Psi Chi Distinguished Lecturer
Project Nim: The Untold Story
Herbert Terrace, PhD, Columbia University
6:30-8:30 p.m., Alleghany Ballroom I-IV
In the mid-70’s, I directed a project at Columbia University to teach Nim, an infant chimpanzee, to use American Sign Language. Project Nim, a documentary that opened on July 8, loosely describes the project. It shows Nim interacting with his teachers after he arrived from his birthplace at the Primate Institute in Norman, Oklahoma, when he was two weeks old. Viewers would have to close their eyes not to appreciate Nim’s loveable personality and his endearing antics. But, unfortunately, they would be hard pressed to see the science on which the project was based. That’s because the documentary pointedly avoided that topic, which is a shame because the project provided important scientific insights into what chimpanzees can tell us about humanity. The project’s goal was to determine whether a nonhuman primate could learn to use grammatical rules to create particular meanings, the essence of language. Positive evidence of Nim’s grammatical ability would undermine the claim of human uniqueness in the animal kingdom. Negative evidence would raise the question, “Why can’t a chimpanzee learn a grammatical language?” My talk today addresses that question and also outlines what there is about the evolution of humans that made them specifically equipped to learn language.