Genetically, chimpanzees are nearly identical to human beings, so why shouldn’t they be able to use language, at least to some degree? Back in the 1970s, an experiment meant to answer that question placed a newborn chimp named Nim in the home of a free-thinking scientist, who raised it like any of her other children, even to the point of breast-feeding the animal. She, and later others, also attempted to teach Nim sign language, though the extent to which they succeeded is subject to strenuous debate even decades later. As Nim grew to adulthood, however, he became increasingly dangerous, and the abrupt termination of the experiment found this extraordinary animal consigned to a drab, lonely world of tiny cages and nonexistent stimuli. Does anybody recognize the sign for “help”?
Striving for maximum pathos, James Marsh’s documentary Project Nim rushes through the scientific material, not even bothering to inform the viewer that Nim’s full name was Nim Chimpsky (a waggish jab at the eminent linguist Noam Chomsky). Heady questions about the nature of intelligence and cognition are largely ignored in favor of a portrait of Nim as helpless victim. Which is undeniably sad, but the film gradually begins to resemble a PETA-style animal-rights tract, and you could make one of those about virtually any cute lab animal. What matters, or should have mattered, is the experiment’s larger implications about how language evolved and by what mechanism we so easily acquire it as small children. The story is far richer and thornier than this movie suggests; there’s too much Nim and not enough Project.