Last week I wrote about the significance of negative results in science. This week I saw one of the saddest documentaries I’ve ever seen, featuring the tragic context of an often cited negative result in science.
The documentary, Project Nim (2011), was about the psychologist Herb Terrace’s attempt in the 1970:s to teach American sign language to a young chimpanzee, in a specially designed classroom at Columbia University in New York City. “Specially designed” here meant bare and small in order to avoid suggesting activities that are more exciting for a young ape than reproducing the teacher’s hand movements.
Terrace’s personal stance to the language project struck me as odd. Scientifically, he wanted to test the hypothesis that an ape can be taught to construct sentences. This would disprove Chomsky’s view that language is an innate and uniquely human trait. From a more “personal” point of view, what excited Terrace most was the prospect of experiencing a nonhuman animal communicate ape thoughts.
It would be like meeting an alien from outer space who miraculously communicated foreign thoughts to humankind. Treating young Nim as such an alien research subject strikes me opposed to the very idea of human language and communication.
The whole project was a mess, ill-planned and dysfunctional from the start. And yet there were happy moments where good relationships developed between Nim and responsible caretakers/teachers/surrogate parents outside the classroom.
In these more “distractive” real-life situations, where the point wasn’t about reproducing the teacher’s signs but about doing meaningful things together and communicating about them while doing them, it seemed Nim used signs to talk. The caretakers were optimistic, as was Terrace.
However, as Nim got bigger and stronger and approached adolescence, new problems appeared. He began to attack and bite his teachers, and Terrace feared being sued. These troublesome behaviors developed more rapidly than Nim’s signing abilities, and Terrace was worried.
One day, Terrace called his staff to a meeting and declared that the project was over. They had collected suffient data, and Nim could be sent back to the primate research center in Oklahoma where he was born.
The rest of Nim’s life was was awful, terrifying (although responsible caretakers did try to make a difference).
Simultaneously, Terrace started reporting the project; in a book as well as in an article published in Science. He sat down, watched videotaped interactions between Nim and his teachers, and came to the conclusion that Nim had not acquired the ability to use signs linguistically in genuine communication with humans. He was merely mirroring the teacher’s signs (or begging for things).
The negative result that Terrace published perhaps received more attention than any other scientifically published negative result. In spite of the fact that the project was dysfunctional from the start, Terrace’s publications were welcomed as presenting hard scientific evidence that apes cannot learn to communicate in language.
I’m not so sure what conclusions can be drawn from a research project that could just as well be described as a dysfunctional family history ending in tragedy. Moreover, as Peter Singer observed when he watched the documentary, Terrace could hardly end the project and send Nim away without reporting negative results.
Can we trust Terrace’s judgment when we watched the videotapes and decided that the ape he sent away did not speak with the fellow humans with whom he interacted?
Anyway, the book that Terrace wrote, Nim: a Chimpanzee Who Learned Sign Language (1979), is fascinating and well worth reading. It contains vivid descriptions of Nim’s life with humans; recollections that often seem to contradict the conclusions that Terrace finally reached.