The Secret of Nim

James (MAN ON WIRE) Marsh’s PROJECT NIM was one of the hits of this year’s EIFF, predictably enough — it tells a compelling story with clarity and considerable emotion. In brief, the story of a chimpanzee, Nim Chimpsky, torn from his mother, then from his adoptive mother, shuffled through a spectacularly ill-thought-out experiment in linguistics, then exiled into a series of more and more horrible experimental facilities, then finally “rescued”, at least partially. Bob Ingersoll, Nim’s friend, was in attendance and got a huge round of applause as he’s really the hero of the film.

Since most of Nim’s life was extensively documented on film, Marsh had a great fund of footage to help tell his story, which he supplemented with interviews with the principle characters (a word I’m always slightly uncomfortable with in documentary, although “subject” is even worse — a word better suited to Nim’s role in Dr Herb Terrace’s half-arsed experiment than to Terrace’s role in Marsh’s film). Now, since Dr Terrace, who emerges spectacularly badly from the film, is reportedly unhappy that Marsh left out too much of the “science”, and since Fiona is a primate fan who can give you chapter and verse on the question of interspecies communication (more sympathetically explored in KOKO A TALKING GORILLA, Barbet Schroeder’s film available on DVD from Criterion), I thought I’d provide a few little bits of info Marsh left out.

Terrace’s experiment was, as is clear in the film, a disastrously poorly-organized affair, with the ape deprived of a stable home and no controls in place to keep the research on-target. While Terrace eventually decided that Nim’s use of language amounted merely to “sophisticated begging”, using sign language to ask for stuff like a dog sitting up and offering a paw to get treats, the other scientists in the field had been very careful to screen out what is called “Clever Hans syndrome”. Hans was an arithmetical horse who could apparently do sums — in reality he was stomping a hoof with one eye on his owner, waiting for the moment when the guy would look satisfied with the horse’s adding. He’d count until the guy smiled, then stop.

So Terrace announced to the world that he’d proven that apes can’t use sign language with any real sophistication, a claim thrown into doubt by the results obtained by actual proper primatologists, the guys who really know something about apes (and sign language). This claim is allowed to stand in Marsh’s film, with only Ingersoll countering it, but Ingersoll’s standpoint is more emotional than scientific so even though audiences are inevitably going to prefer the passionate hippy to the somewhat sleazy scientist, they may come away with the impression that Terrace proved something. This would be an error, in my view.

Another interesting bit of chimp science — we learn that Nim was eventually sent to a centre for HIV research, a very scary place which actually has death camp resonances — chimps are seen with numbers tattooed on their chests, but we don’t learn something quite interesting about this field of work (Marsh’s film isn’t about the science, really, so this isn’t a criticism). When HIV research really began, scientists turned to chimps as ideal subjects, infecting hundreds of them with the virus so they could test possible treatments for AIDS. And then they found out that chimps can’t get AIDS. So now they had hundreds of HIV-positive chimps which were of essentially no scientific value, chimps who could not get AIDS but who could bite you and give it to you.

This isn’t necessarily an argument against animal research. A cure for AIDS would be worth sacrificing some animals for, in my view. But maybe it’s an argument for greater caution? If we regarded chimps as only slightly less important than people, we’d have to be very sure of ourselves before we made the choice to inject one with HIV. And then we’d have discovered they can’t get AIDS before we’d gone so far as to create a whole population of HIV-positive caged apes.

The last fact I have to add to the film is one I’m surprised Marsh left out. Dr Lemmon is a minor character in the story, the guy who ran the centre where Nim was born, and into whose dubious care Nim was entrusted after his sojourn with Terrace’s harem of female assistants came to an end. We learn about Lemmon’s use of a cattle prod to keep his apes in line, but we don’t hear of the startling behaviour Roger Fouts describes in his book Next Of Kin … Lemmon wore a snake ring with ruby eyes, and he would walk between the cages of chimps and offer his hand to the alpha males… and the alpha males had to bow down to him and kiss his ring, or else they got an electric shock. Dr Fucking Moreau or what?

Some people may find PRJECT NIM sentimental, and indeed there are cute chimp shots and musical-emotional cues given to the audience, but the actual content is a pretty considered examination of our relationship to, and responsibility for, animals. Marsh claims not to judge his characters, but in his selection of voices and stories he certainly guides us towards forming our own conclusions.

Via Facebook, Nim hero Bob Ingersoll himself suggests some further reading:

Apes, Men and Language: Teaching Chimpanzees to ‘Talk’ Alters Man’s Notions of His Place in Nature (Pelican)

Silent Partners: The Legacy of the Ape Language Experiments

Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would be Human: The Chimp Who Would Be Human

The book Fiona had read is:



Further viewing:

Koko: A Talking Gorilla: The Criterion Collection

15 Responses to “The Secret of Nim”

  1. That anecdote at the end …. a doozy!

    …but another monkey anecdote; after seeing the Cameraman, years ago, went to the mens; there were two older gentlemen in their 60’s-70’s at the urinals, having an intense discussion about the squirrel monkey in the film, who is amazing; they knew his name, knew what other films he was in, talked about how it compared to other monkeys performances in other films, knew those monkey’s names as well.

  2. That’s right, the monkey in The Cameraman worked with Harold Lloyd too. The Kid Brother, was it?

    (Fiona would sternly point out that we mustn’t confuse monkeys with apes like Nim)

  3. Yes, I see “monkey anecdote”, I wrote.

    My bad.

    But can a monkey’s uncle go apesh*t?

    so much for rhetoric….

  4. judydean Says:

    Hey, I’m another 60+ year old who is very familiar with the career of Josephine – that’s her name – who appeared with Keaton in The Cameraman. Look her up in the index of any book on him. And yes, it was her in The Kid Brother. She made so many distinguished appearances with other performers she really should have her own entry on IMDB.

  5. Why not? Rin Tin Tin does! The fact that Josephine was generally uncredited shouldn’t stand in the way of this fine project! Start a campaign. And while we’re at it, would a star on the Walk of Fame be too much to ask?

  6. I shudder to think how Josephine might have been trained. And if Jo can have a star, what about Cheetah? He’s still alive. Outlived his, I was going to say ‘trainer’, but he was more like a companion.

  7. Oooookay. Maybe he’s not alive after all.

  8. This is my chimpanzee ‘boyfriend’, Ricky. Years ago, I took my brother to the zoo, where I had a very interesting encounter with this chap. While I looked at him through the reinforced glass in his outside enclosure, he decided to look right back at me, straight into my eyes in fact, then commenced to masturbate furiously before charging the window and body slamming it. “I think he likes you,” dead panned my brother. Er, ‘intrigued’ by this behaviour, I asked one of the keepers about him. “Oh yes, he does it all the time. Only to women. Enjoys freaking them out.”

  9. Fiona W Says:

    I’ve just come back from Edin zoo. Turns out Ricky’s behaviour was more complex than the primate equivalent of being a flasher. Until recently, Ricky, brought up by humans, considered us his peers, so he was just displaying to any female who took his fancy. Lately he’s transferred his affections to lady chimps. Thank the lord.

  10. Fiona,
    Don’t you feel a bit snubbed? I mean, tossing you over for a chimp. I guess it’s the old story, he’s not getting any from humans, so he settled for his own species.

    I grew a supreme dislike for those BBC/Nat Geo. documentaries from watching them in doctor’s waiting rooms (I guess they’re considered “safe” for all audiences, though Hatari! was playing in one office I was sitting in last week). Those documentaries are emotionally manipulative in many ways, most notably in the music. It would be amusing to see one have a narrator go overboard in taking the predator’s side. It isn’t as though there aren’t enough television/radio personalities who would be well suited.

  11. Fiona W Says:

    mndean – Yes I do, God-damn it! After our ‘encounter’, he never wrote, never called…Typical bloody man.

  12. Hah ha! Especially panel 2!

  13. I think my favourite detail is his hat being tossed in the air during the dismemberment.

  14. I also like the way the gorillas all walk in a line.

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