Monday, May 25, 2009

"Nim Chimpsky" by Elizabeth Hess

The image on the cover of the book is adorable: a juvenile chimpanzee in a red T-shirt, gingerly reaching out to grasp the hand of an adult human.  Don't let the cover fool you.  There is very little cuteness to be found within the pages of Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human.

Nim Chimpsky (quasi-namesake of Noam Chompsky) was quite possibly the most famous research chimpanzee ever.  I remember watching clips of him on Sesame Street as a child as he put on his shoes and his jacket.  It was adorable, and as a child, I didn't stop to think about what had brought him to the attention of the Children's Television Workshop.

Nim was the subject of a psychological study during the 1970s aimed at discovering whether or not humans are the only animals to consciously use language.  At the time, no one - not even the researchers involved - had actually decided what constituted conscious use of language vs. mimicking the actions of humans.

It's kind of difficult, as the book shows, to decide whether a study is successful if no one has a concrete definition of the study's goal.

Although Nim Chimpsky includes some cuddly feel-good stories, it is also a chamber of horrors.  Physical mistreatment of chimps is depicted - mostly through their handlers ineptitude - in addition to the psychological abuse endured by chimps as they were reared by their human "families" and then abandoned after research was completed.

Although Nim Chimpsky has an ending that is more uplifting I expected, particularly given its unblinkered nature, it was still a sad look at misguided experiments in the name of science.  After reading it, I'm now much more opposed to the use of animals in scientific research than I could previously have imagined.  The fleeting glimpses into the realm of corporate laboratories are horrifying enough to put off the most callous of humans.

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