Nim was a chimpanzee who was born in the early 1970’s. He was bred for an experiment where he would live with a human family and try to learn sign language. The purpose of the study was to prove if language is inherent only in humans or if animals could somehow comprehend. Nim was raised in a human-like setting and taught sign language as if he were a human child. Nim was born in a lab facility center in Norman, Oklahoma.
His mother, Caroline, was treated as a breeding machine—all her babies were taken at birth for use in experiments.
Nim was taken from her a few days after his birth, to be used in Herbert Terrace’s experiment testing whether sign language could be taught to a ape. His full name, Nim Chimpsky, was a joke on the name of the scientist Noam Chomsky, who had once said that only humans have the ability to learn language. In 1973, Terrace set out to do something similar to what other scientists did but with, he hoped a more primary focus on whether a chimpanzee really could use language in the same way that humans use it.
He arranged for the baby chimp to be adopted by Stephanie LaFarge, a respected older student of his who was bringing up her own family in an apartment in Manhattan. In selecting LaFarge, he neglected the most important factor which was having an expertise in sign language. According to LaFarge’s daughter no one in the house was fluent in sign language. The family talked in front of nim instead of using sign language. La Farge did not even begin to communicate with Nim using signs until he was three months old—an extremely slow start, given that baby chimpanzees develop a lot quicker than human babies.
In other ways, Nim was treated as a new human addition to the family, dressed in human clothes, fed what the family ate, and most importantly, loved and cuddled as a human baby would have been. Once the teaching began, Nim did pick up some sign language. But Terrace wanted more structure in Nim’s learning. He put Laura-Ann Petitto, a student, in charge of teaching Nim. Terrace structured sessions in which graduate students taught Nim signs, not in his home but in a small dark room with no windows at Columbia.
Nim was later moved to a large mansion owned by Columbia University, where he had plenty of space to roam around the grounds, and where Petitto and two other teachers and carers could also live, while others came as visitors, giving him regular signing lessons. They developed a system for recording Nim’s signing, which was progressing rapidly. Terrace says that at this point the project was going better than he could of hoped. Nim developed a vocabulary of about 120 signs and the project was featured in several articles and television programs.
But Nim was getting bigger, and at times, quite aggressive. He attacked Petitto several times. She broke away from the project, and was replaced by Joyce Butler, who had come to the project to write her undergraduate thesis on Nim. Now she became his third surrogate mother. But it wasn’t long before he attacked another person severely enough to put her into the hospital. That, combined with troubles in raising further funds, led Terrace to decide to come to an end, the project was done after only four years.
Terrace called everyone involved with Nim together and told them that they already had plenty of data that needed analyzing and there was no point in going any further with the experiement. Before Terrace’s quick decision to not go on with the project, he had shown enthusiasm for the way in which Nim had learned to sign. Yet in the book that he wrote afterward, he declared it a failure, joining the non-believers in denying that chimpanzees are capable of language. After viewing the videotapes, he concluded that what appeared to be communication was mere imitation.
No one really knows why he put it in those words maybe because he thought it wrong to dump a language oriented animal back into the world with animals around it that weren’t capable of language. Some of Nim’s care-givers were startled by Terrace’s sudden turn around. For Terrace, the basic question was whether a chimpanzee could learn a language. Nim used signs in combinations, like “Give Nim banana. ” If a little boy had said that, we would all think hehad spoke using a language.
As for the idea that Nim’s signing was mere copies, or a reaction to a stimulus that elicited the sign, there was plenty evidence of Nim initiating conversations. Project Nim ended prematurely, at a time when Nim was young, and still learning. It was impossible to tell what he might have achieved. Moreover, Nim had had a checkered upbringing. If he was not learning rapidly enough to satisfy Terrace, might that not have been due to his unsettled home life, and the succession of teachers he had had, rather than to any innate inability to learn language. ?