A summer of talking apes

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From the perspective of films about talking apes, this has been a very disappointing summer. I like apes, and I’ve always been fascinated by attempts to get them to talk, so last summer was a veritable bonanza for me, with both Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Project Nim in theaters.

I grew up with the old Planet of the Apes movies, watching them whenever they came on TV, which seemed to be most Saturdays, in the afternoons, when I should have been out playing. As a result I saw them in parts and out of order, so that they run together in my mind and feel more like a place from childhood than a linear narrative.

As for Project Nim, my graduate advisor was involved in some of the analyses that were done of Nim’s signing and has wrote some pretty famous papers about them. It was not something he talked about much, but something I always wanted to know more about. Two stray facts about Mark as a graduate student — that he worked on the Nim data, and that he briefly drove a taxi — have created a very strong mental picture for me of him driving a yellow cab with Nim sitting shotgun. This surely never happened.

On the surface the two films could not be more different. Project Nim is a pretty straightforward documentary, splicing together talking head interviews with footage from the project itself, and contemporary home movies whereas Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the amped up, digital age grandchild of an unevenly high-minded and schlocky science fiction franchise.

And yet there are obviously shared themes. In both your sympathy goes immediately to the chimpanzee, who is caught in a web of complicated human interactions and relationships that are beyond his understanding but ultimately determine his fate. The chimps are both caught in something like an uncanny valley between species, human enough to fail as chimps, not human enough to succeed as humans. And in both cases there is the dubious role of the scientists, and ethical questions about the role of animals in research, especially when those animals approach humanity by learning to communicate with us.

The films also offer competing views of why apes don’t talk in the first place. In Rise, language is portrayed as coming along for the ride with a whole host of other human-like cognitive abilities. Caesar was exposed in utero to a drug initially developed for the treatment of autism. We see the same chemical rescue John Lithgow from a deep and heartbreaking dementia, so the premise seems to be that it somehow enhances or restores overall cognitive abilities. This set off all kinds of physicist-watching-Star-Trek alarm bells for me, but it’s not worth getting too hung up on the science bit of the science fiction here, the point is that the film reflects a sense that most people outside of the study of language would take for granted: that apes would have language if they were only generally more intelligent and raised in an environment where they had the same exposure to language as human children.

The research described in Project Nim leads to a very different conclusion: that Nim, despite extensive (if not always very systematic) exposure to American sign language, fundamentally failed to master the concept of “word.” Communication with Nim was mostly instrumental. Nim wants the cat, so he says something like “Nim cat cat give Nim give cat,” and the researchers hand him the cat, which he promptly begins rubbing on his crotch. Contrast this with the way even very young children use words (and, for that matter, cats). Children use language to do more than elicit positive reinforcement from their caregivers — although of course that’s part of what they’re doing — and they tend not to string words together in more or less random order with so much repetition. This despite the fact that Nim was in many ways much smarter than children with better linguistic abilities than he ever developed.

Animals that do surprisingly well with learning elements of language — parrots (notably Alex) and dogs, for the most part — differ from apes in interesting ways. Parrots are natural mimics. Dogs are pretty intimately tuned in to our emotional lives after centuries of breeding for just that sort of quality. Watching Alex answer complex questions about arrays of objects, or Chaser appear to apply mutual exclusivity bias by picking out a novel object when given a name she hasn’t heard before gives you some feeling for how impoverished Nim’s language abilities really are, relative to his overall intelligence.

It’s hard to watch Project Nim, as a scientist, and not see a hundred things that could have been done differently. Most strikingly to me, we never see Nim’s agency taken seriously, except as a force to be brought under control so that training can continue. It reminds me of my favorite passage from JM Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello: in which the protagonist takes a very original perspective on Kohler’s insight experiments:

Sultan knows – the bananas are there to make me think. But what must one think? One thinks: Why is he starving me? One thinks: What have I done? Why has he stopped liking me? One thinks: Why does he not want these crates any more? But none of these is the right thought…The right thought to think is: How does one use the crates to reach the bananas?

To be sure, much of Nim’s learning was due to this kind of explicit training, but it’s also possible that his failure to go beyond instrumental word use was in part an artifact of the instrumental conditioning protocols used to teach him words. Further, Nim’s tutors were mostly non-native signers, and his earliest input was particularly chaotic. It doesn’t seem to have been part of the experiment for his tutors to use sign with one another. That’s not really the social milieu in which children typically learn their native language. What if Nim had been raised among signers who generally included him in their conversations the way one actually would with a child, instead of training him in discrete episodes that ran completely parallel to the human interactions going all around him? We will probably never know the answers to these questions because, for better or for worse, this kind of research with great apes is unlikely to be attempted again. Except perhaps in another reboot of the Planet of the Apes series.

Image from this scientific biography of Kohler.

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