Released in the same week as Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes in 2011, Project Nim is the story of an experiment started in 1973 to see if raising a chimp in a human family and teaching it signing would result in it acquiring language skills. Headed up by Herbert S Terrace at Columbia University, ‘Nim Chimpsky’ (a play on Noam Chomsky, the famous human language theorist) was selected to be placed with a human family two weeks into his life and the results documented.
Project Nim mixes original footage with a host of current interviews with the project’s primary participants, many of which are represented. Terrace dominates early proceedings and comes across as a highly controlling influence and also a rather bitter man. He makes snide asides about some of his assistants who were ultimately tasked with teaching Nim and giving a great deal of their time to the experiment.
The progress of Nim is unclear – whilst the archive footage shows some discernable signing skills, we are shown statistics about the number of words he has learnt which never really seem to stack up with what he can do. We are also shown clips where we are told Nim is making a sentence by combining signs in a logical way but again, to the untrained eye this is not particularly obvious and it rather feels like we are being talked into seeing the required results rather than what might actually be there.
Inevitably, as a sensible person might expect from such a project, as Nim grew from lovable baby chimp to ever stronger adolescent and young male his aggression increased leading to some dangerous situations. Eventually, due to a lack of funding and the increased risk of being involved with the project, Nim was sold to a testing facility and the project shut down. Luckily he was eventually re-homed to an animal rescue centre (although even that started badly) where he remained until his death at the age of 26 in 2000.
The results of Project Nim as published by Terrace do at least honestly report that it was ultimately fruitless and no evidence of language skills could really be concluded upon. These results rather sum up the whole sad tale of a chimp who’s life expectancy in the wild would have been around 45 years and the lives of those involved in the project who were needlessly put at risk after the infant years of Nim.