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Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human…
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Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human

by Elizabeth Hess

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I read this because I’d just finished the novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves about a chimpanzee raised in a human family, and I happened to have this book around, apparently picked up while browsing bargain shelves some years ago. I’m sorry that I waited so long; it is excellent.

Nim Chimpsky was born in 1973 in the Institute for Primate Studies at the Oklahoma University, torn from his mother (who’d been through this before and was resigned to the routine) within weeks and sold to Columbia University for an experiment: would a chimpanzee raised in a human family communicate with a linguistic complexity that could be distinguished from mere mimicry. By then other experiments had established that chimpanzees lack the mechanics to vocalize human language, but can learn signs and symbols. Trouble ensued from the start. Nobody initially knew ASL so a window of developmental opportunity was missed. Nim did not live with the primary scientist; he lived with the family of a former student, and perspectives on caretaking differed, the rigorous requirements of a formal study vs the free-spirit style of the family. And chimpanzees occupy a space of almost-but-not-quite; not a pet, not a child. Nim was attached to the family and vice versa, engaging and clever, holding up his end of the deal with ASL, but his manners were far from impeccable. This was not unprecedented. Although chimpanzees are adorable as infants, within a few years they are too strong, too agile, too emotionally unconstrained for a household; they wreak havoc by accident or intention, and they bite. The family agonized but couldn’t cope, and Nim was moved to a university facility. In 1977, after further trouble and diminishing returns, the experiment was officially ended and he was sent back to Oklahoma University.

The book covers the two dozen plus years of Nim’s life as he is shunted around the country, caged and often isolated, a failed experiment and ruined for any other, his need for social interaction and communication not always recognized even by the most sympathetic caretakers. Just about everyone involved was interviewed for this book, which paints a detailed picture of affairs and animosities, a soap opera of psychologists. The chimpanzees seem quite civilized in comparison. Good things happen, and there are heroes you’ve never heard of, along with prominent names who are less savory than you might wish. An appendix gives a where-are-they-now (2008) update. An associated documentary film has numerous clips and summaries online.

(read 5 Nov 2013)
3 vote qebo | Nov 23, 2013 |
Nim Chimpsky was part of a rather scientifically dubious experiment intended to study the ability of chimps to learn language. As part of this experiment, he was raised by humans, lived with humans, and many ways acted like a human... except, of course, for the all ways in which he was still very much a chimp.

Nim's story is an interesting and often emotionally affecting one, and it raises a number of thought-provoking questions about the ethics and the underlying assumptions of experiments like this, and of animal experimentation in general. But Hess often seems much less interested in the chimp, or in the science, than she is in the researchers. A disproportionate amount of the book involves gossipy details of their personal lives: who had an out-of-control ego, who was feuding with whom, who was sleeping with whom, who was smoking pot, etc., etc. etc. (The answer, by the way, is that everybody was smoking pot and everybody was sleeping with everybody else. Because it was the 70s.) I suppose this might have been vaguely interesting, in a tawdry reality TV kind of way, if Hess were really bringing these people vividly to life with her prose, but mostly I just found it dull and kept wishing she'd get back to more worthwhile topics. ( )
2 vote bragan | Jul 18, 2013 |
This book is scarcely about Nim Chimpsky at all, its far more about all the humans in his life. Its about the person who bought him, the many people who raised him as a human child - although they would never have given up on the job as they all did so quickly with Nim - and all the people who were part of the various experiments on him. Finally it is about the people who looked after him in his retirement.

As a book about an animal, animal behaviour and language acquisition, this book fails miserably - Vince Smith, Roger Fouts and Sue Savage-Rumbaugh have all written much more interestingly on these subjects. However, it was interesting to see the wheeling and dealing and politicking of the world that lives on research grants and where jealousy rather than co-operation is the name of the game for these scientists.

( )
  Petra.Xs | Apr 2, 2013 |
The terribly sad story of Nim the chimp who was raised with human children and taught sign language, and then after a brief period in a chimp sanctuary, more or less abandoned to his fate. I devoured this immediately after watching Project Nim (2011), an extremely good documentary. I recommend both. ( )
  seabear | Jan 9, 2013 |
In Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human, author Elizabeth Hess chronicles the awkward but innovative experiment in which a chimpanzee was raised as a human in order to test the long held ideal that language is a uniquely human trait. Named in parody of linguist Noam Chomsky, Nim Chimpsky is the center of "Project Nim" and thus the book surrounding his life.

Delving into the details of the primate facility in Oklahoma where he was born to the home of his foster family and the research university in New York, Hess unravels a story that fluctuates between humorous, sweet, appalling, and unbelievable. I found myself exceptionally interested in the scientific side of this story but was shocked at the lack of ethics and standards in raising of Nim. Though expected to learn ASL, the family he lived with was not fluent in sign language and few of his numerous handlers were intent on keeping records of his progress. Also, when the project began very little thought was given to the long term ramification of teaching a chimpanzee to behave as a human and predictably, the adolescent Nim quickly becomes too much to handle. The tragedy of the personable chimp left without a home or a purpose - and the greater story of research animals in general - is ultimately the most stunning part of Hess's work.

It's impossible to approach this book without falling a little bit in love with the precocious Nim. The photographic documentation of the tiny baby chimp who dresses in toddler clothes; growing into a midsized animal with enough sense to wash dishes and play with pets; and finally a full grown ape with a deep intelligence in his all-too-human eyes reveal the closeness of chimpanzees to homo sapiens in a way that statistics about genetic similarity will never match. Though it may not conclusively answer the questions of animals' ability to use language what Nim's story does is raise even more questions about our compassion towards other species. This is a book for lovers of animals and fans of science and anyone who enjoys an out of the ordinary biography. ( )
  elbakerone | Aug 18, 2011 |
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Could a chimpanzee raised from infancy by a human family bridge the gap between species--and change the way we think about the boundaries between animal and human? Here is the strange and moving account of an experiment intended to answer these questions, and of the chimp who was chosen to see it through. Columbia University psychologist Herbert S. Terrace's goal was to teach a chimpanzee American Sign Language in order to refute Noam Chomsky's assertion that language is an exclusively human trait. Nim Chimpsky, the baby chimp, was "adopted" by a graduate student. At first his progress exceeded all expectations--his charm and mischievous sense of humor endeared him to everyone. But no one had thought through the long-term consequences of raising a chimp in the human world. Nim's story will move and entertain at the same time that it challenges us to ask what it means to be human.--From publisher description.… (more)

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