From the Oscar-winning team behind MAN ON WIRE comes the story of Nim, the chimpanzee who in the 1970s became the focus of a landmark experiment which aimed to show that an ape could learn to communicate with language if raised and nurtured like a human child. Following Nim's extraordinary journey through human society, and the enduring impact he makes on the people he meets along the way, the film is an unflinching and unsentimental biography of an animal we tried to make human. What we learn about his true nature - and indeed our own - is comic, revealing and profoundly unsettling. Written by
Imagine this. A baby is taken from her mother without her consent. The baby is reared in a Manhattan upper class household environment for five years, and then is taken away to live with someone else. Much later on, the baby, now a young man, is returned to a home for other orphaned children.
This is roughly the sequence of events that befell a chimpanzee named NIM, and is the subject of a haunting and disturbing documentary by James Marsh, who made "Man On Wire."
Behavioural scientist Herbert Terrace at Columbia University in New York, believed that as 98.7% of the DNA in humans and chimpanzees is identical, he wanted to conduct an experiment by having a chimp raised in a human family and taught to communicate using American Sign Language. And thereby disprove the foremost authority on linguistics, Noam Chomsky, whose theory was that only humans have language. Herbert Terrace called his experiment "Project NIM."
At three or so months old, a chimp is like a small puppy frisky, playful, and much, much more destructive. Fully grown, a male chimp can grow up to 1.7 metres and weigh up to 70 kilos. They are very, very strong, and have a high level of aggression. In one scene, NIM becomes frightened and angry, and it took four strong men to subdue him.
The project was conducted in the early seventies, not long after the phenomenon of Woodstock and at the tail end of the Hippie Movement. The first family, who took on the responsibility to raise NIM, were totally unprepared for the impact NIM would have on their lives. To say they were overwhelmed is an under-statement. Eventually, it got all too much for them, and NIM was transferred to a huge house set in large grounds outside New York, that Herbert Terrace thought might be a more suitable location to conduct his experiment.
Eventually, even after NIM showed he could 'understand' sign language, Herbert Terrace finally admitted defeat. "Project NIM" was not the success he had hoped for, and the project is abandoned.
"Project NIM" was not so much about a how intelligent chimps are, but how conceited we are to think that we can mould a chimp into acting and communicating like we do.
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