Nim Chimpsky: The chimp they tried to turn human

Roundup: Pop Culture & the Arts ... Movies, Documentaries and Museum Exhibits

If your cultural memory goes back to the 1970s, here's what you already know, or think you know, about the subject of James Marsh's film "Project Nim": An infant chimpanzee called Nim -- or Nim Chimpsky, in joking homage to linguist Noam Chomsky -- was raised entirely by humans and taught elements of American Sign Language, as part of an experiment that aimed to determine whether an ape could acquire language the same way we do. (If one could, that might disprove Chomsky's contention that humans are uniquely hard-wired for language.) The results of the experiment were controversial at the time and remain so today. Herbert Terrace, the Columbia University psychologist who designed the project, ultimately decided that Nim hadn't gotten anywhere near a syntactical understanding of human language and used his vocabulary of 125 or so signs merely as a primitive code to achieve short-term goals, such as a piece of fruit or a play session.

As he did in his Oscar-winning "Man on Wire," Marsh takes a much-mythologized, media-friendly event of yesteryear and gradually fills in the background and context via a meticulous blend of archival footage, talking-head interviews and artful reconstructions. (This film is based on Elizabeth Hess' 2008 book "Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human.") As with Philippe Petit's 1974 wire-walk between the Twin Towers, the Nim experiment looks a whole lot different in retrospect. "Project Nim" is a darkly hilarious social portrait of the bizarre alternate universe of 1970s academia and an extraordinary biography of a non-human individual, on whom all sorts of human desires and ideologies were projected. Marsh is far too scrupulous, or too canny, to take sides in the dispute between Terrace and his many detractors, but he doesn't have to. Basically, the more the guy opens his mouth, the more he looks like a massive sleazebag, and the more you learn about his so-called experiment, the more it looks like a misbegotten and sloppily executed disaster that says more about human arrogance than it does about chimps and language.

"Project Nim" also belongs on the ever-lengthening list of movies designed to convince younger people that however much the '70s may sound like a paranoid fantasy out of a Philip K. Dick novel, they actually happened. (See also: "Carlos," "Munich" and "The Baader Meinhof Complex," not to mention "Man on Wire.") I mean, you couldn't make this stuff up. Terrace's supposedly scientific exercise involved shooting Nim's mother with a tranquilizer gun, seizing her 2-week-old infant and entrusting it to Stephanie LaFarge, a former graduate student (and former lover) of Terrace's who knew nothing about chimpanzees. She did, however, have a large blended family, in which numerous children lived in a state of unsupervised Manhattan chaos; evidently the idea was that one more who wasn't quite human wouldn't make much difference....

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