Project Nim

Project Nim started off by showing humans in a light that made me think the documentary was scripted by a PETA activist. With raw footage of Nim, the protagonist chimp, being torn away from his mother, as his mother tried her best to protect him (she had had her 7 previous children taken, also revealed in the documentary through narration during the same scene), the documentary convinced me that my species was cold blooded. I expected the documentary to detail the cruelty humans show towards chimps, but I was very wrong.

The documentary from that point on presents footage that drew less emotion, although the participants of the Project described their emotions and relationship with Nim in depth. As the documentary progressed, a question started forming in my head: “To what extent can a chimp (or any animal) be humanized?”

The true “project”, documented by Project Nim, was an experiment to test the theory that raising an animal under the same stimulus and conditions provided to a human infant would result in the animal being humanized. In this experiment, chimpanzees were chosen; after all, they are one of our closest cousins (to those of you who do not believe in evolution (some 40 % of Americans), chimpanzees are widely regarded as the smartest of animals [ ], so they still have a valid reason for being used).

The early stages of the experiment showed mostly positive results: Nim increased his sign language vocabulary exponentially and he seemed to be bright, warm and innocent. The documentary contains clips of his foster parents and his step siblings talking about Nim’s ability to understand their internal emotions, and accordingly react. When they were sad, Nim would quietly sit next to them, when they were excited, Nim would be excited too.

However, the experiment then took a drastic downward turn. Nim soon entered adolescence, and his instincts as a chimp began surfacing. Numerous bites and scratches evidenced by stitches and scars, and moments of absolute fear delivered to his caretakers served as proof that raising Nim as a human wasn’t truly humanizing him, rather it was teaching him how to “act” like a human under certain conditions. I highly recommend reading on the “Clever Hans effect” [ ] and artificial intelligence [ ] (especially with regards to “true intelligence” vs. “acting human”.

The project overall failed to confirm the theory.


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