’t. But I think Terrace’s conclusion, that he was merely a mimic, is overly reductive, because I think Nim does show in the film, you see him using for example the toilet sign as exactly what it means, he means “I want to go to the toilet,” but he also used the signs so he could be freed from an environment he doesn’t want to be in; so the word he used more than anything else was “play.”

ZB Well, I thought it was interesting when he signed “sorry” after attacking the assistant, because one way of looking at it was that he was able to verbalize that emotion as a means of managing the situation.

JM I think what he understands is that he’s done something wrong, they make him very aware of it, that he’s done something that needs to be made up. But the worst thing of all, for a chimpanzee, is to be cut off from other chimpanzees or from people: they are fiercely social animals. So the biggest sanction they had for him was stick him in a room on his own, and he feared that, clearly, so he signed sorry because that’s what he was expected to do.

ZB Because they probably taught it to him when he had done something wrong and evoked a similar response—

JM Still, it shows that there’s a conceptual intelligence there. That use of language. It’s not going to stop him from doing it again, but it doesn’t stop children from doing it again: they do the same thing all the time. They say “sorry”—my daughter for a while used to have to burp a lot and we would say “don’t burp” and she would just burp and say “sorry,” like that. Same way that Nim would do it.

Project Nim is in theaters Friday, July 8th.

Zachary Block is a writer based in New York.

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