Project Nim

I highly recommend Project Nim, the documentary about the life and times of the chimpanzee Nim who was raised as a baby in a human home and taught sign language.

There are a lot of strange moments in the film but perhaps none stranger than this: Stephanie LaFarge, Nim’s adopted mother who breast-fed him as a baby, is eager to reasure us that as Nim grew older and more interested in sex:

I never felt sexually engaged with him. There was a sensuality but Nim was a pre-teen.

Do think about that for a moment.

Nim is later taken from her but she sees him once again when she is now a much older woman. She describes her first thoughts and reactions:

He wasn’t particulary attracted to me now that he was an adult chimpanzee. I wasn’t beautiful or anything like that.

He wasn’t particularly attractive to me now that he was an adult chimpanzee. I didn’t have a, “Oh, isn’t he beautiful,” or anything like that.

Project Nim is from director James Marsh who also made the great Man on Wire.

Addendum: Lots of great comments in this post. See especially Belle Ball who knew Nim and who corrected my quotation.


I think a lot of the appeal (at least for me) is that it says more about the people around him than it ever does Nim. And it was nice to see the researcher get a chance to defend himself!

My (male) dog seemed to be sexually attracted to almost every human leg until he was neutered. Not sure how many legs were attracted to him.

But even after neutering, he still can't sign. He can, however, sing!

Stand long enough (and steady enough) at a Bus Stop in Mumbai and a stray will attempt to spray your leg.

Haven't figured out if they are stupid enough to mistake your leg for a lamp-post or innovative enough to try a wide-area mobile territory marker.

I can tell you that some zoo foxes will do that to humans they're fond of. Which is awful, because fox urine is, after skunk spray, pretty high up the list of terrible, strong smells.

Sadly for the fox. That's what makes it so easy for the dogs to track them in hunts, I believe.

It's always helpful to clarify that you never felt sexually engaged with a wild animal.

Good thing it wasn't a man saying this, or it might be freaky.

Man On Wire is well worth seeing.

No chimp has ever learned sign language. This myth is a combination of urban legend and wishful thinking by the people who supposedly taught him. One expects higher standards of accuracy on MR than you would get from one's local paper.

The post says he was "taught" sign language. It does not say he learned it...

Nim and many other apes have learned to regularly produce certain signs in the correct contexts. None to date have learned to do it as well as humans, especially with regard to signed sentences, correct word order, syntax, and all that. But your statement implies that Nim learned nothing. This is not the case. What he learned is pretty remarkable, and challenges a lot of claims about what exactly is going on in the minds of higher primates.

Communication yes. It is likely, though, that we will ultimately conclude that chimps, dolphins, etc. are simply not 'wired' for symbolic language.

I would bet more money on differences in learning and memory than language comprehension potential.

@the irrationally skeptical Alan Gunn: Citation needed, you shouldn't feel so passionately about things you are ignorant of.

Nim Chimpsky's researcher was very skeptical about Washoe's language skills.

You shouldn't believe everything you find in Wikipedia. I wouldn't describe myself as "passionate" about this issue, but nonsense in the media, whether about talking chimps, perpetual motion (a favorite of NBC News back in the Dan Rather days), or psychic forecasts about the economy (one of my local paper's interests, though they never bothered to ask the psychics why they weren't rich) do tend to annoy me. The "chimp learned sign language" story is garbage. Here's one description:

Nim was taught sign language, whether he learned is the question. what point do we consider a language "learned" is the question.

Is a ~50 word vocabulary sufficient for having "learned" a language?

Its not really right to treat it as a dichotomous thing. Nim's vocabulary was in the hundreds. His vocabulary size and use of syntax was approximately on par with a 2-year olds. Has a 2-year-old learned language? Not yet. But they are not he path. Nim too was on the path.

The more interesting question is why he couldn't get farther. If it was a biological difference, what was it? Brain structures for language? Maybe. But its just as likely to be something to do with human-chimp differences in social learning. People interested in this should definitely check out work by Michael Tomasello on this topic. It could also be something more generally cognitive. As those who saw the movie experienced, another big difference between humans and chimps appears to be something one might categorize as large differences in attention and ability to stay on tasks. In short, in could be that one big difference between chimps and humans is that chimps all have excessive ADHD, combined with a tendency to act out violently when they get upset. Language learning is difficult and sometimes frustrating. Human children often cry and act out when they cannot communicate some desire. Learning during these episodes is then derailed. Multiply that times 1000 and you have chimps.

Clearly, humans and chimps have some differences that go beyond the environment in which they are raised, though even in Nims case, these were not equalized. No human family could ever treat a chimp baby exactly as they would a human baby, especially when the chimp gets old enough to start acting on all its more "emotional" impulses. But scientifically speaking, we haven't even made much progress cataloguing all the ways humans' and chimps' biology could differ, much less started testing them enough to be very confident about which ones matter.

@ JWill:
The more interesting question is why he couldn’t get farther. If it was a biological difference, what was it?

In the crudest terms, he was simply too stupid. Too few neurons, too few connections. Unlike 2 year old humans, he simply "hit the wall". Just like hamster can't be as smart as chimps. Everything else you mention are just consequences of this fundamental difference. To figure out what the difference is would require understanding what determines intelligence. We are very far from that yet.

Language learning is difficult and sometimes frustrating. Human children often cry and act out when they cannot communicate some desire

It's been my (anecdotal) experience that ASL reduces frustration during language learning. It's easy to teach very young children ~ 10 signs that can allow them to clearly communicate
simple desires long before they can vocalize them.

Alan, "snide" and "smug" are unattractive attributes.

I don't believe everything I read in Wikipedia. I wasn't born yesterday. I know how it can get there. So to the degree that an item seems to stretch my credibility, if I care, I look at the citations. The Wikipedia article on Washoe has quite a few, and I've looked at them. They seem credible to me.

Your link is (a) a blog post, not a journal article, (b) unfootnoted, and (c) not even about Washoe. Don't bother retorting that the subject of this blog was Nim. Your response to Querio's link was to snidely and smugly debunk the article about Washoe, which seemed to me to demonstrate beyond any possible doubt that, irrespective of the methodology and results with Nim, language communication between humans and chimps is not only possible but an established fact.

"...the article about Washoe, which seemed to me to demonstrate beyond any possible doubt that, irrespective of the methodology and results with Nim, language communication between humans and chimps is not only possible but an established fact."

Wow! I think the burden of proof for fantastic claims (UFOs, astrology, psychic powers, perpetual motion, and animals learning human languages) is not on the skeptics. But the people who want to believe these claims love argument by adjective: "passionate," "smug," "snide," for instance. Yes, Wikipedia has footnotes. There's probably more to cite than my blog post, but it's something, and something is more than the nothing which you have cited, but which has still convinced you "beyond any possible doubt." Absolute certainty about fantastic claims is common in religion. On scientific questions it's just foolish.

Alan, this is a very strange sequence of words you've strung together:

"Yes, Wikipedia has footnotes. There’s probably more to cite than my blog post, but it’s something, and something is more than the nothing which you have cited,"

Let's see... "Yes Wikipedia has footnotes" (your words)...Yes, I pointed to them...but I cited nothing (your words)? I suppose you would have been happier if I had used twelve inches on the page here copying the 34 footnotes, instead of just pointing them out.

"Probably more to cite than my blog post." Hmmm ... "probably" is now "something," uncited is now irrelevant, and the 34 fooptnotes in the Wikipedia article are now "nothing."

Well, whatever convinces you.

This is gibberish

The only apes that do language are human beings. It's not just a trick that you can teach via conditioning. It's something that human brains have evolved specific structures for. The talking chimps stuff is just an embarrassment for the over-enthusiastic researchers involved.

Apes also have language, and Norm Chomsky's theory about wiring of languages has been recently undermined a bit. Apropos of nothing both a gorilla and a sheep sperm will fertilize a human egg and produce a zygote, which will miscarry. Don't know how that ties in with economics though.

Let me weigh in as a scientist who studies this stuff. The short answer is, we really have no idea what Nim and other Apes are doing. On the one hand, its obvious that they are not learning language the same way or to the same extent as humans. Nim's performance is actually quite characteristic of a 2 year old. But there he stopped. No advanced grammar, no advanced syntax. But its also not right to say that this is "obvious", that language is not a trick you can teach via conditioning, or that the human mind has evolved language-specific structures. These are highly contentious claims. The parts of the brain that get used in language are also used for many other things. Likewise, people who get brain damage to those areas sometimes have only trivial impairment of language function. If there are genes for language, we haven't found them. And the stronger arguments about the innateness of language (Chomsky, Pinker, etc.) have been getting eroded over the last 20 years.

The point is, people here expressing strong opinions on both sides need to chill. As with many topics, the issue is way more complex and unresolved than is being implied. But as has been noted, what the movie says about people, and our relationship with animals, is extremely interesting.

JWill - We have a pretty good idea what these apes aren't doing, and that's language.

Apes are only similar to 2-year olds to the extent that 2-year olds don't use language. The 2-year old who says "me want cookie" might be intentionally using basic syntactic structures, or he might only have stumbled on an approximation of the correct form of a plea for cookies. It takes a lot of suspension of disbelief, though, to believe that the chimp who signs "you me cookie me me cookie" is doing more than flailing about, as per his training, in an attempt to solicit a reward. Chimps don't use advanced syntax and grammar as you say. But they also don't use intermediate syntax, and we should be quite skeptical as to whether they are "using" any syntax at all.

"The parts of the brain that get used in language are also used for many other things. Likewise, people who get brain damage to those areas sometimes have only trivial impairment of language function. If there are genes for language, we haven’t found them."

I don't see how this muddies the water much. So what if the parts of our brain that are used for language are used for other stuff too? Evolution works with what it's got. Trivial linguistic impairment is evidence of brain structures implicated in language, and non-trivial impairment is of course stronger evidence. As for the missing "language gene," well, genetics is complicated, and although you are no doubt simplifying, this isn't necessarily a helpful way to conceptualize the problem.

The "location of the brain used for" meme is partly at fault. The brain is a network, like an economy, and individuals can specialize but also retain some flexibility. I find the speculation kind of silly because we can just wait for technologies like fMRI.


Please justify your assumption that language is a binary phenomenon. I don't know of anyone who's been able to define a finite set of grammatical rules whose mastery constitutes precise and complete knowledge of a language.

To me, the entire notion of a generative grammar is flawed. We are creating and transferring small models of the universe with language, and the universe is neither binary nor linear, so why should we expect language to be? Even if the brain is finite and time makes it linear, there's no reason to think that our ability to comprehend and invent language is discrete and linear. If it were, then how could you explain our understanding and communication of mathematics?

"English" is like "blue." Utterances match it more-or-less. If you can give me a clear-cut test, then my hat is off to you. But I don't think you can or will. And I have a strong belief that fuzzy logic will have much to contribute to linguistic theory in the future.

Edit: scratch that part about mathematics. Most formal work is discrete, although it is not linear. Personally, though, I don't think mathematical language is *necessarily* discrete. In any case, it's a bad example given symbolic logic and mathematics as it exist. I stand behind the rest.

What did Dan Rather have to do with NBC?

Dr. Petitto was my professor once, and she had an interesting story about the way she was selected to be the RA, back in her undergraduate days:

She was answering a campus ad, and when she came to the lab they told her to get in a room with the chimp while people observed. Nim ran towards her, screaming, but then stopped, and didn't bite her.

Apparently, he had also attacked all the other students, but in their case didn't stop. So she got the job.

Imagine that the next time you look for RAs. How campuses have changed!

Change indeed!

How much longer before the institutional-ethics-board requires us to obtain consent from the Chimpanzee through sign language?

I'm calling bullshit on this story (about the RA). Totally unbelievable.

Brilliant choice of photo by Alex!

For a novel perspective see

My cat, Betty, is very smart. I'm sure she understands me. And that's enough proof for me.

Presumably that says more about Dr LaFarge than Nim. She was attracted to him as a child - in a deeply creepy way - but once he was older she was not. It is not surprising she would prefer to think Nim thinks that way than that she does. This would be less surprising - baby chimpanzees look a lot more human-like than adult ones do.

Everything I have seen about sign language and primates suggests that the researchers generously interpret what they see. Chimpanzees are not human. The issue shouldn't just be one about language though. We privilege humans not only because they suffer but also because they can tell us they suffer. If a chimpanzee lacks language skills but does not lack intelligence, should we deprive them of rights? Deny them our sympathy? Of course proving that they are smart if they cannot speak is a little difficult.

I was "taught" Spanish. I can't say mierda.

It's an entertaining documentary, but remarkably low-brow: e.g., it never explains who Nim Chimpsky was named after or why. Personally, I am highly impressed that Herbert Terrace decided after the experiment that he had been wrong and Chomksy right, but none of that ever comes up in the movie. Here's my review in Taki's Mag:

That's a lot of sturm and drang for what could have been more easily and better accomplished by waiting for fMRI.

Here are some of Nim's more cogent sentences:

“Me banana you banana me you give.”
“You me banana me banana you give.”
“Banana me me me eat.”

So, I am a layperson and cannot speak with any scientific certainty about what Nim did and did not accomplish in the realm of sign language. However, I'm married to a primatologist featured in Project Nim, Bob, whom I consider to have been Nim's best friend, and I filmed several minutes of the Black Beauty Ranch footage included in the movie. Bob introduced me to Nim when he lived at Black Beauty Ranch, and I was fortunate enough to visit him for a few years.
Soon after meeting me, Nim signed "Play" to me and ran off, looking over his shoulder to see if I was following. I stood there, like a language-less fool. Nim turned around, s-l-o-w-l-y repeated the "Play" sign, and s-l-o-w-l-y took off, encouraging me with his glance to follow, like I was supposed to. Happily, I did catch on, and we had a nice game of chase. So, in short, Nim taught me that sign. He understood the sign, and he also understood that I did not. So he took it upon himself to teach me.
On another note, I've seen Project Nim 20-plus times by now. I am certain that the words Stephanie LeFarge used were the following:
"He wasn’t particulary attractive to me now that he was an adult chimpanzee. He wasn’t beautiful or anything like that." Big difference.
I don't think Stephanie ever, ever had any kind of sexual feeling toward Nim. She had a very strong mothering instinct toward him, yes, and she was interested in his development. But sexually attracted, no.

But sexually attracted, no.

Sure. I mean, what woman doesn't suckle chimpanzees? Hasn't everybody's mom done that?

Is being a weirdo a prerequisite for studying apes?

Many thanks for commenting. Your story of Nim is great. I also checked the subtitles and you are correct the words she says are:

"He wasn't particularly attractive to me now that he was an adult chimpanzee. I didn't have a, "Oh, isn't he beautiful,"
or anything like that."

I will let others decide how much that changes the meaning.


Alex Tabarrok

Elsewhere Lafarge says Nim spanked her:

The funniest line that I've ever read in _Science_ -- indeed the only funny line that I've ever read in _Science_ -- was in an article that took a serious look at the controversy about whether these apes were learning language or not. We see a mini-version of this brouhaha in these comments, but around the time that Terrace's book _Nim_ came out, the various researchers and their critics and backers were flaming away at each other with abandon (even though the Web hadn't even been invented yet).

The _Science_ article carefully covered the various points of view and the antagonisms between the various camps. And then the punch line went something like this: "In an interview, Washoe noted that amongst members of his species, it was considered poor form to make unsubstantiated attacks against other researchers without first carefully and objectively considering the evidence."

Comments for this post are closed