“It was the ’70s,” one of the participants says at one point in the documentary Project Nim, about an experiment involving a chimpanzee and human language – as though that excused the callous, thoughtless and ignorant behavior of the principals.
Ahh, the 1970s – apparently a period before the law of unintended consequences was written into the books.
Project Nim chronicles the misadventures of Columbia University professor Herb Terrace, who wanted to study whether a chimp raised from infancy by humans and taught American Sign Language could learn to speak in sentences or even paragraphs. Would the language skill be enough to allow us to plumb the animal mind and examine its intellect?
So Terrace got a hold of a baby chimp, which he named Nim Chimpsky after the noted MIT linguist Noam Chomsky. But not having the time or, apparently the patience, to raise the chimp himself, he farmed it out to a student – a woman named Stephanie LaFarge, who brought Nim up in her Upper West Side household, with her husband and their numerous children.
While Nim learned some words, it was, for all intents, an upbringing in the human equivalent of the wild.
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