And if so, does that mean they are closely related?
The story of Project Nim, recently popularized by a documentary of the same name, begins with a chimp whose mother is tranquilized so that scientists can take the screaming newborn to a new, human, surrogate mother. The goal is to answer the question: can a chimp learn language?
The experiment was influenced by the theories of American behaviorist B.F. Skinner, who subscribed to a theory called ‘radical behaviorism.’ Put simply, he believed that language was a learned behavior, and that even animals, if given the right environment, could learn language. As the animals thought to be the most similar to humans, chimps would seem to be the ideal species to cross the language barrier, if any animal could. The foremost opponent of this ideology is Noam Chomsky (Nim Chimpsky is an obvious play on his name), who argues that language is uniquely and innately human.
From the beginning, the project had serious shortcomings as a scientific experiment as well as the obvious evolutionary overtones, that chimps might be capable of such things due to being our alleged closest ancestors. Herbert Terrace, the leader of the experiment, entrusted Nim to a series of female graduate students, and with two of whom he admitted to affairs (though he was quick to defend his actions in both cases by saying that the science of the project wasn’t affected).
Nim went to live with his first surrogate family when he was only two weeks old. Stephanie Lafarge and her husband Wer, with 7 kids between them, were ‘rich hippies’ in New York (this was the 70’s after all!). Stephanie said she was in love with Nim from the moment she laid eyes on him (and given the adorable photos and archival footage intertwined with the interview, the viewer can see why)….
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