Could an adorable chimpanzee raised from infancy by a human family bridge the gap between species--and change the way we think about the boundaries between the animal and human worlds? Here is the strange and moving account of an experiment intended to answer just those questions, and the astonishing biography of the chimp who was chosen to see it through.
Dubbed Project Nim, the experiment was the brainchild of Herbert S. Terrace, a psychologist at Columbia University. His goal was to teach a chimpanzee American Sign Language in order to refute Noam Chomsky's assertion that language is an exclusively human trait. Nim Chimpsky, the baby chimp at the center of this ambitious, potentially groundbreaking study, was "adopted" by one of Dr. Terrace's graduate students and brought home to live with her and her large family in their elegant brownstone on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
At first Nim's progress in learning ASL and adapting to his new environment exceeded all expectations. His charm, mischievous sense of humor, and keen, sometimes shrewdly manipulative understanding of human nature endeared him to everyone he met, and even led to guest appearances on Sesame Street, where he was meant to model good behavior for toddlers. But no one had thought through the long-term consequences of raising a chimp in the human world, and when funding for the study ran out, Nim's problems began.
Over the next two decades, exiled from the people he loved, Nim was rotated in and out of various facilities. It would be a long time before this chimp who had been brought up to identify with his human caretakers had another opportunity to blow out the candles on a cake celebrating his birthday. No matter where he was sent, however, Nim's hard-earned ability to converse with humans would prove to be his salvation, protecting him from the fate of many of his peers.
Drawing on interviews with the people who lived with Nim, diapered him, dressed him, taught him, and loved him, Elizabeth Hess weaves an unforgettable tale of an extraordinary and charismatic creature. His story will move and entertain at the same time that it challenges us to ask what it means to be human, and what we owe to the animals who so enrich our lives.
Starred Review. In what is surely one of the most memorable and intelligent recent books about animal-human interaction, Hess (Lost and Found: Dogs, Cats and Everyday Heroes at a Country Animal Shelter) tells the story of Nim Chimpsky, who in the 1970s was the subject of an experiment begun at the University of Oklahoma to find out whether a chimp could learn American Sign Language--and thus refute Noam Chomsky's influential thesis that language is inherent only in humans. Nim was sent to live with a family in New York City and taught human language like any other child. Hess sympathetically yet unerringly details both the project's successes and failures, its heroes and villains, as she recounts Nim's odyssey from the Manhattan town house to a mansion in the Bronx and finally back to Oklahoma, where he was bounced among various facilities as financial, personal and scientific troubles plagued the study. The book expertly shows why the Nim experiment was a crucial event in animal studies, but more importantly, Hess captures Nim's legendary charm, mischievous sense of humor, and keen understanding of human beings. This may well be the only book on linguistics and primatology that will leave its readers in tears over the life and times of its amazing subject. (Mar. 4)
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February 25, 2008
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Excerpt from Nim Chimpsky by Elizabeth Hess
Early Days on the Chimp Farm
NIM'S STORY BEGINS AT the research facility in Oklahoma that was founded by the notorious Dr. William Lemmon. Early in his academic career chimpanzees became the focus of Lemmon's lifelong research, and helped to make him--for a time--the most prominent psychologist in Oklahoma. Over several decades, he authored many of the state's mental health policies, helped to shape numerous public programs, and virtually founded the clinical psychology department at the University of Oklahoma (OU), where he remains a legendary figure thanks to his early chimpanzee experiments. From its inception until its demise, Lemmon ran the Institute for Primate Studies (IPS), the place where Nim Chimpsky was born. Lemmon bred and owned Nim. As a result, the psychologist was responsible, often behind the scenes, for every major event that shaped the chimp's life, both before and after Project Nim.
Virtually everyone who ever had anything to do with Lemmon (Bill, as he was called) or his chimpanzees came away with strong feelings about the psychologist, but what those feelings were varied considerably. Some loved Lemmon, some despised him, and some still won't speak about him at all because it's just too painful. Lemmon, who has been dead for more than two decades, remains a controversial figure in Norman and the wider primate world, where his unconventional methods of animal husbandry and research are often attacked. He ruled his chimpanzees with an electric cattle prod, as many unenlightened keepers still do, and tried every possible disciplinary technique, including shock collars, all kinds of guns, and a pair of Doberman pinschers trained to tree escapees. (This last was not an effective method; the chimps dominated the dogs and ripped one of them apart.) When asked by a friend, "How do you discipline a chimpanzee?" Lemmon responded, "Any way you can."
The chimps learned to respect their keeper. Lemmon's graduate students also understood their place. One claims that he locked her in a cage inhabited by a few adult chimps, just to see her reaction. She survived to tell the story, one of many about the sadistic pleasure Lemmon took in pushing people to the edge. Lemmon's proteges, employees, and patients all worshipped him--or fled.
Still, however much he was feared by both his experimental animals and his students, Lemmon was one of a very few researchers in the 1960s who had any expertise in raising and breeding chimpanzees in captivity, where they rarely survived or reproduced. Lemmon and his carefully selected graduate students studied chimpanzee mating habits, sexuality, and social development, and they even collected data on the personalities of individual chimps. Unfortunately for Lemmon, and for the field in general, little of this research, apart from a handful of articles, was ever published. Lemmon's vast knowledge of chimpanzees mostly benefited those who became members of his prestigious inner circle in Norman. Ultimately, the scientific community labeled his work "anecdotal," their way of deeming it worthless. For better or worse, he was an outsider who was destined to remain on the margins because he refused to maintain his academic status by regularly publishing his results or writing books. In the long run, this arrogance did not serve him or his animals well. But in the short run, it made IPS, known as the "chimp farm," a compelling place for students to cut their teeth on primatology.
Lemmon was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1916. A prodigy of sorts, from a working-class family, he earned his doctorate at Ohio State University, where he studied with Carl Rogers. The promising young psychologist had a background in biology and a passion for the theories of Sigmund Freud. By twenty-eight, Lemmon had married, fathered three children, and become the director of clinics in the psychology department at the University of Maryland. There he fell in love with one of his graduate students and moved on to the next chapter of his life.
Dorothy Lemmon--known as Dottie--met her husband-to-be in a classroom, where she found herself enthralled by his erudite lectures, liberally sprinkled with literary references and stories about his personal experiences. Dottie was said to have had a Mona Lisa smile and a dark, mysterious appeal. After Lemmon divorced his first wife he and Dottie promptly moved to Norman in 1945, where Bill had been offered a position in the department of psychology at OU, and where they had two children, Peter and Sally. Dottie, like her mentor and husband, became a clinical psychologist. But she opened an office at a local mental health center, maintaining as much distance as possible from Lemmon's university sphere. Throughout her life, Dottie's carefully nurtured independence from her powerful husband was critical to her emotional survival. She had her own practice, her own friends, and even her own plants--in a greenhouse where her husband was not welcome to dig around. He had a greenhouse too, separate from hers, where there was more than enough dirt.