Wednesday, July 23, 2008

What Ever Happened to Nim Chimpsky?

This interview with Elizabeth Hess, author of Nim Chimpsky, The Chimp Who Would Be Human is absolutely fascinating reading. It is a follow-up on one of the most tragic stories I have ever come across, a chimp who was taught sign-language and eventually abandoned to the fate of a lab rat.
Natasha Mitchell: And still talks that way today, years later.

Elizabeth Hess: Years later, yes.

Natasha Mitchell: He even got to a point where he drank beer and smoked.

Elizabeth Hess: Yes, it was the 70s so you know it wasn't uncommon for Columbia students to be hanging around at night smoking pot, and Nim loved pot and eventually developed his own sign for give me a joint. You know chimps have the same vices that we have. Nim started the day for his entire life with a cup of coffee and as he grew older was often grumpy if he didn't get it.

Natasha Mitchell: Elizabeth Hess it's hard to believe then that this was in fact a scientific project. So what was the training regime going on for Nim in the middle of all this?

Elizabeth Hess: Terrace felt initially that he was going to have a lot more control in the Lafarge house than he had and Nim was sort of socialised to be the centre of attention and indeed he was and you know they are great entertainers. I mean by the time he was two months he was scaling the walls and hanging on the chandelier.

Natasha Mitchell: In all this he was going to school every day. What was the regime and what sort of progress did he make?

Elizabeth Hess: Well in the beginning all the Lafarges went and they themselves took a course in American sign language and there were meetings to determine which word Nim would learn that week and there was a criteria, he would have to use the word spontaneously five times, three people had to witness it before the world was actually put on his vocabulary list. After he was about two or three months old he started picking up words very rapidly.

Natasha Mitchell: But there was still a lot of anxiety wasn't there about the scientific rigor of the project because for a start they were trying to control for all the chaos in the domestic home of the Lafarges and things got very tense there. But also the question was, was Nim really learning sign language in a way a human child learns language?

Elizabeth Hess: Yes.

Natasha Mitchell: And comprehends what they are actually articulating?

Elizabeth Hess: Well yes, how do you prove what a chimp is doing and why, and how do you know whether Nim has learned a word of whether Nim is imitating a word. And one might ask how do children learn, I mean when a child says his or her first word is it because they are mimicking the word Dad-dah or is it because they are looking at their father and think that's the person's name. So Terrace set up an artificial classroom at Columbia University where Nim was expected to go in and take off his coat and hang it up on a little hook and sit down at a desk and do some work.

Natasha Mitchell: Which Nim didn't enjoy very much at all.

Elizabeth Hess: Plan B was a disaster. Nim became anxious and upset and wild and at one point they actually had a punishment box that had no windows for a time out period. And of course this is something they would not do to a human being but they thought they could do it to Nim because he was a chimp. And it's sort of one of the first sort of breakdowns in the philosophy and ideology of project Nim.

Natasha Mitchell: Yes, they said too human for a cage, too wild for a house at one point. Domestic chaos reigned in the Lafarges, things really fell apart there and Nim was transferred to a grand mansion on massive grounds in New York City, really nothing short of a surreal scene that you paint in the book, because not only was there Nim, the sort of man of the palace all these people students, scientists, recruited to Project Nim came to live with him in this place.

Elizabeth Hess: Dellafield was this 21 room Georgian mansion on the Hudson River and there were ponds and there were rose gardens and it has been empty for a number of years because Columbia University couldn't really figure out what to do with it and it was incredible.

Natasha Mitchell: Nim developed some extraordinary relationships in that house, he even appeared on Sesame Street in that time.

Elizabeth Hess: He did and Terrace was projecting this extraordinary success, Nim's vocabulary was growing week by week. Within a year he had a vocabulary of 75 to 100 words and at that point they started to get some deaf people involved in the project which was quite critical because Nim had not been around any natural signers, so at Dellafield the project took on a whole culture of its own.

Natasha Mitchell: Things progressed but then things also started to get out of control and this was an experience common to many of the chimps, I gather, housed with regular families. As chimps got a little bit older things really started to go pear-shaped. What happened to Nim?

Elizabeth Hess: I think Terrace realised that Project Nim was not only taking over his life but ruining it. There was a certain point where Terrace decided that he had more than enough data to prove that Nim had learned language and Nim, you know I think he had 20,000 combinations of signs documented and recorded from Nim, he was combining his signs, he was using words in a way that initially Terrace really believed was not unlike the way humans used language and the way children learn language. And I think he felt well I've got more than enough data, it's too hard taking care of this chimp and he called an end to the project.

Natasha Mitchell: He really shocked people, didn't he, because he published a paper in Science a year after that, or in 1979, where he ultimately reported on the project as being a failure, really all a load of bollocks and Nim had just been mimicking, not speaking.

Elizabeth Hess: He had also really boasted his success all over the media and no one was prepared for him to say not only was Nim not using language but all of the other researchers in this field have also been hoodwinked, not just me, they are all fools, none of these chimps are using language, they are all mimics.

Natasha Mitchell: It became dubbed the 'clever hands phenomena' didn't it?

Elizabeth Hess: Exactly and for those people are in the field who had these ongoing projects they lost their funding virtually immediately.

Natasha Mitchell: His conclusion was crucial though wasn't it, because in effect if he'd declared the project a success he would have undermined the use of chimps as experimental subjects across the board, across science, because he would have been suggesting that chimps are sentient, intelligent beings, very much so, capable of communicating consciously with humans using a human language.

Elizabeth Hess: That's absolutely true and I think initially Terrace had no idea how radical the concept was, simply to take a research animal out of the cage, out of the laboratory and into the human family. And now it's really conclusive, not only chimpanzees are sentient but all kinds of animals are talking to each other that we never admitted had any language at all until the last decade. But I think for Terrace, I think he felt going further in to the mind of the chimpanzee, which ultimately he would have had to do with Project Nim, was not a direction he wanted to go in.

Natasha Mitchell: Now Nim had never spent time with other chimps or even communicated with then before so life back in a primate centre in Oklahoma was altogether new. And in 1982 he was sold off along with his brothers to a New York University Medical Research Laboratory LEMSIP, using chimps for hepatitis research. All hell broke loose when the story leaked with red hot media coverage, a Boston attorney even claimed that allowing this to happen to Nim was like selling Bambi for dog food. And the new researchers had never seen a chimp like Nim.

Elizabeth Hess: Yes, I mean Nim -- here in this research lab were these...cages that are like the size of large refrigerators, hang from the ceiling with individual chimps in them and the technicians who take care of them walk below them and you know Nim and the other chimps are signing to them, they want a cigarette, they want a drink, they want attention, they want to talk, they want to communicate. And the technicians went to the head of LEMSIP and said, there's something strange about these chimps they are trying to communicate with us. They used sign language with each other, you know the chimps that signed, that gave birth, they taught their offspring some signs.

Natasha Mitchell: Where does Nim Chimpsky's story end. He got out of the experimental lab -- where did he live out the rest of his life?

Elizabeth Hess: Well eventually a very prominent animal activist named Cleveland Amory, who became fascinated with the case, purchased him and brought him to a multi-species sanctuary in Murchison, Texas. Ultimately they got a friend for Nim who was an ex-circus chimp named Sally Jones, who was smaller than Nim and they were inseparable. Sally actually died before him and Nim grieved very intensely for Sally and she was replaced by three chimps and that was a very wise move because Nim then had a little family. But Nim was waiting for his breakfast snack one morning in Texas then he signed to the caretaker who was on her way to the kitchen to bring him some cantelope and in fact she recalls that he signed the word hurry, by the time she came back with the fruit he was lying in his cage and he had had a massive heart attack and he was rushed to the hospital and he actually died on his way to the hospital.
This is obviously a short excerpt from a longer interview that is absolutely compelling. Please do read the entire piece.

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