Messed Up Methodology

When primate researchers go bananas
by Caroline Hurley

Updated 2/16

 

Bob Ingersoll met Nim Chimpsky in 1977 at the University of Oklahoma when he was studying at the Institute for Primate Studies, and the two became fast friends. “Sometimes you just know you’re going to be friends—you like each other right off. That was the case with Nim and me,” said Ingersoll. They took frequent walks together and occasionally split a joint and shared conversation. It became a lifelong friendship for both of them.

 

Chimpsky’s name was derived from famous linguist Noam Chomsky. Unlike Chomsky, however, Nim was a chimpanzee who formed the center of a landmark study conducted by Columbia’s psychology department in the 1970s.

 

In 1973, Professor Herbert Terrace of the Columbia psychology department began a study of primates and their ability to learn language. He took an infant chimpanzee from the Institute for Primate Studies in Oklahoma, and then brought it back to Morningside Heights and raised it like a human.

 

Terrace intended to test the hypothesis that chimps could learn human sign language if they were exposed to it from birth – like how humans pick up a first language. Chomsky, though, had maintained that chimps could never learn human language despite their genetic similarities to humans.

 

For the next twenty-six years, Nim Chimpsky towed the line between animal and human. His entire life is documented in the 2011 HBO documentary Project Nim, which was based off of a book by Elizabeth Hess. After being moved to New York City when he was just a few days old, Nim was placed in the home of Stephanie LeFarge, Terrace’s former student. LeFarge raised the chimp like she raised all of her children, from outings to the beach to breast feeding.

 

While living with the LeFarge’s, Nim was expected to learn American Sign Language from the family, who doubled as his teachers. Terrace monitored Nim’s progress in learning the language. No one in the LeFarge family, though, actually knew much sign language and certainly none of them were fluent.

 

Nim grew faster than his family could keep up with him, so he was moved to the thenUniversityowned Delafield Estate in the Bronx. By this point, the project had expanded to include multiple undergraduate and graduate student research assistants, many of whom appear in the HBO documentary. He was cared for at Delafield and was taught in a Columbia classroom until 1977. In 1977, the project was defunded due to safety concerns over caring for Nim. Terrace concluded that Nim did not succeed in learning language because most of what he signed was only repetition of what the teachers previously signed.

 

Nim was unceremoniously taken back to Oklahoma and left at his birthplace at the Institute for Primate Studies, where he met Ingersoll.

 

Bob Ingersoll was a student at the University of Oklahoma, where he began studying primates in 1975 under a contemporary of Herbert Terrace. He studied and worked at the Institute for Primate Studies. In Oklahoma, his class had been keeping up with Terrace’s research on Nim in New York, so Ingersoll was acutely familiar with Nim’s past. On Nim’s first day back in Oklahoma, Bob took Nim out for a walk to calm him down. “I went out there and took Nim on a walk and there you have it. That’s how I met Nim.”

 

After extended interactions with Nim and years of studying chimpanzees, he has developed strong opinions on Terrace’s treatment of Nim. Of the experiment in New York, Ingersoll said, “Herb [Terrace] doesn’t really clarify and didn’t really ever clarify his position to even his own students until after Nim was here [back in Oklahoma]. So how the hell could Nim learn language if the people that were trying to teach him language weren’t even certain about what it is that they were trying to teach him? Were they trying to teach him communication? Were they trying to teach him language and sentences and grammar and syntax?”

 

“I’m not so sure that it’s fair to characterize what happened to Nim as anything other than a really messed up methodological study that didn’t prove or disprove anything,” he said.

 

Eventually the primate institute needed to get rid of some of its chimps, and so it sold Nim and others to a New York University medical research facility. The chimps were kept in small cages as human drugs, treatments and medical procedures were tested on them. Footage from this time and most of Nim’s life is included in the HBO documentary.

 

Working with Nim deeply affected Ingersoll. “I was like most students: a little bit naïve about the real world and how things actually work. I thought at that time that the world always does the right thing; it never does things like sell chimps to medical research after they’ve lived in homes and been taught sign language. That was obviously very wrong,” Ingersoll added.

 

The move to Oklahoma and later the research laboratory was difficult for Nim’s teachers and caregivers to watch. Many blamed Terrace for exposing Nim to human life and later casting him aside when the study ended. Criticisms of Terrace range from downplaying how much Nim learned to engaging in relationships with his female students. Terrace admits to the latter in the film. Of a student’s attraction to him he said, “I’m sure that unconsciously I took advantage of that. If somebody admires you, why not?”

 

Much of the animosity towards Terrace comes out in the documentary. Of Terrace tranquilizing Nim one morning in New York and waking him up in Oklahoma, one graduate assistant said, “It was just a nasty thing to do. Very deceitful I think.”

 

Ingersoll said of the film, “They [Terrace’s graduate students] actually said what they were feeling. It took a long time until they finally unleashed on him in the movie and when they did, boy they really did. I mean, wow. We [in Oklahoma] heard rumors, but we had no idea. Personally, I’m shocked that he still teaches at Columbia.”

 

Terrace, in a 2011 letter to The New York Review of Books, defends himself and his research saying, “Marsh’s [the director] ulterior motive was to create a film that would sell better because it had both a hero, Nim, and a villain, me.” In the same letter Terrace says of Nim, “We all wished that he could have learned. But it didn’t happen because it couldn’t happen, despite his and his relatives’ genetic similarity to humans and the aberrational tendency of some animal rights advocates to anthropomorphize simians as humans.”

 

Of all Nim’s teachers and friends, only Bob Ingersoll maintained a friendship with him after he was released from medical research. Nim died at the age of twenty-six at a sanctuary for abused animals in Texas. Ingersoll is now an advisor at the Center for Great Apes in Florida and is an activist for just treatment of primates.

 

The film Project Nim is available on HBO and Amazon.