Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Project Nim: Chimps and the language of love

In November 1973, the psychology department of Columbia University headed by Herbert Terrace began a potentially groundbreaking experiment. An infant male chimpanzee was taken from his mother a few days after birth and placed in the care of a “surrogate” human family living in Manhattan. The aim of the experiment was to examine whether the chimpanzee could acquire enough sign language to communicate with human beings. The chimpanzee was christened Nim Chimpsky a play on the name of the celebrated linguistics professor, Noam Chomsky, who contends that human beings alone are hard wired for language.

James Marsh (the director of the acclaimed Man on Wire) has taken this experiment as the subject matter for his latest film-documentary, Project Nim. “I wondered whether it was actually going to be possible to devote a whole film to the life story of an individual animal – and one who is no longer with us,” Marsh explains, “Nim’s life was lived entirely in view of humans and was very well documented in photographs and on film.”

Utilising these sources, Marsh adds contemporary testimonies from those involved in the experiment. These provide fascinating insights into the tendency to anthropomorphism and the very nature of language itself. Project Nim is far more than a film about hubristic scientists or animal cruelty. Without sacrificing cinematic pace or tension (the film’s editing by Jinx Godfrey is a thing to behold), Marsh exposes the dubious philosophical principles that underpinned this experiment and presents this as evidence of the larger moral contradictions that existed in the 1970’s.

For example, Project Nim provides a cultural snapshot of sexual mores in the 1970's. Promiscuity appears to have been the norm in this particular academic jungle. Here, the myth of sexual liberation was played out but without any of the ideological sexual theorising of the 1960’s and, before, the spread of AIDS had cast its shadow. Research assistants were invariably young, beautiful women, handpicked by Terrace, to satisfy his sexual, as well as, intellectual requirements. “I don’t think my feelings about [research assistant] Laura [Pettito] got in the way of science,” he feebly explains at one point. The evidence suggests otherwise. Nick Roddick considering such sexual behaviour writes:

“They may tell us nothing about Nim, but they do tell us a lot about the 1970’s. The notion of emotional responsibility – to partners, children, and, indeed, other human beings – is absent, as is any idea of treating Nim himself as a sentient being with his own agenda, rather than the subject of an experiment. As a result, Nim learns more about the people than most of the people learn about Nim.”

This final speculative assertion is open to debate, but what Marsh’s film does prove was that Nim did learn some basic sign language. His favourite signs were “play”, “banana” and when he got bored in the research lab, “potty”, which meant that he would be taken out to the toilet. Nim could make himself understood to human beings. However, the scientists had hoped that by using a language human beings could interpret, the veil separating species would be lifted and we would be given a chimpanzee’s view of the world (a bit like in James Lever’s satirical autobiography of Tarzan’s chimp companion, Me Cheeta). This never happened.

Nim only used language to communicate his immediate needs and wants. His motives (if we can speak of motives) were purely selfish. His language was, thus, limited. When he wanted affection or attention, he would sign “play”. When he wanted food, he would sign “banana”. He had no interest in acquiring language that could express other conditions, possibly because those other conditions (even if they existed within his mental ambit) were of little or no interest to a chimpanzee.

Human beings use language to express needs. But language is also a sublime tool to communicate ideas that transcend such base, self-aggrandizing impulses and passions. On the one hand, language shapes and orders our lives. It helps us describe the world around us and helps us navigate our way through that world in practical and poetic ways. But, language can, also, be used creatively to speak, for example, of the sacred or of the human being as a mystery. There is a language that arises as much from wonder as from knowing. A language that is not interested in explaining life, but is interested in capturing it in all its heartbreaking glory. Such language allows us to utter words of healing benevolence and offer blessings. It feeds the hunger of the soul and makes the invisible appear. Language articulates our disgust at death and acts as a repository for grief.

Above all, human beings use language in a way that points beyond themselves to realities that exist outside themselves. Language bridges these realities, reconciling them without erasing their differences or contradictions. Used in this miraculous way, language becomes a defining characteristic that sets human beings apart from all other animals. Unlike any other species, human beings can speak (often, in a faltering, inarticulate manner) a language of love. We can sound love for each other. Nim couldn’t. The language of love is unique to human beings. It makes us who we are. It makes us more than animals.

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