NIM CHIMPSKY: THE CHIMP WHO WOULD BE HUMAN
By Elizabeth Hess
Bantam, 351 pages, $23
At the top of my list of all-time classic factoids is the one about how chimpanzees and humans share 98.7 percent of their DNA. This is a thrilling factoid: just counterintuitive enough and yet paradigm-shifting—simultaneously humbling (we’re basically not different from monkeys) and hilarious (imagine one of them wearing a suit and tie). Most importantly, it makes you wonder about that last 1.3 percent, and that’s the itch Elizabeth Hess tries to scratch with Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human, the story of a mischievous, gifted ape, now dead, who found himself at the center of a science experiment that lasted his entire life.
Unlike most apes, Nim was raised by humans in an apartment on the Upper West Side, and these humans tried to train him so that he’d behave like one of them. To this end, Nim wore diapers, and learned how to brush his teeth. He ate human food—he loved Jell-O—and was taught to enjoy smoking cigarettes as well as other things. He knew how to wash dishes, use keys and apply bandages. He knew how to blow out birthday candles, and by the time he was an adult, he got cranky in the mornings until he was given a cup of coffee.
As a baby living in Manhattan during the 1970’s, Nim had a mother in Stephanie LaFarge, a researcher who agreed to take him in and raise him alongside her own children when her mentor, Columbia professor Herbert Terrace, told her about his ambitious project and asked her to help. Nim’s friends were the family kids—seven of them, three from Stephanie and four from her husband’s first marriage. As one of them put it to Ms. Hess, it was “this postmodern Brady Bunch—plus chimp.”
The point of Mr. Terrace’s experiment was to see how “human” Nim would turn out if he never interacted with another monkey or was given any indication that he was of a different species than the people caring for him. Nim was thus equal parts Pinocchio and Mowgli: all told, a tragic beast.
And yet, most of the funny stuff—the candles, the coffee—came pretty easily and there was never really a question as to whether Nim could be taught to play sports or wear sweaters. The heart of Mr. Terrace’s experiment had to do with language, and whether Nim could, using his hands, learn to communicate his thoughts and desires to the people around him.
His name, of course, is a reference to the linguist Noam Chomsky, whose contention that humans are the only species with the capacity for true language Mr. Terrace and Nim’s other caretakers wanted passionately to disprove. In the end, Herbert Terrace concluded that he’d been on a wild-goose chase, and published an article disavowing the notion that Nim had ever done anything more than mimic the signs that his caretakers had shown him.
Despite the book’s title, it is these caretakers, not Nim, who make the story—the monkey is crucial for obvious reasons, but mostly he just performs tricks, gets into trouble and does cute things. The scientists who study and raise him, meanwhile, get tangled up in vicious power struggles and grapple with complicated questions of ethics, loyalty, and methodology. Among them are some startling characters: One researcher, who did not work with Nim but ran the chimpery where he was born, wanted to take a Freudian approach to his work, and thus justified experiments in which his graduate students manually masturbated his monkeys and charted their secretions, breathing, spasms, etc. Another tried to get her monkey to believe in God.
At one point early in the book, when Nim is forced to go to a lab at Columbia every day and learn signs for hours at a time in what amounts to a classroom, Ms. Hess recounts the culture war that flared up in the lab when all the deaf people who worked there—they had been hired for their expertise in sign language—split off from the rest of the group and formed an isolated subculture among themselves.
As she tells these stories—many of which could have made for incredible front-of-book items in Lingua Franca—Ms. Hess writes clearly and accessibly, though some of the mechanisms and flourishes she uses to pull this long tale into a dramatic, resonant story line are a little too readily apparent. What should be the invisible machinery of narrative is instead regrettably upfront and distracting. Early on in the book, for instance, Ms. Hess describes the flight Ms. LaFarge took with Nim to New York after picking him up for the first time from the Oklahoma breeding facility where he was born: “As every mother knows,” Ms. Hess writes, “traveling with a baby for the first time can be a litmus test. Nim’s flight from Norman was blissfully uneventful. Stephanie’s confidence soared as she hugged the chimp to her body. Her task was to make Nim feel like one of her own … and she felt sure she could succeed. As she came down the jetway into the terminal with Nim in her arms, she was very much the picture of a beaming new mother.”
It’s that “very much the picture of” line that’s off-putting, partly because it’s obviously just a fake observation that Ms. Hess is imposing on someone else’s recollection of this event (a common though unforgivable trick in this kind of historical journalism)—but mostly because she’s trying to communicate something to her readers by invoking a stale though admittedly reliable trope. It’s the literary equivalent of using clip art, kind of, and it’s a fallback strategy that Ms. Hess employs in various forms throughout the book.
The other problem—and this isn’t Elizabeth Hess’s fault—is that despite Nim Chimpsky’s conceit, which is that the monkey had feelings and an inner life just like a person, he very pointedly does not develop as a character over the course of the book. Mostly you hear about various people growing attached to him. This is alternately heartwarming and gut-wrenching but never quite contagious.
At the end of the book, you’re sad the way you would be if someone else’s pet died. Which is to say, as far as the reader is concerned, Nim never stops being just an animal. At best he’s a very charming and vivid one but at worst he’s an abstraction, a pastiche of all the monkey movies and circus acts we’ve ever seen.
Leon Neyfakh is a reporter at The Observer. He can reached at email@example.com.