Jul 2, 2014


by Herbert S. Terrace

In the 1970's, scientist Herbert Terrace attempted to teach a chimpanzee called Nim to communicate via sign language. It's been years since I read the book, and I can't find a library copy to refresh my memory, but this is what I can recall.

Nim the chimp was at first raised in a human household, to see if he could assimilate language like a child. But if I recall correctly, his later years were spent mostly at a research facility, being taught and tested. He learned to use over 100 words in sign language. It's fascinating to read about Nim, the methods and details of the research project, the chimpanzee's behavior. Overall the burning question addressed in the book was: did the chimp know what he was saying? or was he just cleverly mimicking the hand gestures, following subconscious human cues? In this regard Terrace seems to be really critical of the project, scrutinizing his own scientific methods and finding fault with Nim's performance. Nim wasn't the only chimpanzee being taught language at the time; if I remember rightly quite a bit of the book included the author's criticism of other language experiments among his colleagues. But then again, I read several books about similar efforts around the same time frame, so I could be getting them confused in my memory.

You can read more about Nim here. There are a few more books written about Nim from other viewpoints, including one which details the end of his life and discusses abuse which occurred at the facility. I wasn't aware of this aspect of Nim's story before, just discovered it while poking around online today, and it made me very sad to think of.

I cannot find a single other review of this book online. If anyone out there has read it and can correct my memory, or give more insight, please comment!

Rating: 3/5      322 pages, 1987


Jenny @ Reading the End said...

This story is such a tragic one. Have you seen the documentary about him, Project Nim? I hear very good things about it, but I haven't seen it yet.

Jeane said...

I just saw the documentary a few days ago. Made me remember some things I had forgotten- like the wide number of people who worked with Nim as certain individuals left the project and others were hired to be his signing teacher. It was dried than I expected, but fascinating to see original film footage!

Jeane said...

I meant - it was drier in tone, oops.