Project Nim: a tragedy that was interpreted as science?

October 12, 2012

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.

Pär Segerdahl

Understanding enculturated apes - the ethics blog


Swedish debate on the protection of animals in research

December 2, 2011

A very controversial question was recently debated in a Swedish daily paper, Svenska Dagbladet:

–          Has the Swedish protection of animals in research gone too far?

The question was raised by Mats G. Hansson at CRB, Rikard Holmdahl (Professor of Medical Inflammation Research) and Anne Carlsson (President of the Swedish Rheumatism Association). I published a post about the debate on our Swedish blog: Det dubbla ansvaret för djur och människor. In the post, and in its comments, you find links to the three articles in Svenska Dagbladet.

If you don’t read Swedish, here is a summary of the debate:

The basic principle when animal experiments are evaluated ethically is that the scientific merit of the experiment must be greater than the suffering the animals may be exposed to. In the article that started the debate, “scientific merit” was interpreted as an interest for patients. Medical research is done not for its own sake, but to find new treatments for patients. The article thus added a suffering group to the laboratory animals: the patients.

The stage was set, and dramatically so, for intense debate: suffering animals versus suffering patients. The article argued that forgetfulness about the ultimate purpose of medical research has caused an imbalanced emphasis (especially in Sweden) on one of the vulnerable groups: the animals. Ethical committees evaluating animal experiments include representatives of animal welfare organizations, but patient organizations have no representatives in the committees. Moreover, the authority responsible for surveying the Animal Welfare Act has sidestepped the ethics committees by introducing regulations that prohibit certain very common and important experimental procedures with animals, thereby precluding the difficult ethical balancing of expected scientific merit against animal suffering. Researchers can apply for exception from the prohibitions, but the procedure is bureaucratic. The result is that research that could be in the service of patients never gets done. Responsibility for animals is taken in ways that fail patients.

Three representatives of animal rights organizations soon responded that almost all animal experiments are approved by the ethics committees. They also pointed out that the animal welfare representatives in these committees are a minority. Moreover, adding to this disadvantage, only the researchers can appeal against the decision of the committee; no one representing the animals can. The authors expressed concern about suffering patients and the need of high quality science, but questioned that good and useful science required painful animal experiments. There are alternatives to animal experimentation. These may even be scientifically superior.

In the final reply, the authors initiating the debate suggested that the reason that almost all applications for animal experiments are approved by ethics committees is that researchers take ethical questions seriously and write well prepared applications. They also remarked that researchers do consider alternatives to animal experiments, and try to limit the number of animals used. Still, medical science in general is impracticable without experiments with animals. The last new consideration in the final reply was that although interest groups legitimately work to protect animals’ interests, the same one-sided ambition becomes problematic when it occurs on a societal level, in the exercise of public authority.

If I may conclude with a short personal consideration, I’d say that each party repeated its own form of morality, perhaps taking it to a somewhat more eloquent level. One party compared the suffering of two vulnerable groups (animals and patients), and claimed that the other party failed to make the responsible balancing act, one-sidedly favoring the interests of animals. But the other party hardly failed to achieve a responsible comparison, since the legitimacy of comparing animal and human suffering was questioned. Comparing is irresponsible. These two forms of morality are so fundamentally different that I don’t see how they can stop repeating themselves, forever.

Pär Segerdahl

We follow debates : The Ethics Blog


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