In the 1970s Herbert Terrace, a professor at Columbia University, decided to try to prove that language was not specific to humans, but that animals could learn it as well. Terrace came from the B. F. Skinner school of thought, that is to say he was a behaviorist who thought that language could be learned. If B. F. Skinner was at one end of the spectrum, then Noam Chomsky was at the other. Chomsky held that language was a uniquely human construct.
Terrace arranged to get a chimpanzee from William Lemmon, a bizarre clinical psychologist teaching at the University of Oklahoma, who also ran the Institute for Primate Studies in Norman, Oklahoma. Terrace intended to teach this chimpanzee American Sign Language and thus prove Chomsky wrong. To add insult to the academic injury that Terrace hoped to inflict on Chomsky, he changed the chimpanzee's name to Nim Chimpsky. The idea was to raise Nim in a typical human environment -- this meant living with a family on New York's Upper West Side -- teach him to sign proficiently, and prove that he was using language in a way that was comparable to how humans used it. Project Nim was born.
This book purports to be the story of Nim's life, or put anther way, the biography of Nim Chimpsky. Let me put this notion to rest right off the bat. It is not. Rather, it is the story of Project Nim. In that regard, the book is interesting and insightful. Hess provides the complete, detailed story of Project Nim. But Nim is just a part of that story.
Hess provides a detailed history of this landmark project, but the story is so disorganized that it is sometimes hard to follow. Hess introduces people and chimps at an alarming rate. She seems to think it necessary to give the full name and partial background of a handler that Nim bit once, never mind that this person does not show up again in the story. Hess also has the annoying habit of referring to people by their first name on one page, and then on another, using their last name. When you are dealing with a large number of people this gets confusing pretty fast. The result of this type of writing is that at a couple of different points I read a phrase like, Nim always got along with so-and-so, and found myself wondering if so-and-so was a human or a chimpanzee.
Hess is not a particularly good writer, but lucky for her, the story she is telling is an interesting one. Nim was a unique chimpanzee who lived a remarkable life. He was intelligent and gregarious, starting conversations with almost anyone who approached his cage. Nim was even a regular on Sesame Street. He also spent a brief amount of time in a testing facility, frantically signing to be let out. After all, if you raise an animal to think it is a human, it is not going to understand when you suddenly start treating it like an animal. Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human is equal parts history and cautionary tale.
Video of Nim signing with Bob Ingersoll, one of his many handlers
NPR piece about Project Nim