Nim Chimpsky, as seen in Project NimHARRY BENSON

Can a chimpanzee learn language and grammar like humans if it is raised and nurtured by them? No, it’s not the subject of the latest Planet of the Apes film, but Project Nim—a fascinating and provocative documentary about a likeable chimp who found himself the focus of a landmark behavioral psychology experiment in the 1970s.

In November 1973, a 10-day-old chimpanzee called Nim was plucked from his mother in an Oklahoma primate research center, and raised like a child by a team of researchers led by Herbert Terrace, a psychology professor at Columbia University. The researchers invited Nim into their homes, fed him, potty trained him, even taught him sign language and table manners. Nim appeared to take to human care quite well, living a seemingly happy and healthy life and successfully learned some 125 signs to use in...

Nim Chimpsky with Professor Herbert Terrace and Stephanie Lafarge as seen in Project Nim
Nim Chimpsky with Professor Herbert Terrace and Stephanie Lafarge as seen in Project Nim

It was a controversial and high-profile experiment: Nim appeared on the cover of New York Magazine in 1975, and the results were eventually published in Science in 1979. And today, Nim is the star of a new full-length film—Project Nim. Though the experiment clearly raises some serious ethical questions by today’s standards, the film skims only briefly over the scientific controversies—and the science itself—behind the study. Instead, director James Marsh focuses on Nim’s life, creating a conventional biopic that just happens to have a chimpanzee as its lead.

The effect is refreshing and unsettling. Like the heroes of the classic 18th century novels, the fate of Nim holds up a mirror to the world around him, and it isn’t always a pleasant view. We see the clinical cold-heartedness of Terrace, to whom Nim was simply the focus of a scientific study, compared with the idealism, sometimes self-absorbed nature, of the young research assistants, who regarded and loved Nim as a child (and in two instances regarded Terrace as a lover, which created its own complications). We see Nim’s early life in the wealthy bohemia of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, complete with unconventional antics like breastfeeding. We see Nim move to a large estate in upstate New York, where he is adopted by a succession of young female students, with whom he is as affectionate, playful and mischievous as any 2-year-old child, and where his sign-language skills flourish. We see Nim show heart-breaking signs of tenderness, kissing away a person’s tears in one instance, and the emergence of more aggressive “chimp-like” behaviour, attacking anyone he sees as being weak, even mauling the face of a female researcher on one occasion. Finally, we see what happens after the study is ended abruptly and without explanation by Terrace after 5 years (much to the chagrin of his colleagues), how Nim is forced into the unfamiliar environment of living and socializing with other chimpanzees, sold for medical research, and ultimately rescued by the high-profile US animal-rights activist Cleveland Amory. And along the way, we see Nim making lifelong friends with some of the helpers, even drinking an occasional beer and smoking an occasional joint with them (especially with Bob Ingersoll, the Deadhead helper who emerges as the one true hero of the film, excluding Nim).

Laura-Ann Petitto teaching Nim Chimpsky sign language, as seen in Project Nim
Laura-Ann Petitto teaching Nim Chimpsky sign language, as seen in Project Nim

Treading a similar line to his Academy Award-winning documentary Man on Wire, Marsh skilfully chronicles Nim’s epic journey through a combination of interviews with key players, archive footage and re-enacted scenes. Occasionally the musical score and the re-enacted scenes are heightened to an unnecessarily overdramatic level. But to his immense credit, Marsh refuses to indulge in any finger-pointing, giving the key players equal room to tell their sides of the story and allowing the viewer to make up his or her own mind about the characters and the issues addressed.

Some might bemoan Project Nim’s lack of science, and very little focus is paid to whether any worthwhile information came out of this nature/nurture study. However, by focusing on Nim’s life, the film triggers a profound and complex reaction. Project Nim raises questions beyond the ethics of animal experimentation, prompting questions about how we define humane treatment and our hubris in the pursuit of scientific knowledge. Though such a topic can be uncomfortable to take on, let it not deter you from seeing this film, whose probing, funny, and poignant scenes will provoke the minds of any responsible scientist.

The film is based on Elizabeth Hess's book, Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human. It was released in the United States last month, and will be appear in UK theaters next Thursday (August 11).

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