Posted by: Kristen Hicks | January 8, 2012

Learning About Chimps Learning

The work of Jane Goodall, described In the Shadow of Man, was fairly revolutionary in its effect on how people view chimpanzees. It paved the way for new methods of studying animals and a generally more informed perspective on the ability of animals to think and interact socially.

The concept of observing animals in their own environment was relatively new, as were many realizations of Goodall’s research that forever changed the way people view animals. In her discovery of chimps employing tools–something it had always been assumed was specific to humans–and in her observations of the social structures that existed amongst the chimps, Goodall’s work demonstrated more similarities between chimp and human behavior and a greater sophistication of chimp thought than could have been imagined previously.

While this has led to considerable progress in how people and institutions treat animals in general, and chimps in particular, including  a push in some places towards providing apes human rights, it has also led to some strange and morally questionable experiments. It’s perhaps natural within the human-centric way most of our cultures view the world  that when faced with the realization that another species is more closely related to our own than we’d previously realized, we would seek to push those animals further towards our own culture and way of interacting in the world. Where Goodall’s research was largely focused on learning more about apes, some of the research it helped inspire used apes to learn more about people.

 

Which brings us to Project Nim. One of the common points made in reviews and discussions around the film Project Nim is that it shows more about human behavior than it does about chimp behavior. The film interviews a series of people that came into contact with Nim, from caregivers, researchers, hippies and combinations of the three, possessing a variety of motivations defining their interactions with the extraordinary animal.

Project Nim was the brainchild of Herbert Terrace, a linguistic researcher at Columbia University out to learn whether or not a chimp could learn language. By pretty early on in Project Nim, Terrace comes to feel like the villain of the piece. It’s hard to fault him for taking on the idea to begin with.  Teaching an animal to communicate with humans through language is undoubtedly an exciting idea and one that could lead to huge strides towards how we understand language, cognitive thought and the possibilities of intelligence in animals (which would thus necessarily lead to improved treatment of animals). That said, rather than an explorer out to gain new depths of knowledge, Terrace comes off as someone more concerned with the reputation the project will provide and repeatedly unconcerned with the consequences of his actions.

Nim starts off being raised just like a human child by a well to do, hippie mother, actually surrounded by a bevy of other children who embrace him as part of the family. From this decidedly unscientific environment he’s moved to a large estate where he spends time with several young students who develop relationships with him and make progress towards teaching him lots of words in sign language.

Where his story begins its heartbreaking turn is rather predictable for anyone familiar with stories of domesticated chimpanzees. As they get older, they become very strong and aggressive and it becomes more difficult (and more expensive) to develop a safe environment for people to continue working with them. After becoming aggressive one too many times with students working with him, Nim is taken from a life where he’s treated as a child and then friend, given treats and constant attention; back to the more conventional existence of research chimps, full of cages and medical experimentation. While their nearness to humans is part of what makes a study like that of Project Nim so exciting, it also gives people a greater awareness of the consequences of performing such research without better planning and greater compassion–something Terrace’s interviews in the film and in the press at the time make clear he wasn’t concerned about.

Fresh Air-Project Nim

A surprisingly similar tale offering up an alternate, though no less upsetting ending, the story of Lucy Temerlin was covered by Radiolab recently. She was also raised by a human family and treated like a child, taught sign language and developed relationships with the researchers and family members she spent time with. Like Nim, she grew too strong and aggressive to stay in the same environment as she got older. Unlike Nim, her caretakers opted to end her captivity and try to release her into a more natural environment to live amongst other chimps in Gambia.

She was so domesticated that it took time and the work of her most devoted human companion to slowly re-accustom her to living as a wild chimp in place of her expectations of human society. Eventually, it worked, but only for a brief period before her body was found dead, presumably killed by poachers due to her friendly nature towards humans.

Which brings us to Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

 

For anyone feeling disheartened by these or similar tales, a viewing of this film is highly recommended, as it has the kind of ending you wish the non-fictional chimps could have managed. An examination of both the exciting possibilities and moral limitations of human research, the film takes the studies like those of Nim and Lucy to the next level-imagining a drug that brings apes to a human level of intelligence and imagines what happens from there.

It’s only fiction, but it feels oddly empowering to see some (admittedly CGI) chimps go from exploited test subjects to victors in their own lives. For now though, apes taken out of the wild (and those still within it, due to different factors) are dependent on the empathy and efforts of human beings in order to live basically decent lives

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