Nim was a chimpanzee who was born in the early 1970’s. He was bred for an experiment where he would live with a human family and try to learn sign language. The purpose of the study was to prove if language is inherent only in humans or if animals could somehow comprehend. Nim was raised in a human-like setting and taught sign language as if he were a human child.
Nim was born in a lab facility center in Norman, Oklahoma. His mother, Caroline, was treated as a breeding machine—all her babies were taken at birth for use in experiments. Nim was taken from her a few days after his birth, to be used in Herbert Terrace’s experiment testing whether sign language could be taught to a ape. His full name, Nim Chimpsky, was a joke on the name of the scientist Noam Chomsky, who had once said that only humans have the ability to learn language. In 1973, Terrace set out to do something similar to what other scientists did but with, he hoped a more primary focus on whether a chimpanzee really could use language in the same way that humans use it. He arranged for the baby chimp to be adopted by Stephanie LaFarge, a respected older student of his who was bringing up her own family in an apartment in Manhattan. In selecting LaFarge, he neglected the most important factor which was having an expertise in sign language. According to LaFarge’s daughter no one in the house was fluent in sign language. The family talked in front of nim instead of using sign language. La Farge did not even begin to communicate with Nim using signs until he was three months old—an extremely slow start, given that baby chimpanzees develop a lot quicker than human babies. In other ways, Nim was treated as a new human addition to the family, dressed in human clothes, fed what the family ate, and most importantly, loved and cuddled as a human baby would have been. Once the teaching began, Nim did pick up some sign language. But Terrace wanted more structure in Nim’s learning. He put Laura-Ann Petitto,...
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