Posts Tagged ‘Nim Chimpsky’

A review of Nim Chimpsky

June 13, 2008

Afarensis reviews Elizabeth Hess’ Nim Chimpsky and recommends it strongly:

This is the best book I have read this year and I recommend this book to anyone who has any interest in primates. It is hard, sometimes to do justice to a book so in closing I will quote from the final page:

They occasionally signed a few words to each other, although Byrne had often said that sign language was irrelevant to their relationship. From time to time Byrne believed that their discussions, however they communicated, verged on the philosophical. It was as if Nim was questioning Byrne, asking him over and over, “Why am I here? Why am I locked in this cage?” Byrne had thought seriously about the answer to that question. He concluded that Nim was not asking to escape but making a more poignant comment on the injustice of his captivity.

Here are the links to some of my earlier posts: on Nim; an interview with Hess; and, another review.

Update: Afarensis points to  this NPR piece and excerpt in the comment section below.

Chimpsky: another review

April 8, 2008

Barbara J King reviews Elizabeth Hess’ Nim Chimpsky for Bookslut; while she does recommend the book, it is not without reservations:

Kudo upon kudo has been heaped on Hess for this book, by luminaries of the literary and animal-welfare worlds alike. For the most part, I join with them. Nim Chimpsky tells a compellingly readable story, and Hess is smart enough to let the actions of the selfish and unfeeling, or well-meaning but uninformed, people in Nim’s life speak for themselves. There is no heavy-handed moralizing here.

Still, I wish Hess hadn’t harped so hard on chimpanzees as menacing (a word she uses). Young male chimpanzees are strong, prone to aggression, and not meant to live in Upper West Side brownstones or suburban mansions. They are certainly not meant to become attached to loving caretakers only to be separated from them, time and time again. In hindsight it’s impossible not to ask if anyone with power over Nim’s life understood that his increasing aggression stemmed more from human choices than from some kind of flawed chimpanzee temperament. For Lemmon in Oklahoma and for Terrace in New York, Nim was a means to various career-defined ends. I’m not saying that neither man cared for the chimpanzee; just that for them, Nim never, ever came first.

Heroes do populate this book. Bob Ingersoll is one: an OU student in the 1970s, he became a tireless advocate for Nim and for other of Lemmon’s chimps who met sad fates. Yet Hess could have emphasized how often Nim’s bad behavior was created, or at least exacerbated, by humans. Too many unfathomable decisions were made, even near the end of Nim’s life at the sanctuary. A Ranch rule forbade humans from going inside the ape cage, but look at what happened when Stephanie LaFarge visited: “Before anyone could stop her, LaFarge opened the cage door, slipped in, and locked the door behind her.” What was anyone connected with this incident thinking? (And why was the cage unlocked in the first place?)

Hess’s reconstruction of this surreal world unlocked for me surreal memories. I knew Nim and some of the other chimpanzees slightly, just as I knew Lemmon, Ingersoll and other players in this book slightly. I showed up at OU up as a fledgling anthropology graduate student in 1979, right on the verge of the chimp farm’s disintegration and the selling of chimpanzees to terrible places. I visited the farm, I met the chimpanzees, I sat in on the dissertation defense of the chimp-orgasm researcher. The farm was not the place for me: I wasn’t a pot-smoker, I didn’t fit in, and anyway I wanted to study wild primates instead of captive ones (and eventually did). Sadly, I was too green upon arrival to grasp the bigger picture of what was happening, or to feel the apes’ misery. That’s a regret I’ll have to live with.

Conversing with the apes

November 6, 2007

In a very readable piece in eSkeptic, Clive Wynne writes about experiments in teaching apes to speak, how they all have failed, and how language is still uniquely human, since it is the intention that makes the language not stringing words together. There are some nice stories along the way, like this one about Nim Chimpsky:

The most significant of Washoe’s imitators was probably a chimpanzee cheekily named Nim Chimpsky by Herbert Terrace of Columbia University. The joke was that linguist Noam Chomsky was the most vocal defender of Descartes’ belief that language was uniquely human. Terrace held a quite different view. He told an interviewer in early 1975, “I’m not the only one trying to teach a chimp a sign language. There are others … but I hope to be the one who is going to do it right.” He would, “nail to the wall proof that a subhuman primate can acquire a syntactical competence that at least overlaps with that of man …the age-old distinctions concerning man’s uniqueness would no longer hold.”

Take a look!

(Link via  A&L Daily)