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Exiled from his Eden
March 31, 2008 12:44 AM   Subscribe

[He] kept his one copy of this book safe,... under his sleeping area so that no one could destroy it. He would just look at pictures of his New York City family, and himself, over and over again.
Elizabeth Hess discusses Nim, the subject of her book Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human. Also: the Great Ape Project's Declaration on Great Apes; Richard Dawkins's "Gaps in the Mind."
posted by orthogonality (32 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
Yeah, that last tag's a bit of a pun.
posted by orthogonality at 12:46 AM on March 31, 2008


"parents mellow enough to pass him their joint now and then", did i read that right? They got the chimp stoned?
posted by MrMerlot at 1:26 AM on March 31, 2008


this is an interesting article, thanks.

How does a chimp break up a marriage?

Chimps bond very tightly to their mothers. The fathers have very little to do with raising the babies. A lot of these women who had been raising orphan chimps [in the '70s] were suddenly engaged to be married, and their chimp babies would not accept their husbands.


I'm not saying I don't believe this, but I would love to see documentation on one case where this happened, let alone "a lot."
posted by drjimmy11 at 1:48 AM on March 31, 2008


That Salon article is sad as shit.
If I ever happen to meet that Terrace guy, I'm gonna punch him in the head. He's probably in his 80's or something now, but still.
posted by From Bklyn at 2:04 AM on March 31, 2008


drjimmy11 writes "I'm not saying I don't believe this,"

Apparently it happens with parrots too, but the parents see the human as a mate, not as a mother.

I'm no animal rights activist, and I see the need for medical and scientific research on lab animals. I highly value the results of this research. But if we're going to use animals for our purposes, I want to see us "pay" the animals, by giving them decent living conditions and a "retirement" after they've done their work for us.

This is both humane, and it's better science: it's clear now that physiological reactions are highly dependent on psychological condition. Humans kept alone in a bare cage will develop (among other things) weakened immune systems and behavioral pathologies; it seems that animal subjects will as well. So if we're studying animal behavior or even the effects of drugs and toxins, we're getting skewed results when the animal subjects' lives are further changed/affected by the conditions of the lab.

Certainly in cases like Nim's, raising an animal under human conditions, then sending it to a bare cage to be subjected to vaccine research, is just torture. We can empathize, I hope, with Nim's confusion, his clinging to the photos of the better times he remembers and came to assume were the baseline expectations of his life, his all-too-short Eden. And we can see how this makes the rest of his life, after his exile from Eden, so much more barren, disappointing, lonely. It's perhaps little surprise he died, decades before he should have, of a heart attack, a disease brought on (in hmans, and I suspect also in apes) by stress and loneliness.

I think the research was well worth doing, but if we're going to day it's worthwhile enough to pervert a remembering animal's life, it should be worthwhile enough to fnd sufficiently to provide for the remainder of that remembering feeling animal's life.

In (at least) the higher mammals, the Pathetic Fallacy isn't a fallacy, and our research should recognize this, to the betterment of our science and our humanity.
posted by orthogonality at 2:17 AM on March 31, 2008 [5 favorites]


Sad: the experiment ended up revealing as much about human attitudes as chimp abilities.
posted by Phanx at 2:40 AM on March 31, 2008 [2 favorites]


So very sad.

Raised like a son by a New York City family as part of a language experiment, Nim Chimpsky was shipped away when funds ran out.

You don't ship off your son to be a lab test subject because money is tight. And if you can holiday in the Hamptons and afford a bag of weed, I don't believe money was all that tight. Shame on these people.
posted by Meatbomb at 2:55 AM on March 31, 2008


"[conditions he] came to assume were the baseline expectations of his life" If those conditions had been to be alone in an empty cage, would it be less cruel?

You don't get skewed results when you compare what happens to a miserable animal injected with a toxin compared to an equally miserable animal not injected. The control animals for medical research are not wild animals or animals living in eden. They are animals raised and kept in the same conditions as the test subjects.

Being an ass, I propose that for animal research to be useful for the greatest number of people possible, lab animals should be overworked, overweight, stressed, fed a diet of fast food and sodas, supplied with cable t.v., stuck in a dead end job, and always under the threat of being penalized if they don't file their tax returns on time. Unannounced visits from in-laws are optional but highly recommended.

Out of ass mode, I like the idea of animals being "paid" and getting a nice "retirement" for purely utilitarian reasons. Anecdata: I know one biologist who stopped doing important and exciting research because of the guilt related to the animals' fate. Another friend went into plastic surgery instead of cancer research for the same reason (oh, and the sweet sweet money).
posted by Dr. Curare at 3:05 AM on March 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


You don't ship off your son to be a lab test subject because money is tight. And if you can holiday in the Hamptons and afford a bag of weed, I don't believe money was all that tight. Shame on these people.

I'll punch them in the head too.

I can't see this behavior (both on the part of the 'family' and the 'scientist') as anything but reprehensible. I would think the point would be laughably clear - you bring this thing into your home and invest a tremendous amount of love and feeling towards it, or at the very least feeling, (though from the article it sounds like they did have a deep emotional bond with him as well) and then you 'send it away?' Wow. Did they have children of their own? Were they watching their backs, at least?

Though not blindly anti-animal experimentation, I don't doubt there are some instances where it could be justified, I am instinctively against it. This instance is exactly why.
posted by From Bklyn at 3:27 AM on March 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'll second Dr. Curare's anecdata. I know a talented researcher that went back to graduate school to pursue a different career after her guilt over the sacrifice of too many lab animals for research turned into a full blown phobia that the animals were judging her for her complicity in the actions. Even now, years later, she is too uncomfortable to go into a house that has dogs in it.

I can understand the importance of animal testing (I have a family member involved in animal research for what it's worth), and in many cases the test animals are very well cared for if for no other reason then they're expensive to procure, but there is still a lot that could be done to make it more humane for subjects and researchers alike. Also these stories about animal communication and psychology always get to me the most. I can never shake that image of the Harlow monkeys clinging to the fake mother monkey for comfort.
posted by CheshireCat at 3:53 AM on March 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


Chimp retirement homes.... here and here
posted by bustmakeupleave at 4:15 AM on March 31, 2008


... and worse yet the science was bad.
posted by mateuslee at 4:37 AM on March 31, 2008


Huh. It just occurred to me. Maybe Nim wasn't looking at his photo album purely from nostalgia.

Maybe he kept looking, in part to try to figure out "what the fuck happened to me? How'd my life end up like this??"

Like an Oedipus obsessively pondering the ambiguous oracle that ruined his life, or a rabbi after a pogrom once again straining failing eyes at the Torah's verses hoping to divine God's purpose, or a mathematician once again trying to construct some unreachable proof. Which would make Nim seem even more human.

Or sort of like how I go over old letters from ex-gfs, trying to figure out what went wrong.
posted by orthogonality at 4:41 AM on March 31, 2008 [3 favorites]


I've expressed my thoughts on rampant wishful-think anthropomoprhism among animal language enthusiasts (scientists and general public alike, in their ways) many times. But Nim Chimpsky? Are we really still rehashing this?

You cannot claim anything significant about non-human minds if you assume human language is the measure of cognitive complexity. The experiments Herb Terrace was responding to with Nim were utter bullshit, but so was his attempt to confirm or disprove them, because it started from the same premises.

Show me other species using segmental grammar to communicate with precision about both objects in their own natural environment and abstractions that are not evident in the physical world to members of their own species, and I will grant the revolutionary implications of "animal language" claims. Until then, it's Dr. Doolittle with a PhD.

/grumpy linguist
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:54 AM on March 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


Sad story; the descriptions of Chimpsky's behavior in the Salon article reminded me of my 3-year-old daughter and I couldn't imagine shipping her off like that. Here is Cecil Adams's take on chimps as pets from 1976.
posted by TedW at 5:22 AM on March 31, 2008


Thanks, fourcheesemac—you saved me the trouble.

/is all for animals being treated decently but is sick of bullshit claims about language
posted by languagehat at 5:44 AM on March 31, 2008


lh, fourcheese: why did Nim signal in sign to random humans from his cage? The guy was lonely with a bunch of dumb apes, and wanted to talk to his people. How else can you explain that behaviour?
posted by Meatbomb at 7:26 AM on March 31, 2008


fcm- But it is clear that some animals have verbal communication within their natural environment. And given that we used to think animals were unfeeling automatons, that's pretty freaking significant. I have a hard time getting up in arms about calling such systems 'language,' mostly because 'verbal communication system' sounds silly.
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:34 AM on March 31, 2008


Congrats on your 100th post!
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:47 AM on March 31, 2008


Leonard Lopate's interview with Hess, from WNYC (audio).
posted by R. Mutt at 9:13 AM on March 31, 2008


Meatbomb, yes, this behavior has been covered in the literature as well.
posted by vsync at 9:39 AM on March 31, 2008


more like nimh chimpsky
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 9:46 AM on March 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


If I ever happen to meet that Terrace guy, I'm gonna punch him in the head. He's probably in his 80's or something now, but still.

I had Terrace at Columbia for psychology. At the time, behaviorists were out to prove that everything was stimulus-response, that there is no such thing as a "mind" per se (though some behaviorists disagreed on that). Terrace at least admitted later on that his assumptions, and those of the behaviorists, were wrong, at least as far as teaching language to animals was concerned.

Didn't care for his teaching, by the way.
posted by QuietDesperation at 11:35 AM on March 31, 2008


I think any mammal deserves something more than a bare cage. Reptiles and insects I frankly don't care about.

The story certainly is sad for those who have an empathetic nature. Hell, I was absolutely suckered in the first time I saw the Ikea lamp commercial.

It is quite easy to imagine the poor chimp wasting in a cage, looking wistfully at the pictures, wondering what he did wrong to deserve being punished and cast aside.

The real question though of course is was that really what was happening? Do chimps have self esteem to destroy? Can they really pine for times lost? Do they process "memories" the same way we do? Maybe the picture book was just an interesting trinket he had, that it had intrinsic value even if he no longer had any idea of who or what was in the pictures.

And I do think the reference to Eden is appropriate, if not brilliant but yet still obvious.

If it were real, the story of Eden would be perhaps the most profoundly sad tale of all time. I've also argued for years that anyone who believes the Creation story must also believe their God to be a capricious, calloused sociopath. That usually doesn't go over so well.
posted by Ynoxas at 12:31 PM on March 31, 2008


You can't directly observe anyone's inner mental life. Does lh really hold a decriptivist view of language? Or is he just mimicking things he heard from professors and read on web pages? I give him the benefit of the doubt because he seems to be a man, like me.

Give the ape a break, too.
posted by Meatbomb at 1:04 PM on March 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


DrJimmy11, it doesn't exactly count as documentation, and it's not exactly the same thing, but in the 1960s my parents had a pet Java Macaque before I was born, and according to their reports, he was extremely attached to my mother and highly territorial -- so much so that my dad talked to a a U of M primatologist who put him in touch with somebody at he National Zoo, where they adopted him. My dad dropped him off the day he went to pick my mother and me up from the maternity ward.

When my mother would take me to the zoo, he would bare his teeth and chatter furiously.

The monkey, I mean.
posted by vitia at 1:36 PM on March 31, 2008


What's terrifying about this is that people had-- and frighteningly, some still do-- the same attitude towards young humans back then. Basically, they thought that early attachment didn't matter so if you kept a baby in an orphanage with no particular parents for her early life, all would be well. Or if you move 0-4 year old foster children from family to family, they won't know the difference.

Of course, doing this is actually a recipe for mental and physical illness. Foster children get increasingly messed up the more "placements" they have-- and it's not just because bad behavior leads to more placements. If you compare kids "on the edge," who some child welfare workers would say belong with their parents and others say they should be taken, the ones that stay with their parents do much, much better than the ones put in foster care.

Thankfully, most foster children don't end up in bare cages (sickly, some do) but the behaviorists really, really didn't get the importance of early attachment and the fact that people are not interchangeable to babies or to any other sane human being. And the same holds true for social primates, whether or not they have language capacity.
posted by Maias at 2:52 PM on March 31, 2008


I want to see us "pay" the animals, by giving them decent living conditions and a "retirement" after they've done their work for us.

I've never heard of a series run by my uni's psych dept. that didn't end with brain slicing for every subject. The animal series, that is. (I would be clearer on this, but I avoided that aspect as best I could)

You can't directly observe anyone's inner mental life. Does lh really hold a decriptivist view of language? Or is he just mimicking things he heard from professors and read on web pages? I give him the benefit of the doubt because he seems to be a man, like me.

Like Natives once upon a time. So good at mimicry.
Simply handy that they can't have rights like men.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 4:25 PM on March 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


there is such tragedy in these apes kidnapped by humans and raised as smart pets. the thought of them in cages leaves me feeling sick.

i once met a snow monkey named Pepper, and this is his story as far as i know it: he was employed as a doorman for a restaurant in the Midwest. when he became too troublesome for his keepers, they were going to euthanize him. instead, he was adopted by an eccentric and was given a room to himself in the basement of an old downtown building, where he was essentially the roommate of the local junk man. (you know the guy--the one you call when you have an old washer to get rid of.) eventually, the eccentric gave him an entire house to live in where he could watch Oprah in peace and have the run of the place. (i swear it's true--Oprah was his favorite show.)

Pepper was not emotionally well, and could act out when brought into public. he was skittish, and did not like most people. he once grasped my hand in response to my offer, and then refused to let it go. i thought he would crush the bones in my hand.

eventually he was living in a large cage in a warehouse in the port district with a television. a friendly keeper was preparing water to give him a bath, and a fire somehow started. the man escaped, but Pepper was left inside. they found his body next to the fire extinguisher.
posted by RedEmma at 8:11 PM on March 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


Blazecock Pileon writes "Congrats on your 100th post!"

Thanks man.
posted by orthogonality at 8:55 PM on March 31, 2008


You wouldn't wish this on a chimp, but something similar happened to a young human, the Temple City "wild child" Genie, sent off to abusive foster care after the linguistics research money dried up and the people who professed to love her lost interest in working with her.
posted by Scram at 9:11 PM on March 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


I've never heard of a series run by my uni's psych dept. that didn't end with brain slicing for every subject. The animal series, that is.
You can't directly observe anyone's inner mental life.


Apparently you can. If you have a macrotome. Or work for Armour
posted by five fresh fish at 11:09 PM on March 31, 2008


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