Saturday, 25 February 2012

For Science! A Review Of Project Nim

What could be learned about insights into humanity from studying other animals? Perhaps the biggest thing is that it teaches us that most of what we consider human behaviour is more quantitatively distinct rather than qualitative. In terms of specifically human traits, the problem is hindered by there being about 6,000,000 years between us and our nearest living relative. How much insight can we gain from studying chimpanzees for questions like language abilities?

The documentary, for better or worse, doesn't really focus on this question. Indeed, given the scientific nature of the endeavour it hardly mentioned any science at all. This was a story about a chimpanzee and the people who were a part of that story, and the science mattered in so much as it was part of that tale. Just how much was Nim Chimpsky able to communicate? It wasn't really addressed beyond a few superficial mentions.

This criticism isn't meant to say the documentary was bad, or even lacking, just that the science wasn't really the focus. The story is very compelling, and it's very well put together. It was a good choice to use people involved to narrate the story; that combined with stock-footage made for a very powerful story.

Running through my head were the words "for science!" When Nim's mother was shot with a tranquilliser so that they could take Nim away - for science! When they tried to teach him sign language - for science! When they shoved Nim in a small lifeless room at a university to measure his progress - for science! When he was taken back to the compound where he was born and put into a cage - for science! When he was sold to a medical testing facility - for science!

By the end of the film, all I could think was that it's not worth it. Whatever lessons could be learned from chimpanzees seemed to come at the cost of the chimpanzee's personhood. They differed from humans enough that treating them as humans made no sense, but at the same time displayed enough human-like traits that to lock them in a cage or isolate them seemed one of the most horrible things that could be done. Even the altruistic people at the end who bought Nim from the medical testing laboratory sought fit to put Nim in isolation, including from the handler whom Nim was very close to.

The whole thing seemed very undignified looking back now. Shoving a 2-week old chimpanzee into a human house with people who had no experience with chimpanzees (and even gave the young chimpanzee marijuana) then to try to make somewhat of an objective go at teaching it sign language, then when things started going bad just dumping it back in a caged facility.

Perhaps the whole thing is a damning of the scientific process - that in the quest to understand they've caused harm to the very thing they were meant to be studying. At the end, we've got a grey area between person and animal, where we as viewers are brought to empathise with something that's so close to that line between anthropomorphising and what's there. The lesson I've taken away from the film is that if we are going to research on chimpanzees, there's a great gap between what happened here and what the qualities of chimpanzees warrant.

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