The Chimp Who Would Be Human

Posted on August 1, 2011

Nim Chimpsky by Elizabeth Hess

Yes, I picked this up because of the movie coming out, ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes.’ Turns out that the ape-olution started when a bunch of uppity humans started teaching chimps how to sign and, well, we all know how that ended. I’m sorry, my fact checker just slapped me.

Since Europeans have been in Africa, people have been trying to raise monkeys as humans. But no single chimp has captured the collective American attention like Nim Chimpsky, a chimp that, out of all the apes/monkeys that have been brought into our homes, seemed the most human. Elizabeth Hess takes us through the perils of 1970s academia to give us the life story of an incredible being.

First thing’s first: Chimps are awesome. They love getting drunk. They love smoking weed. They love smoking cigarettes. They’re smart and sometimes will even play pranks on humans. That’s about as much as you could ask from an animal.

From the time he was two days old, Nim was raised as a human. The whole thing was in the context of finding out whether or not animals could be taught human languages.

Nim wore clothes. He helped with the dishes. Every day he would go to school, put his coat on a rack while he would sit at a desk attentively, learning signs. The children of the first household he lived in (a wealthy Boston home) regarded him as a brother in many cases.

Eventually the media got a hold of Nim and Columbia University made him and the chimp program a major priority. As it seemed with most things in this book, this was only temporary. After a brief stint in what can only be described as a chimp-farm, Nim ended up at Black Beauty, the Texas preserve of Cleveland Armory, where he lived well into his thirties.

This is more than a book about a chimp that knows sign language. It’s about changing social mores. Seriously, everybody has sex with each other. It’s about the arbitrary power that comes from heading up a division in a university.

But yes, it’s ultimately about how how close to being human this creature was. Nim was all but lost without human contact. If he escaped from a his cage, he would literally break into the keeper’s house, raid the refrigerator and would plop down in front of the television.

Elizabeth Hess doesn’t pull any punches. There are very few humans that seem like they are doing the right thing here. Bob Ingersoll being a notable exception. I’m probably going to see the movie (both “Project Nim” and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”) and I would recommend getting the ‘behind the scenes’ look that “Nim Chimpsky” provides. Yes, my inner linguist would have loved to get a more in depth analysis of what we learned from the project, but that’s not what this is about is it?


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