The Chimp that Could (almost) Talk

Nim_Chimpsky.jpg “Wouldn’t it be exciting to communicate with a Chimp, and find out what it was thinking?” – Professor Herbert Terrace

I watched Project Nim tonight, an intriguing and emotional film about a scientific project that, to many, meant much more than scientific findings – the story of a chimpanzee taken from its mother at birth, raised like a human child, and taught to communicate using sign language. (Read more about the film)

The project was initiated in the hopes of evaluating whether language was truly “no longer the exclusive domain of man,” as ape researcher Penny Patterson had declared in 1978. Project Nim wasn’t the first project aimed to teach chimpanzees to communicate, but several previous studies had focused on attempting to teach language as a vocalized medium – a difficult task for a species that has a long and heavy jaw, a deep-set voice box, and other structural characteristics ill-suited for the subtle articulations required for spoken language. According to project founder Professor Herbert Terrace, “the shift from a vocal to a visual medium can compensate effectively for an ape’s inability to articulate many sounds,”(Terrace 1979).

The film starts with a harrowing image of infant Nim being taken away from his tranquilized mother. Born in a primate shelter and raised in the rather tumultuous atmosphere of a large family living in New York in the ’70’s, Nim soon began his formal education in American Sign Language.

Project-Nim-Movie-Poster.jpg 125 signs later, Nim was a media success and tremendous joy to many of his teachers, but unfortunately a disappointment to the project founder, as far as the project’s goal was to show that chimpanzees could, by means of ‘nuture’, be taught to use true language as defined by Noam Chomsky. According to Chomsky, human language is “most distinctive because of a second level of structure that subsumes the word – the sentence,” (N. Chomsky 1965, in Terrace 1979). The sentence is a series of words, not learned individually, but constructed spontaneously to impart greater meaning.

“Is the ability to create and understand sentences uniquely human?” asked Terrace and colleagues.

Despite the project’s potential, it ended abruptly as Nim grew larger, more assertive and often violent, and as Terrace grew disenchanted with Nim’s capacity (or rather lack of capacity) to form spontaneous combinations of signs that would classify as true language.

“[Nim’s] utterances were often initiated by his teacher’s signing and they were often full or partial imitations of this teachers’ preceding utterance,” Terrace and colleagues explained in the publication in Science in 1979. To the great chagrin of Nim’s teachers, the project was terminated, and the ‘great signing chimp’ was shipped back to the primate shelter where he was born – ‘a dank, dark prison’ as described by one of the shelter’s staff. The next phase of Nim’s life, until he died of a heart attack at the age of 29 years, is often described as a particularly egregious form of animal cruelty. “Traumatizing”, “the harsh reality of animal treatment”, “sickening”, “humans at their worst to animals” – these are some of the descriptions offered by the film viewers.

But had the project really been a failure? For one, the film certainly informed and set a precedent for future humane treatment standards for apes and other animals in social and communication experiments. But what did the study teach us about the nature of communication in both non-humans and humans, even if it failed in showing that Nim could express what he was thinking and feeling using a gestural form of human communication?

According to widely-held communication theory, there are three types of communication systems: communication based solely on inherited biological functions, communication based on learned signs and signals, and communication using language – i.e. human communication.

Many researchers have now concluded that chimpanzees do not use language as we know it, but can learn to communicate with signs and signals, and indeed have many well-defined gestures and primitive vocalizations that they use to communicate in their natural environments. Chimpanzees, for example, have been shown in studies such as Project Nim to associate a behavior (sign) with a reward – an elaborate form of begging, suggested Professor Terrace. Signs are not pre-arranged or selected by the animal, and learning happens individually, not becoming a universal language with abstract meaning shared among members of the species. Chimpanzees and other apes appear to communicate only the ‘here and now’, failing to combine new signs that reveal past thoughts and feelings, future planning, or abstract thoughts.

sentence.jpg “Only humans appear to have true language, the ability to use abstract symbols usually words— and combine them in a seemingly infinite variety of meanings about the past, present, and future.” (Balter 2010)

But that doesn’t mean that researchers haven’t found examples in the animal kingdom of very complex communication strategies, even what some researchers claim to be ‘proto-language’, in the years since Project Nim (listen to this wonderful Science Podcast). Linguists, evolutionary biologists, psychologists, primatologists, and other scientists have been able to elucidate probable origins of human communication with the help of animal studies like Project Nim (Balter 2010). For example, scientists now theorize that language may have had its start not via a single medium of either gestures or vocalizations alone, but may have evolved as a more complex combination of both gesture and vocalization abilities in a common ancestor of today’s non-human primates and humans. “Both modalities provide potential [primate] precursors for different elements of language… but neither of them alone can provide the complete picture,” says Katie Slocombe, psychologist at University of York in the U.K. (in Balter 2010). Gesture and speech may have both worked synergistically to get language ‘off the ground’ in ancient times (Balter 2010).

“Intentional, meaningful, and socially sensitive communication emerged long before the kind of symbolic communication typical of human language,” says Erica Cartmill, psychologist at the University of Chicago in Illinois.

Nim might have helped researchers discover the nature of human communications more than Professor Terrace gave him credit for. In any event, he goes down history, along with many other ‘brilliant’ chimps, as a non-human primate champion of sign language.

Give orange me give eat orange me eat orange give me eat orange give me you – Nim’s longest sentence.

N. Chomsky. (1965). Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge, Mass. MIT Press.

Balter, M. (2010) Animal communication helps reveal roots of language. Science 328: 969-971

Terrace H.S., Petitto L.A., Sanders R.J., Bever T.G. (1979) Can an ape create a sentence? Science 206: 891-902 Terrace, H., Petitto, L., Sanders, R., & Bever, T. (1979). Can an ape create a sentence? Science, 206 (4421), 891-902 DOI: 10.1126/science.504995