|Researcher Stephanie LaFarge greets Nim Chimpsky, who was raised to learn sign language to prove he could communicate. (HERBERT TERRACE)|
Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human
By Elizabeth Hess
Bantam, 369 pp., illustrated, $23
The title and early pages of "Nim Chimpsky" suggest that it will be a biography of the chimpanzee who was the subject of a 1970s language study designed to show that chimpanzees are even more human than our 98.7 percent-shared DNA suggests. Ultimately, "Nim Chimpsky" turns out to be both more and less than that. What's more is the larger story of the people, conflicts, events, and times in this study as well as in this chimp's life. What's less is how the author fails to turn those intriguing parts into a meaningful whole.
Project Nim was begun in 1973 by Columbia University psychologist Herbert Terrace in response to MIT linguist Noam Chomsky's belief that language is inherent only in humans, contrary to the behaviorist B. F. Skinner's theory that language can be learned by a nonhuman. The name of the book's subject is a derisive play on Noam Chomsky, and the goal of Project Nim, in which Nim is taught to communicate using American Sign Language, is ambitious: to "prove Chomsky dead wrong." The battle lines appear to be drawn: Skinner vs. Chomsky, learned behavior vs. inherent ability. But while "Nim Chimpsky" is full of battles, very few involve these antithetical schools of thought. Instead, the struggles are often centered on humans vs. chimps and especially humans vs. humans, frequently in terms of power, including over how Nim will be cared for and taught.
This makes some sense, for even as the language-acquisition theories are left behind, a related question emerges: How human are chimps, and should chimps be treated as if they are human? As Hess notes, language is considered "the dividing line between nonhuman primates and ourselves." She also states early on that "Nim's identity had been carefully constructed from birth to be more human than not" and "it is likely that he thought of himself as human." But while the first statement is evident, the second one lingers unsupported for 85 pages, when a revealing moment of Nim sorting photographs beautifully suggests that her statement makes sense.
Hess chides the people who treated Nim as if he were a child, a rare authoritative moment for the author. In fact, this criticism of people is Hess's most common way of asserting meaning (or at least opinion), most markedly when she rebukes William Lemmon, director of the Institute for Primate Studies, for using violence to control chimpanzees. That this technique eventually is practiced by others, without any comment from Hess, makes her criticism of Lemmon curious rather than meaningful.
She also derides Terrace as "arrogant and egotistical" and portrays him as a distant, somewhat clueless project director. Yet when Nim is "thrilled to see his old friend" after a long separation, we don't know how to reconcile these contradictions.
It is as if the complicated and shifting relationships of these people (and perhaps of the times) get away from Hess. Perhaps she intended that the chaotic and primal behaviors of human beings suggest that people are like chimps. Meanwhile, we try to keep up with this disorderly universe, following along while wondering where we are going.
The good news is that it is an intriguing ride, from the clearly drawn characters, to the moments rich in humor or poignancy, to the audacious attempt to have Nim live with a family in an Upper West Side brownstone, to his time living at a university-owned estate, to his television appearances (on "Sesame Street" and "60 Minutes"), to a decade at an animal sanctuary in Texas - as well as the moments of Nim and/or other chimps eating pizza, drinking beer, smoking pot, going canoeing, going to church, all to varying degrees with humans. The partner-switching among the humans makes for simple, fleeting entertainment, and the behavior of Nim and other chimps - unpredictable, affectionate, needy, smart, hilarious, violent, impertinent, emotional - adds not just to the chaos, but to the interest. Like the chimp himself, "Nim Chimpsky" is never dull.
The last 10 of Nim's 26 years, at that Texas sanctuary, earn only 50 pages in the book. Those years seem relatively peaceful, and reading them offers relief, as it may have to Nim himself, who got to live with other chimps as well as with people.
The book's final paragraphs are the author's last shot to unify this fascinating agglomeration. What we get is Hess either contradicting herself or not explaining another person's contradictions. For when she writes that one of Nim's last caretakers "had come to understand that Nim was a chimpanzee - not a human, or an experiment, or a means to anything," then five sentences later notes that this caretaker "talked to Nim as if he were a person and a friend" whose "discussions . . . verged on the philosophical," it seems that her substantial reporting has proved too much to handle.
Epigraphs can be lofty crutches, and the convoluted one that precedes this story - "What is most unexpected is language / the way it threads us through and through / we the knots tied in the net / our lives the fish we catch in it," by a poet who appears in the book - qualifies: Language study thinly connects the people in this book, creating a "thread" more than any secure "knot."
In this compelling yet frustrating book, it's obvious that it's difficult to control not only a chimp, but the story of one.
David Maloof is a writer in Belchertown. He can be reached at David@ProWriting4.com.