Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would be Human – Elizabeth Hess
Nim: A Chimpanzee Who Learned Sign Language - Herbert S. Terrace
Unlocking the Cage
The Ape Who Went to College
People of the Forest
Next of Kin: My Conversations with Chimpanzees – Roger Fouts
In preparation for writing Smithy, I investigated various books and documentaries about primates. The primary inspiration behind Smithy was the story of Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee who, in the 1970s became the focus of a Columbia University study into primate language. The study (and the name of its subject) developed as a response to then-current theories in cognitive studies that emphasized the uniqueness of the human brain relative to the brains of other animals and the specialization of different areas within that brain. Many scientists believed that only human brains were equipped for language and that it would be impossible for any other species to develop higher forms of communication (above and beyond signals to denote the presence of food or predators, for example). Philosopher Noam Chomsky was particularly vocal about the inability of non-humans to master language. Nim Chimpsky not only parodied Chomsky’s name but attempted to challenge Chomsky’s hypothesis.
Project Nim was developed by Dr. Herbert Terrace (after whom Belancourt Mansion in the novel is named). Initially, Nim was raised in the home of one of Terrace’s former students alongside her own children and step-children. When he was 3 years old, he was moved back to campus and taught sign language in laboratories on-site, but Terrace worried such a scenario was too limited and not engaging enough for his unusual student. In an effort to better simulate the way children learn language within a family, Nim was moved off-campus to a residence, a mansion called Delafield that had been left to the university by an alumnus. Students from across the Eastern seaboard were recruited to live at Delafield, care for Nim, and teach him to sign. Nim wore clothes and was taught to groom himself and perform chores just like a human child. (This didn’t serve any academic purpose in the experiment, but it encouraged the student researchers to think of Nim as a child and interact with him more naturally). Many of Nim’s sessions were filmed and later reviewed by independent judges who evaluated the sharpness of his signs and the content of the messages he transmitted.
Project Nim ran from 1976 to 1977. At that time Nim, was slightly older than Smithy in my story. Although some of Smithy's behaviors would be more appropriate to an older chimp, I chose to accelerate his development for purposes of the storytelling.
Smithy’s story may follow the same trajectory as Nim’s, but Smithy and the other characters in the book are not based on any specific persons from the study. For example, Dr. Preis-Herald combines characteristics of many different public figures, including Dr. Terrace, British ghost hunter Harry Price, and social psychologist Philip Zimbardo.
When the Columbia study concluded, Nim was sent to the Institute for Primate Studies in Norman, Oklahoma. For years, he was studied by psychology students under the supervision of psychologist Bill Lemmon, a domineering and aggressive man whose antics partially inspired the character of Manfred Teague in the continuation of Smithy’s story. Lemmon freely distributed chimpanzees to students, entertainers, or middle-class couples who wanted them, encouraging them to raise the animals in their homes as surrogate children. One associate even incorporated his chimp into therapy sessions with his own patients. Looking back from the 21st Century, it seems outrageous that such delicate, unpredictable, and endangered creatures were loosed wily-nilly into the hands of unqualified caregivers, but it really happened.
Besides Nim, the facility also housed the signing chimps Washoe, Onan, and Ally, who were taught and championed by Dr. Roger Fouts. The fictitious rivalry between Piers Preis-Herald and Robert La Fontaine in my novel is based on the real-life academic disputes between Herbert Terrace and Roger Fouts.
Eventually, the facility closed, in part because Lemmon had fallen on financial difficulties, and in part because primate language studies had fallen out of favor. Sadly, most of the apes—including Nim and Ally—were sold off to medical facilities for testing pharmaceuticals prior to their application on human subjects. The horrific conditions within such facilities, particularly among primates drafted into AIDS research, are widely documented and were scarier than any horror story I could have written.
Why were such remarkable beings thrown away so carelessly? In part, because humans have traditionally held other species in low regard, and in part because the ability of non-human primates to communicate had become doubtful. Terrace repudiated his earlier findings from Project Nim, declaring that Nim (and by extension all other signing primates) didn’t actually use language but instead responded to cues from handlers, much as the infamous horse Clever Hans, who allegedly solved math problems, had relied on the tics of the crowd to know when to stop tapping his hoof. According to Terrace, gullible language researchers, wanting to believe, claimed victories that didn’t really exist.
Among Terrace’s criticisms were Nim’s inability to adhere to rules of syntax (a failing that also applies to certain politicians in high office) and the ambiguity of Nim’s messages. Different judges read different meanings into Nim’s signs. Some of them assumed the implied presence of words that Nim didn’t actually sign. Some of them perceived a string of words to indicate a unified message (i.e., “metal cup drink” = “thermos”) while others perceived that the words existed independently (the object is metal, it is a cup, and it is used to drink). This was an especially detrimental attack because the generativity of language is a characteristic traditionally reserved exclusively for humans; the ability of primates to create new words and phrases from existing words they already knew (e.g., Koko the gorilla, not knowing the sign for wedding ring, called it a “finger bracelet”) was viewed as proof of true language usage.
The trouble is that language is inherently ambiguous, no matter if a human or a chimp is using it. Messages are shaped by context and by the identities and relationships of the parties engaged in communication. As an example, Tatu, one of Roger Fouts’s chimp subjects, loved the color black. She used “black” to describe anything that was interesting or cool. If she liked your neon pink dress, she would tell you your dress was “black.” That statement would be factually incorrect to a disinterested observer, but it makes perfect sense within Tatu’s worldview. How many human children use personal pet terms for different objects?
Another surprising point that emerged from my research was the way different researchers selectively communicated about their findings.
In Nim, his own book about the study, Terrace explains that the project terminated because it was becoming more difficult to find volunteers who would remain in the study long-term, thereby providing more stability for Nim. Also, Nim was growing older, larger, and less tractable. Those reasons were true but they weren’t the whole truth. A romantic falling-out between the primary researchers and injuries repeatedly inflicted on some the students expedited the project’s end. Elizabeth Hess’s book Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human and the film adaptation Project Nim are more candid about the downfall of the study, but Terrace’s version of events sounds more professional.
Likewise, controversy surrounds the death of Sequoyah, the baby born to signing chimps Washoe and Ally. Fouts writes in Next of Kin that Sequoyah was injured, the wound became infected, and the baby died. What he doesn’t say is that the injury may have been inflicted by Washoe herself. Again, Hess tells a more complex story. For various reasons, some imposed on her, Washoe struggled with motherhood. Once, she jammed a toothbrush down her infant’s throat instead of using it to clean his teeth as she had been taught. Was that a careless act? Was it a deliberate attempt to punish the source of her frustration? Fouts certainly doesn’t offer any hint.
Fouts also shares his own criticisms of Project Nim in Next of Kin. His chief complaint is that Nim’s language skills were inferior to Washoe’s because Nim was taught in an artificial laboratory setting, through demonstration and rote repetition. Washoe, on the other hand, was taught more organically. Thus, criticisms of Nim’s language abilities may be valid, but those criticisms wouldn’t apply to Washoe. Yes, Nim was taught via rote repetition in a lab, but that wasn’t the entirety of his learning experience, and to claim it was is disingenuous. Nim spent years living with and learning from his teachers in a more “natural” setting. Fouts worked with Nim in Oklahoma. I would be extremely surprised if he were unaware of that aspect of Nim’s background.
Why did Terrace omit contributing factors that cut short Project Nim? Why did Fouts omit significant details about both Nim and Washoe? Why does anybody choose to say certain things and not say other things? Again, messages are shaped by context and by the identities and relationships of the parties engaged in communication.
Smithy represents my attempt to capture the ambiguity of primate communications, the ambiguity of selective reporting, and the ambiguity of ghost stories.