Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Project Nim and Primate Think Tanks at the Zoo

The ethics of using Chimps for lab experiments has been in the news this month. Edd Doerr discussed one article in his posting Our Chimp Cousins . A troubling side of using chimps for experiments is shown in the new movie, ‘Project Nim’ by Director James Marsh. Marsh won an Oscar for his 2008 documentary, “Man on Wire” and the new film is based on Elizabeth Hess' 2008 book, "The Chimp Who Would Be Human." You can see a trailer of the movie here.

Project Nim” recalls how in 1973, a 2-week-old chimpanzee was taken from his mother at an Oklahoma Institute of Primate Studies & sent to Columbia University to be part of a research project designed by Columbia Behaviorist Herbert Terrace. Humorously renamed Nim Chimpsky the animal was subjected to rigid, behavioral training on American Sign Language in an effort disprove linguist Noam Chomsky’s flat assertion that only humans have the cognitive capacity to acquire language. It was a Behavorist attempt to prove Chomsky wrong and not a very humane effort at that. Stephanie LaFarge, one of Terrace’s former graduate students, brought Nim into her mansion home and garden to raise. Human society was swapped for chimp society. To Behavorists this may not pose an issue, but there were many issues. One of many problems is that LaFarge doesn't actually know sign language. Raised by humans without good signing skills in a human setting, the movie documents a research project gone seriously wrong. For one thing Nim grows into a spoiled, diaper-dependent chimp. Education and social conversation is hardly his main concern. When good signers are employed, however, Nim quickly learned 100+ sign symbols. But he was still a needy brat and used signing largely to signal his needs in urgent pleas. One stream of signs read:

“Give orange me give eat orange me eat orange give me eat orange give me you.”

The project was shut down after the main sign teacher left and a grieving Nim attacked the new teacher who hadn’t established a social relationship.

Nim’s later rescue by a primate studies researcher (and Grateful Dead fan), Bob Ingersoll is highlighted in the movie and was the focus of a story in the Washington Post. In contrast to Terrace’s project, Ingersoll took a relaxed approach to interacting with Nim. Instead of life in NYC they had friendly treks through the woods. Some of the interactions are captured in Ingersoll’s home movies from the late 70s as he Nim were getting to know each other in more natural settings. In these social engagements Ingersoll reports anecdotal evidence of intelligence such as Nim creating word combinations that most chimps couldn't. For instance, the infamous joint smoking gesture in the film is:

Stone Smoke Now.

"To me, that's pretty sophisticated," said Ingersoll. "I know it's comical, that he wants to smoke weed, but the reality is that we want to do things that are fun. And to give him a context under which he can ask to do things that are fun, seemed to me to be the right thing to do — if you want to get him to talk to you."

Chimps also have long memories. After Nim moved to a Texas animal sanctuary called Black Beauty Ranch, Nim and Ingersoll were separated for 12 years. But within five minutes of being reunited, Nim clapped his hands which was their own agreed-upon sign language for “Let’s play!”. Nim died of a heart attack in 2000 at age 26, but other chimps have lived longer. More recently, Ingersoll became reacquainted with Mona, whom he hadn’t seen in over 30 years. Ingersoll reports their initial interaction:

“At first she didn’t really recognize me, and I didn’t recognize her. Then I said, ‘Mona, is that you?’ And she immediately signed to me, ‘Bob. Hug hug hug.’ ”

A final word is that we have a great resource in DC to see primates like Nim living in good environments with wiser keepers and modulated experimentation. Our Smithsonian National Zoological Park (aka Zoo) is home to many primates. Orangutans and western lowland gorillas can be found at the Great Ape House. Smaller primates, including golden lion tamarins, Geoffroy's marmosets, and howler monkeys, can be found in the Small Mammal House. And a big treat is to see organgutans travel along the O Line between the Great Ape House and Think Tank on mild days. The zoo says that the time visitors are mostly likely to see these apes traveling on the O Line is between 11 and 11:30 a.m. See for details.

The Think Tank itself is a knockout for me. It is designed as a place to think about thinking, something we call meta-cognition. It is populated with primates doing what comes naturally to them (not Behavorists) in 3 areas: tools, language, and society. We are lucky to have a venue that exhibits a balanced side of primate life with science helping to understand our primate relatives as complex cognitive creatures. Currently, the Zoo has an ongoing research project on orangutan memory and you can watch a researcher testing an orangutan to learn how memories play into orangutan decision-making. All too human and human-like.


Edd.Doerr said...

Excellent piece. Great apes -- chimps, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans -- have all been shown to have the ability to use standard sign language and some bonobos (mot even distinguished from chimps until 1930) have used computers. They can also understand a great deal of spoken English, to which they respond in sign language. They can recognize themselves in mirrors, unlike "lower" animals. They can show empathy and can purposely deceive and reason.
Humanist ethicist Peter Singer has written that they are so closely related to us that they should enjoy a large measure of what we call human rights, though of course they cannot be allowed to run loose; they are all considerably stronger than the toughest humans.

Dawn Forsythe said...

One would think that our recognition of all of our wonderful connections with the great apes would mean that we would give chimpanzees the respect they deserve. Instead, the federal government policy is to keep almost a thousand of them in laboratories for invasive biomedical research.

Last week, a federal advisory committee met to examine the policy. (I report on some of my observations from the meeting at my blog, I learned that testing on chimpanzees is not a matter of necessity, it is one of choice.

Congress has a choice to rescue these chimpanzees. Please see the Humane Society website if you want to help.

Gary Berg-Cross said...

There is a video from RTL, a German television station, of Lab Chimps Seeing Sunlight For The First Time.
The audio is in German, but you get the idea.