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Project Nim: Film Review

Can a chimpanzee learn language and grammar like humans if it is raised and nurtured by them? No, it’s not the subject of the latest Planet of the Apes film, but Project Nim—a fascinating and provocative documentary about a likeable chimp who found himself the focus of a landmark behavioral psychology experiment in the 1970s.

In November 1973, a 10-day-old chimpanzee called Nim was plucked from his mother in an Oklahoma primate research center, and raised like a child by a team of researchers led by Herbert Terrace, a psychology professor at Columbia University. The researchers invited Nim into their homes, fed him, potty trained him, even taught him sign language and table manners. Nim appeared to take to human care quite well, living a seemingly happy and healthy life and successfully learned some 125 signs to use in multi-word phrases like “Hug me Nim” or “Banana Nim eat.” But Terrace concluded that that the animal was merely imitating his trainers or using the phrases to get what he wanted, rather than actually constructing sentences as a human child would.

It was a controversial and high-profile experiment: Nim appeared on the cover of New York Magazine in 1975, and the results were eventually published in Science in 1979. And today, Nim is the star of a new full-length film—Project Nim. Though the experiment clearly raises some serious ethical questions by today’s standards, the film skims only briefly over the scientific controversies—and the science itself—behind the study. Instead, director James Marsh focuses on Nim’s life, creating a conventional biopic that just happens to have a chimpanzee as its lead.

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