Project Nim is a documentary film introducing an “animal language acquisition” research project that was conducted at Columbia University.
As toddler, Nim Chimpsky (a chimpanzee), was taken away from his mother and raised in close contact with humans. Researchers wanted to know if the animal could learn an articulated language based on the sign language.
The film documents the research fully from the beginning, when Nim was born. In an empathetic ambiance, many strong and emotional moments are displayed. Picturesque milestones of his childhood (yes, Nim was treated just like a normal child) appear, which this triggers our identification: we start believing that Nim, just like anyone, would learn the language. Along with scientific explanations, poignant testimonials of the host family, souvenir videos, pictures and interviews all blend together bring us to be compassionate and identifiable to the scene. The diversified resources used bring the research to look credible and convincing, which is its aim: spectators believe in the result, the documentary succeeds in engaging us viewers.
After watching the movie, I was brought to ask myself what was the real value of the research? The documentary was greatly done and engaging from a technical point of view but what’s the importance of such research?
Animals communicate and interact together, and we already know that. Whether they use chemicals (ants), signs or sounds (barking) to communicate, animals are able to live and sustain in their ecosystem and their community. Communication is intuitive, it exists and is obvious: this is nature operating its magic.
I often stop and wonder why do researchers keep on digging in paths that are meaningless.
Why is it so important to know if chimps can learn a language, since we already know that they can effectively communicate between each other? It is true that our language is the most articulated one, the most specific and developed but this has a reason and we know it: man is equipped with reason and has the biggest brain. We are the only ones physiologically capable of learning a language. Others can’t. You cannot use more space in a computer than the memory allows it to.
Thus, I think that trying to force nature and go through researches, which we already know the answer to, is something desolate. Nim’s life wasn’t an ordinary one and he suffered a lot because of that research, for nothing. The outcome was predictable: Darwin’s theory had already debunked any descendance between men and chimpanzees.
All in all, I reckon that the film itself is more interesting than the research. The way it is documented brings in a lot of emotions and a diversity of resources, which are entertaining and amusing to the public.
The representation of science happened to be stronger than science itself.