By Timandra Harkness
‘Oklahoma, 1973’, begins the documentary account of an experiment to teach a baby chimpanzee human language and thus, in the words of one of the researchers, ‘test the nature versus nurture hypothesis’. And through today’s eyes, the eyes of film-maker James Marsh (of Man on Wire fame), much of that experiment seems bizarre if not downright wrong. Nim’s first surrogate mother, Stephanie Lafarge, takes the baby chimp into her home like another baby, changing its nappies, dressing it and even breastfeeding the animal for several months.
The film is a mixture of interviews, archive footage. and reconstruction, and the testimony of the humans involved is, of course, far more revealing about them than about Nim. Both Stephanie and her daughter recall how Nim quickly learned to manipulate the dynamics of the family, playing off the jealousy of Stephanie’s poet husband (who was not consulted before the baby ape moved in) and defying the authority of the project’s supervisor, professor Herb Terrace, when he visited.
But while chimps are social animals with a strong sense of power relationships, it is also clear that Stephanie was playing games of her own. The ostensible purpose of the project was to teach Nim sign language, but at one point, she says ‘words became the enemy’ in her relationship with writer husband and linguistic psychologist (and ex-lover) Herb. And when Herb removes the chimp, and puts Nim in the care of attractive 18-year-old student Laura-Ann Pettito, the human dynamics continue to overshadow the scientific study of an ape learning sign language.
Yet the excitement of the researchers is clear. If they can teach a chimpanzee to communicate, they can find out how it ‘thinks’. They are well aware of how radical an idea this is, a potential breaking down of the barrier between humans and animals. It is an ideal that sits well in their hippy era and milieu. Unfortunately for them, a chimpanzee is not a child. From the start, Nim uses violence to assert himself in social interactions, and as he grows stronger physically, this makes the ‘chimp as child’ conceit harder and harder to sustain. The researchers suffer bites that sever arteries and tendons, and one has her face torn open. Nim uses the sign for ‘sorry’ after these attacks, but they continue. Eventually, Herb decides to return Nim to the research facility where he was born.
Marsh’s interviews reveal just how emotionally involved the humans became with Nim, but the story itself is told as a biography of the chimp. So, it is impossible to avoid seeing how the contradictions of the human attitudes to the ape—treating it like a baby and then like the dangerous animal it is—added to Nim’s distress. One minute he is a spoilt pet with the run of a country house, the next he is in a cage with other chimpanzees, a social group he has never learned to live in. So, while we are invited to empathise with the humans, still crying all these years later as they recall leaving Nim in his cage, it also implicitly criticises them for having taught him to live around humans and then thrown him back in with the other experimental subjects. And yet, the film humanises Nim in our eyes too, so when he is sold on to a medical research establishment, we identify not with the human scientists but with the apes.
If this 1970s experiment reveals that era’s confusion about where apes end and humans begin, the film says much about today’s ambivalent attitudes too. So, it is worth comparing it to Francois Truffaut’s L’Enfant Sauvage, a 1970 feature film based closely on Dr Jean Itard’s account of his own experiment 170 years earlier. In 1798, a boy is found in the woods, apparently without language and completely unsocialised. Dr Itard reads about the boy and brings him to Paris to be the subject of his own experiment in nature and nurture, to see whether a child of around 11 can be transformed by education from a near-animal into a civilised man.
At first, there are many parallels in the behaviour of the boy, whom the doctor names ‘Victor’, and that of Nim. Both show instinctive fear and resistance, bite their captors, and have to be restrained with a rope from running away. Both learn table manners and to ask for food and drink. Both—in strikingly parallel scenes—love to be wheeled around at high speed, Nim in a child’s pushchair and Victor in a wheelbarrow. But there are vital differences in the two experiments. Dr Itard wants to teach Victor language not to see the world through the eyes of a boy who survived in the forest for 10 years, but to equip him to communicate with the wider world and—crucially—to be able to ask for things which are not in front of his eyes. He is thrilled by Victor’s spontaneous tool making, when the boy fashions a chalk-holder, but even more thrilled when he shows that Victor has developed a sense of justice and thus become ‘a moral being’.
This investigation into human nature happened in revolutionary France—supported by a grant—and aspired to prove that the most savage human being had the potential to be civilised—that human potential outstrips what initial circumstances endow on us, and that we are all capable of learning not only the superficial trappings of human society but to be free, moral agents. Through the prism of 1970, the 1798 experiment looks cruel at times, but though Dr Itard treats Victor harshly, he sees the fellow human in him. The educator’s struggle to turn a wild child into a full member of human society, and the implicit faith that we are all capable, given the right conditions, of thus flourishing, is an echo of Enlightenment optimism in 20th century France.
By contrast, the Project Nim experiment saw the capacity for language as not uniquely human. It was based on the idea that nurture alone is responsible for making us human—that even an ape can have essentially human characteristics if it is reared with humans. Though the film, with 21st century eyes, is critical of confusing chimpanzee nature with human nature because of its adverse effects on Nim’s happiness, it does not entirely reject the basis of the failed experiment. As well as criticising human willingness to treat animals as experimental subjects, Project Nim draws implicit parallels between Nim’s behaviour and that of the humans studying him. It takes care not to elevate Nim to human status, but it does, at times, reduce the humans to primate social groups, with dominant males and nurturing females. Nim may be ruled by the desire for instant gratification, but so are the researchers, is the implication.
Both films tell us something about human nature, but they tell us more about how our view of that nature, and that potential, has changed since 1798 and since 1970. And not for the better.
Written under a Creative Commons License, with edits: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/1.0/