Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Books - Nim Chimpsky

I just finished reading Elizabeth Hess's Nim Chimpsky: The Ape Who Would Be Human, the story of one of the earliest attempts to teach chimpanzees to use human language. Nim earned a bit of fame by being raised among humans, as a human baby, and learning to use a small American Sign Language vocabulary to express his needs and desires.

Actually, it would be better to describe the book as the story of the subject of that research; the title does not mislead. Nim was caught in an impossible situation: raised by people who had no experience with apes and the limitations of nurture, in the middle of an under-planned and poorly administered study with unclear goals and virtually no budget. As he grew larger, stronger, and more self-willed, Nim became dangerously impossible for amateurs to handle (he sent many to the hospital, at least once with permanent injuries). Nor did it help that some of the key participants seemed to engage in as much infighting as they did research - Nim had a way of provoking strong feelings, while careers and professional status were on the line for most of the people as well. Few of the human actors come out entirely clean, at least if anyone else in the story has anything to say about them.

As he became older and more difficult to handle (perfectly normal for a male chimpanzee, but intolerable for humans who like to keep their flesh and furniture intact), Nim was transferred back to his birthplace at the Institute for Primate Studies at the University of Oklahoma. The language education continued - under different researchers with different ideas of how it should be done - until the IPS shut down in 1981 amid poor funding and poor conditions. A public outcry, led by animal advocate Cleveland Amory, narrowly saved Nim from a medical research facility (most of the other IPS chimps were not so lucky) and he spent his last years at Amory's Black Beauty Ranch in Texas. Those years were tragically short, as Nim succumbed to a sudden heart attack in 2000, barely middle-aged at only 26 years old.

The language studies themselves were inconclusive, which may have been the inevitable results for the first efforts. In the 1970s, the field was dominated by Skinnerian behavioralism on the one hand, and Chomsky's position that syntax and grammar are the essence of language and only humans can have it. Certainly Nim learned to use signs in a purposeful way, but most of the data was not rigorous enough to stand up to hostile scientific scrutiny; videos of his performance left open the possibility that he was employing the "Clever Hans" effect as his handlers praised his successes.

Much of the discussion, though, has always struck me as misguided. The insistence on grammar and syntax as the litmus test of "language" seems a distraction at worst, although not without offering some insight of its own. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, who performed ground-breaking work of her own with the bonobo Kanzi, complained bitterly about grammar as a red herring. For her, the key factor was that Kanzi had grasped the concept of symbolic representation - this symbol stands for that real-world thing. If the version of the water-pump story we've all learned is accurate, this was the essence of Helen Keller's breakthrough, too. Once she understood what a symbol was good for, she rapidly learned to communicate. Neither Skinner nor Chomsky seem to have considered language from this perspective, but it's a vital insight nonetheless.

As far as I know, there isn't a lot of language study going on these days, but no one doubts the essential personhood of apes any more. One of the tragic consequences of Nim's human environment was that he was always caught between people who saw him as a little boy and those who saw him as a research animal. Nim himself couldn't please either group entirely; he was too wild to be fully socialized into human society, but bonded with his handlers at a level that didn't allow them to seem him treated as a lab rat. Nim moved from houses to cages, saw people enter his life and leave suddenly, and surely never understood any of it.

1 comment:

James Hanley said...

"dominated by Skinnerian behavioralism on the one hand, and Chomsky's position" on the other.