Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a shocking wake-up call to humans everywhere. All it could take for society as we know it to crumble around us would be the machinations of a super-smart chimp, and an unstable cure for Alzheimer’s Disease. The best intentions of humankind had resulted in the seeds being sewn for us blowing it up and damning us all to Hell, but as seems to be the case with all such intentions, the road to that destination has already been paved. In the documentary Project Nim, we don’t quite see a story as extreme as the one in the Hollywood blockbuster with uncanny parallels, but the core message is no less disturbing.
From 1973, a young chimpanzee named Nim (and ultimately Nim Chimpsky) was taken from his own mother and given to a human family to be raised as one of us. The aim of the experiment was to determine if a chimpanzee could be taught a form of communicable language, primarily a sign-language based one. After being taken away from his initial foster family to be studied under more ‘scientific’ conditions, Nim’s journey sees him handed from one group to the next, some with high ideals and low awareness of chimp needs, while others are simply out to expand their own career opportunities.
Project Nim, from Man on Wire director James Marsh, reveals not only the remarkable methods and progress on this project, but of the human frailties that tore it apart and diminished the quality of life of these animals. Through amazingly frank interviews, along with archival footage and photos, we follow a story that sees human ignorance and ego pass Nim around like an object to be traded, or a prize to be won. The head of the initial project, Herbert S. Terrace, is the ambiguous villain of the piece, who is often painted as uncaring in the early experiments, and using Nim more as an excuse to hit on the string of attractive young assistants he surrounded himself with. Yet he is also the most pragmatic voice in the piece, unswayed by the emotional arguments that the human characteristics of apes tend to give rise to.
Terrace’s original conclusions seem to have been that the Nim Chimpsky project was a failure, with Nim’s ability to converse in sign language nothing more than mimicry and a Pavlovian conditioning to gain the food or treats he desired. Yet Elizabeth Hess’s source text, Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human, seems to argue against this, and as a result so does Project Nim. Humans are not prima facie evil, nor are the actions of the well-intentioned do-gooders beatified. Rather, Project Nim simultaneously shows the animal kingdom’s capacity for higher learning, and the human tendency to squander that same intellect we take for granted.