Nim Chimpsky was a chimpanzee who was the subject of an extended study of animal language acquisition at Columbia University, led by Herbert S. Terrace.
Chimpsky was given his name as a pun on Noam Chomsky, the foremost theorist of human language structure and generative grammar at the time, who held that humans were “wired” to develop language.
Project Nim was an attempt to go further. Terrace and his colleagues aimed to use more rigorous experimental techniques, and the intellectual discipline of the experimental analysis of behavior, so that the linguistic abilities of the apes could be put on a more secure footing.
Roger Fouts wrote: “Since 98.7% of the DNA in humans and chimps is identical, some scientists (but not Noam Chomsky) believed that a chimp raised in a human family, and using ASL (American Sign Language), would shed light on the way language is acquired and used by humans. Project Nim, headed by behavioral psychologist Herbert Terrace at Columbia University, was conceived in the early 1970s as a challenge to Chomsky’s thesis that only humans have language.
Attention was particularly focused on Nim’s ability to make different responses to different sequences of signs and to emit different sequences in order to communicate different meanings.
While Nim did learn 125 signs, Terrace concluded that he hadn’t acquired anything the researchers were prepared to designate worthy of the name “language” (as defined by Noam Chomsky) although he had learned to repeat his trainers’ signs in appropriate contexts.
Project Nim, a documentary by James Marsh about the Nim study, explores the story (and the wealth of archival footage) to consider ethical issues, the emotional experiences of the trainers and the chimpanzee, and the deeper issues the experiment raised. This documentary, (produced by BBC Films, Red Box Films, and Passion Films) opened the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.The film was released in theaters on July 8, 2011 by Roadside Attractions.
When Terrace ended the experiment, Nim was transferred to a research lab in Oklahoma and then to a pharmaceutical animal testing laboratory managed by NYU. After efforts to free him, Nim was purchased by the Black Beauty Ranch, operated by The Fund for Animals, the group led by Cleveland Amory, in Texas. Nim died at the age of 26 from a heart attack.