Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human

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His formal instruction began when he was just three months old. The LaFarges began with the word 'drink', taking Nim's hands and moulding them into the sign. After two weeks, without prompting, he signed 'drink' to Stephanie and demanded some juice. It was a landmark moment. Within two months he added, 'give', 'up', 'sweet' and 'more' to his vocabulary. Project Nim had begun. Beguiling photos of the bright, adorable chimp popped up in the press. The 'talking' chimp was invited on late-night talk shows, where he might crawl all over the host and request a drink.

A New York magazine cover turned Nim into a celebrity; people followed the progress of Project Nim word by word. For this purpose, he constructed a small classroom in the basement of Columbia University's science building. Guests could watch Nim work through a two-way mirror. The sessions were captured on videotape, making data collection a smooth and automatic process. However, arguments over methodology began when Terrace hired an ultra-strict teacher, Carol Stewart. Nim was suddenly required to hang his coat on a hook, sit at a little desk and pay attention - no screeching, biting, or joking around.

If he misbehaved, Stewart stuffed him into a windowless, 4ft-square box for what Terrace called a 'time out' period. The box marked the start of Stephanie's disillusionment with Terrace and his experiment. She argued with Stewart over Nim's sensitivity and whether or not he identified with humans.


  • 'Project Nim': A Chimp's Very Human, Very Sad Life : NPR!
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When Nim was given a group of photographs to sort - images of chimps, including himself, mixed up with those of humans - he would put his own picture in the pile with the humans. Within a year, she was fired, the LaFarges apart from Jenny wanted to give up Nim, and Terrace was re-designing his project. Nim had no mother and was homeless. Project Nim moved into a room mansion owned by Columbia University. Nim had his own suite and a private rose garden on the banks of the Hudson River.

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Nim Chimpsky

For another two years, the chimp honed his vocabulary and became an escape artist, picking locks and wriggling through windows. One afternoon, Bill Tynan, one of Nim's most competent handlers and favourite companions, was pruning the roses when he noticed Nim eating them behind his back.

Tynan caught Nim's eye and shouted: Indoors, Nim would wash dishes, often over and over, and help prepare dinner. While Laura-Ann Petitto, another handler, was busy cooking, he would steal her favourite spoon and hide it. When Petitto found it, she and Nim would have a good laugh together. The LaFarges, however, rarely came to visit, and Nim suffered terrible homesickness. Staff came and went and Nim began biting his caretakers. Still, his vocabulary grew, and the funds flowed.

After four years, Terrace argued that the chimp had a vocabulary of more than words; the students had documented Nim signing 20, combinations of words. Nevertheless, after one of Nim's teachers was badly bitten in the face, Terrace decided to end Project Nim.


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  4. He had the data and no longer needed the chimp. Arrangements were made to send Nim back to IPS, where Lemmon would teach him how to be a chimp again. No more toys, clothes or pizzas, his favourite meal. Nim had never been in a cage or met another chimpanzee, and the transition would be traumatic. He was eager to communicate with people, and after a few months of terrible anxiety and fights with his cellmates, a keeper began to work closely with him, teaching him how to read the gestures of other chimps and stay alive. Nim began coming forward in his cage, signing 'out' to passing students.

    One, Bob Ingersoll, became Nim's best friend, if not saviour. Each day, for several years, Ingersoll took Nim out to climb trees and pick mulberries. Other students used the younger chimps, including Nim, for ape-language experiments in a graduate programme taught by a young psychologist named Roger Fouts. But Lemmon and Fouts were at war and the chimps would suffer. IPS ran out of funding, Fouts left town, and Lemmon's health began to fail.

    In desperation, he began selling off his chimps to biomedical facilities, where their DNA rendered them invaluable models for research that was thought to benefit humans. Whether this turns out to be true is still subject to debate. In , Lemmon secretly shipped more than 20 chimps, including Nim, to the Laboratory of Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates. Nim was headed for a hepatitis study along with his Norman mates.

    Ingersoll called the local press. Meanwhile, the chimps were locked down in cramped cages, hanging from the ceiling in a windowless room; their faeces dropped through the floors of the cages, whereupon staff cleaned them up, never needing to look the chimps in the eye. Yet the lab technicians were the first to notice something strange about the chimps: They were asking for drinks, cigarettes, anything to quell their fear.

    Nim craved coffee, Coke, cigarettes and pot and was not shy about asking for all of it.

    A national protest over his incarceration was about to begin. Several years earlier, Terrace had published the long-awaited results of Project Nim. In a bizarre turnaround, he declared Project Nim a failure. He concluded that Nim and the other chimps who appeared to be communicating were merely mimicking, making fools of the scientists chatting with them.

    In effect, Terrace had written an obituary for ape-language research. After years of crowing about his achievements with Nim, he leapt into bed with his adversaries and battered other practitioners. His opponents argued that his failure had been his own. He had been unable to handle his own chimp or provide Nim with consistent teachers. Worst of all, he had ended the study too early to get significant results; at the very least, Terrace's about-face was premature.

    Then there was the inconvenient fact that once Nim had learnt to sign, he often initiated conversation with humans. Beatrix and Allen Gardner had a less restrictive definition of language. In fact, Project Nim was far more radical than Terrace, or anyone at the time, understood. Marsh admits that conveying Nim's experiences was tough.

    But at the same time I was very wary of those from the get-go. I felt that Nim's life had been blighted by people projecting on to him human qualities and trying to make him something that he wasn't. So in Man on Wire 's case it was Philippe [Petit] having a nightmare the night before, and he wakes up in feverish excitement and fear. In Project Nim 's case, it's the original sin, the abduction of Nim [from his mother], that sets the whole thing off.

    Another reason Marsh decided to make Project Nim was the rich seam of human drama that unfolded around the chimp. Well, I hope I do! In his interviews, Marsh has teased out the sexual relationships, conflicts and rivalries between Nim's carers, including Stephanie LaFarge, Nim's first surrogate mother, Professor Herbert Terrace, head of Project Nim at Columbia University, Laura Ann Petitto, a research student, and Bob Ingersoll, who befriends Nim when he returns to the research facility in Oklahoma.

    Everyone who I approached agreed to be in the film and spoke, I think, with great candour," Marsh says. So you're dealing with powerful memories and it's your job to give those memories the right context and to elicit them in a respectful way. Young Nim, adorably clothed in outfits more suited to a toddler than a baby chimpanzee, seems perfectly designed to excite feelings of affection and protectiveness. At one point in the film, Stephanie LaFarge admits to breastfeeding Nim, as she did her other, human, children.

    But it's a mistake to think they are more like us than they are. Marsh goes on to describe his impression of Nim.


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    The chimp had a sweet and tactile side but could also be violent, messy and vicious. But as Marsh points out, that's what chimpanzees are like, that's how they behave. The only problem is that humans can't always understand or deal with it. Nim likes to smoke pot and drink beer. But that's like us.

    Maybe it's hard-wired in us too. It seems to be hard-wired in me! Marsh has two children — they live with him and his wife in Copenhagen — and parenthood had a big impact on his decision to make the film. It was simple for them to have two languages on the go, all the time. So it does suggest that humans are utterly made for language. You mess with that at your peril. You need to understand what your children are like, rather than try to impose your desires upon them.

    There's a fine line between letting them be what they are and making them responsible in the world, and that's definitely a theme that I brought to Nim, or some personal experience. When I ask Marsh what he hopes audiences will take away from the film, he leaves it open. But I don't think I'm making overt judgments about people's behaviour.

    'Project Nim': A Chimp's Very Human, Very Sad Life

    I think everyone in the film has reasons for doing what they do, which I respect. Chomsky asserts that language, as defined by the innate ability for one to understand grammatical structure and to produce creatively new sentence structures, is an exclusively human trait.

    Terrance, on the other hand, believ Nim Chimpsky: Terrance, on the other hand, believed that language was a behavior that could be learned via reinforcement. To achieve these aims, he planned to raise the chimp as a human and to have his human family teach him language using American Sign Language ASL. In the end, the ambitious Professor Terrance would recant and side with Chomksy. I first learned about Project Nim in an undergraduate level linguistics course. I was astonished by the lack of planning and loose methodology with Project Nim.

    Graduate student caregivers came and went. Professor Terrace did not bother to hire staffers who were fluent in ASL; thus, signing was loose and nuanced. Mid-study when an ASL teacher was brought on board, she asked why the chimp was not raised by a deaf couple who would sign effortlessly and continuously.

    The key players: Project Nim's human cast

    Inconsistency was detrimental to the study. Despite all the media attention Project Nim attracted, Terrance was unable to continue to secure funding for the tremulous project; and while his last two graduate students were passionate about continuing, it was doubtful either would stay for the long haul. Project Nim was finished. The remainder of the book relates how IPS failed, too, and how Nim and his peers were sold to a medical research laboratory.

    A public campaign to save Nim the Precocious ensued. Hess has written an important book that challenges us to rethink our assumptions about animal research. If you read this book, prepare your heart as you will be charmed by this extraordinary animal, and prepare your mind to explore the gray area between language and communication. Feb 29, Kevin McAllister rated it it was amazing. This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers.

    Project Nim ~ Documentary Trailer

    To view it, click here. It's been said you can't judge a book by it's cover, and boy was that the case with this book. The title is a clever play on the name of Noam Chomsky, the famous linguist who asserted that language was an exclusively human trait. Couple this with a picture of an adorable little chimp wearing cute little red sweater, while reaching out to grasp a human hand, and I thought I was going to be reading a fun and amusing tract relating the methods in which some kind hearted and well meaning humans use It's been said you can't judge a book by it's cover, and boy was that the case with this book.

    Couple this with a picture of an adorable little chimp wearing cute little red sweater, while reaching out to grasp a human hand, and I thought I was going to be reading a fun and amusing tract relating the methods in which some kind hearted and well meaning humans used to teach American Sign Language to Nim Nothing could have been further from the truth. I was shocked and at times appalled by the physical and emotional hardships Nim was forced to endure.

    Some of these hardships were caused by simple cold indifference to the emotional needs of chimpanzees. In other cases the humans involved with Nim did have his best interests in mind but bureaucratic, political, and financial circumstances beyond their control further added to Nim's hardships. In many ways these cases were harder to read because the humans involved suffered as well. That being the case, it is in my mind, absolutely inexcusable, if not down right criminal, to place a chimpanzee, who was raised in human homes, as a member of the family from infancy, into a primate medical research lab, after the language acquisition experiment was terminated.

    The press eventually got wind of Nim's plight and the famous animal rights activist Cleveland Amory, got involved and was able to secure Nim's release. Nim was sent to Armory's ranch in Texas populated with numerous and varied hoofed animals such as burros, retired thourobreds, buffaloes, even elephants. But for over a year Nim was kept isolated in a small cage devoid of any sunshine or chimpanzee company.

    Nim suffered terribly under these conditions until somebody finally got the bright idea to provide him with another chimp for company. Eventually three more chimps were brought to the ranch and by all accounts Nim was finally provided with the type of physical and emotional environment he needed to thrive.

    Unfortunately he only had a few years to enjoy them before suffering a massive heart attack. It was a gut wrenching read , but well worth it. May 21, Karen rated it really liked it. The amazing backstory of Nim named for Noam Chomsky, MIT linguist who challenged the behaviorist theory of language , the famous chimp used to study the acquisition of language. As opposed to other famous chimps, who acquired sign language capabilities while caged, Nim was raised from the age of ten days as a human, first living with a family in a NYC brownstone and then, as he became harder to handle, in a Riverdale mansion associated with Columbia University.

    The basic thrust of the research The amazing backstory of Nim named for Noam Chomsky, MIT linguist who challenged the behaviorist theory of language , the famous chimp used to study the acquisition of language. While Nim touchingly related to his family and caretakers as a human and participated in astonishing conversations using ASL , he was indeed, an animal, who eventually became a danger to himself and others while living freely. In a heartwrenching turn of events, he barely escaped being sent off for animal experimental use and was sent to a primate sanctuary to be caged.

    The bitter struggle between his researchers caused a constant turnover of humans in his life, till eventually, he was caged. Alive, but with no one around him who understood ASL although he did teach some of his primate companions signs , he became depressed and lonely.

    Acknowledged by all who knew him to be special and capable of human feeling, he died twenty years prematurely from a stroke. Apr 20, Beth Ann rated it really liked it Shelves: I read the majority of this book, but I could not finish it. My lack of commitment has nothing to do with the author's prose. She writes well, and she goes into extraordinary background detail about the subject matter. I'm queasy about the subject of vivisection to begin with.

    This book outraged me on the perversity employed by scientists when deciding what to do with unwanted language acquisition chimpanzees. Many of these chimps had been raised with humans in their homes and then taught how to s I read the majority of this book, but I could not finish it. Many of these chimps had been raised with humans in their homes and then taught how to sign.

    Nim Chimpsky - Wikipedia

    They saw humans as friends or family, but these friends had no end plan in what would happen with their subjects after their experiments ended. Most were sold for medical experimentation when their projects ended after loss of funding. Through activism, some like Nim were rescued. A good many died infected with diseases, hurt by experimental operations, or lost in the system without record.

    I'm letting my emotions overshadow other pertinent parts of the book. The history of primate language experiments is covered. Controversies in battling academic theories are explored. Many parts of this book are relevant for those studying linguistics. The overall idea of examining interspecies communication is fascinating. I just hope we're in a better era today in regards to responsibility to such experiments' subjects. Jun 12, Fran rated it it was amazing Recommends it for: Recommended to Fran by: Barbara King of "The Teaching Company".

    Elizabeth Hess's biography of signing chimp Nim Chimpsky is no doubt the best piece of non-fiction I have read in years. If Dickens had written in the 's instead of the latter half of the 's, he might have created a fictional Nim Chimpsky with as tortured and erratic a life as poor Nim's real one. With a cast of characters, both human and animal, as disparate as the teen-ager who would later become Janice on "Friends", to animal advocate Cleveland Amory, to other signing chimps like Wash Elizabeth Hess's biography of signing chimp Nim Chimpsky is no doubt the best piece of non-fiction I have read in years.

    With a cast of characters, both human and animal, as disparate as the teen-ager who would later become Janice on "Friends", to animal advocate Cleveland Amory, to other signing chimps like Washoe, to many, many eccentric or gifted psychologists, this book is terrific! You can easily get the multitude of characters confused, but luckily there is a complete index that lets you go "Now, who was that guy? The book also has informative endnotes, and an enjoyable "Where are they now? As an Oklahoman who actually supplied frozen breast milk to Washoe's infant in the late 's, I learned far, far more than I had ever known about OU's controversial primate studies.

    This book is a marvelous summer read! Jun 26, Christine rated it it was amazing Recommends it for: Animal Lovers, Animal Welfare. I love this book. It provides a window into animal research, animal researchers and the experiences of the animals involved. Nim Chimpsky follows the life of a remarkable chimp who is placed into a project designed to refute Noam Chomsky's assertion that language is an exclusively human trait. Nim is placed in a human home and raised as a human, until Nim proves to be too much to handle. Nim is taken away from the only family he knows and subsequently lives with two additional 'research families I love this book.

    Nim is taken away from the only family he knows and subsequently lives with two additional 'research families' before he is returned to the Chimpanzee research center, Institute of Primate Studies in Norman Oklahoma IPS in which he was born. His return finds him stripped of his clothes, his bed, and his blanket and placed in a cage with other chimps - the first he has ever encountered. Despite the trauma Nim experiences as he is uprooted time and time again, what strikes me is the impact Nim has on all those he meets.

    May 27, David rated it liked it. This book caught my eye in part because one of the people who worked extensively on Project Nim [effort to get a chimp to learn and use American Sign Language] had spoken to a psychology class I took as an undergraduate many years ago.

    The book turned out to be engrossing as a story about animal welfare, grantspersonship, university politics, and to some extent the sexual mores of the s. It is a lot less useful as a guide to analyzing controversies relating to language development. I'm tempt This book caught my eye in part because one of the people who worked extensively on Project Nim [effort to get a chimp to learn and use American Sign Language] had spoken to a psychology class I took as an undergraduate many years ago. Apr 15, Jeffrey Dinsmore rated it liked it.

    I really wanted to like this book more than I did. Nim's story is fascinating, but the author focused too much on the people in Nim's life, particularly in his later years. It seems like he spent the last 20 years of his life in a cage, and I guess there isn't much of a story in that.

    Plus, he kinda sounded like a little bastard, and I had a hard time understanding why people were so emotionally affected by him. I would say it's worth getting from the library, if you have any interest in the subject matter. Feb 17, Brigid rated it it was amazing. Feb 15, Bernadette rated it really liked it. This opened my eyes to animal research and how far we've come in a relatively short period.

    I would be interested to know what the current state of primate research is, though I am afraid to find out. Somewhat confusing to read, as there are a lot of names, but not many reminders as to who people are. Wish the book at been footnoted so that I could have known to be looking at all the extras in the back, which I only thought to look up about halfway through. Sep 08, Jill rated it really liked it. I have no idea what possessed me to buy this book, but whatever it was, I'm thankful for it.

    What a fantastic read! I don't usually indulge in biographies I'm more of a "memoir" kind of girl , but this one was genuinely interesting and, at times, heartbreaking. I often sympathized more with Nim than with the people involved in his research project. In fact, most of them disgusted me. Nim, however, as well as the other chimps that Hess describes, both charmed and amazed me.

    This is not in any way shape or form an animal rights book. But, written from the perspective of a Chimpanzee who was raised as a human, who could communicate with humans via sign language, I felt it really put a "face" on the topic of using animals in research. I found this randomly on the new books shelf at my local library. Overall, a quick, engaging read. Aug 21, Frank Spencer rated it it was amazing Shelves: You learn a lot about the researchers by reading this book, as well as about the subjects.

    I'll soon write more at www. It amazes me how naive people are when it comes to animals and the lack of preparation that when into the care of the chimps in homes. Apr 26, Sandra rated it really liked it. I was keenly interested in reading this book as I had the sad pleasure of meeting Nim in his final years when he lived at the Fund for Animals' Black Beauty Ranch near Tyler, Texas. I was dating the man who ran the ranch at that time, and Nim and his friend Sally were there as well as 3 elephants I also got to know a bit.

    It was sad to see Nim caged as he was, but it was not safe to have him uncaged given his strength. I had a watch with a blue bubble crystal that Nim absolutely loved and touche I was keenly interested in reading this book as I had the sad pleasure of meeting Nim in his final years when he lived at the Fund for Animals' Black Beauty Ranch near Tyler, Texas. I had a watch with a blue bubble crystal that Nim absolutely loved and touched it every time I came near his cage — I still have it but I wish I had given it to him as he was fascinated by it.

    The book filled me in on his life up until the point where I met him. Sep 20, Christine rated it liked it Shelves: