By coincidence, two of the more interesting films of late have been about human beings mistreating their closest relative, the chimpanzee. More specifically, they deal with the betrayal of animals that have been raised as members of a human family in the hope of developing their ability to use language or master other intellectual abilities defined as unique to homo sapiens.
“Project Nim” is a documentary now playing at the Angelica Theater in New York that describes the experiment conducted by Columbia psychology professor Herb Terrace in the early 70s to determine whether the chimp called Nim Chimpsky (after Noam Chomsky) could be taught to use sign language. After integrating the chimp into a family of wealthy hippies on the Upper West Side, the animal is progressively removed from human relationships as the experiment wears on until finally cast aside. The level of grief that the animal suffered as a result of the abandonment is hard to determine, but we as human beings can only feel a sense of anger at Herb Terrace for caring so little about the animal’s feelings.
In “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, the chimpanzee, called Caesar, is the subject of an experiment with a genetically engineered retrovirus that can cure Alzheimer’s. As is the case today, chimpanzees are used in clinical trials since they are so closely related to homo sapiens physically. When Caesar—still a wild animal even with advanced cognitive skills—attacks the neighbor of the scientist who is raising him as part of his, the animal control authorities remand him to a prison-like primate compound. Caesar’s fight to liberate himself and the other abused members of the compound deeply stirring, evoking some of the best prison break movies of all time.
“Project Nim” relies heavily on archival film and video footage taken by Herb Terrace and his assistants over the years. After selecting the infant Nim for his experiment, Terrace recruits Stephanie LaFarge, a former graduate student and lover, to raise him in her Upper West Side brownstone as if he were her own child. LaFarge, who is a quintessential early 70s Earth Mother, does not need persuading. She jumps right in and even breast feeds the chimp. Her husband, an independently wealthy poet, is initially okay with the project but begins to turn sour after Nim begins to develop a proprietary interest in his wife. I have never been that impressed with Freud’s Oedipal Complex theory but the film came close to convincing me.
It is just as well with Terrace that the LaFarge family was becoming another case of what Tolstoy described in the opening of “Anna Karenina”: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” He had decided that a more clinical environment for his experiment was necessary and relocated Nim to a sterile-looking room on the Columbia campus that drained the animal of all his motivation.
Happily for all concerned, the school was so impressed with the progress of the experiment that was garnering good publicity in the major media that it offered Terrace the use of Delafield, a 21 room mansion in the Bronx that had formerly been used by the school’s president. With its extensive grounds, Nim was able to run free for the first time in his life. Terrace recruited lab assistants to develop the chimp’s sign language skills who became as attached to their pupil as Stephanie LaFarge. Unfortunately, as the chimp became an adolescent and more aggressive, the hazards of looking after him increased. One day, without any warning, he took a bite out of a young trainer’s cheek that left a gaping hole. She was probably fortunate that her entire face was not ripped off, as was the case with a highly publicized story from two years ago in Connecticut.
After Terrace decides that such dangers prevent further experimentation, he turns Nim over to the same kind of compound that Caesar ends up in. While it is doubtful that the handlers in the documentary ever meted out the kind of sadistic treatment that is depicted in the fictional film, the real damage was psychological. An animal that has been raised as if he was a human being is simply not prepared for the isolation and boredom of caged confinement. One does not have to believe that a primate can ever learn language to be persuaded that a cage is not a proper place for a chimpanzee or any other animal for that matter.
Caesar is played by Andy Serkis, the same actor who played the Gollum in the Ring movie and even more relevantly King Kong in the 2005 remake. As the master of the accursed outsider role, Serkis is second to none. One can only imagine what he would do with a meaty role like Caliban in “The Tempest”. As Will Rodman, the scientist who raises him, James Franco is simply terrible. This rapidly rising actor, who is regarded as something of an intellectual based on his admission into a PhD program at Yale. My suggestion to him, if he ever stumbles across this review on Rotten Tomatoes, is to switch over completely to academia. He couldn’t be worse at parsing poetry than he is at reading his lines.
Caesar’s introduction to primate compound life is traumatic. He no longer sits around the pleasant dining table with Will Rodman and his sweet-natured father who is battling Alzheimer’s (John Lithgow), but is forced to eat the slops that the sadistic keeper (Tom Felton) puts into his cage each day, accompanied by taunts. Exercise is taken in the courtyard that is like a prison’s. Like prisoners, the frustrated and stressed out chimpanzees take out their hostility on each other.
There is only animal that is on his intellectual level, a wise and elderly Orangutan who warns Caesar through sign language not to sass the keeper, since he is violently vindictive. A shocked Caesar asks the Orangutan where he learned to sign. The reply: I was in the circus once. Nothing wittier has ever been seen in the Planet of the Apes franchise.
When Caesar learns that a more powerful version of the retrovirus has been developed, he breaks out of the compound and steals a batch that he brings back to the compound to turn loose on his comrades. Once they are able to reason like homo sapiens and communicate with each other, they organize a break and descend on San Francisco, eventually having a showdown with the cops on the Golden Gate Bridge. Summer films do not come much better than this.
Assuming that many of my readers have a basic Marxist education, you will not be surprised that Friedrich Engels had some interesting things to say about our primate relatives in “The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man”:
Comparison with animals proves that this explanation of the origin of language from and in the process of labour is the only correct one. The little that even the most highly-developed animals need to communicate to each other does not require articulate speech. In its natural state, no animal feels handicapped by its inability to speak or to understand human speech. It is quite different when it has been tamed by man. The dog and the horse, by association with man, have developed such a good ear for articulate speech that they easily learn to understand any language within their range of concept. Moreover they have acquired the capacity for feelings such as affection for man, gratitude, etc., which were previously foreign to them. Anyone who has had much to do with such animals will hardly be able to escape the conviction that in many cases they now feel their inability to speak as a defect, although, unfortunately, it is one that can no longer be remedied because their vocal organs are too specialised in a definite direction. However, where vocal organs exist, within certain limits even this inability disappears. The buccal organs of birds are as different from those of man as they can be, yet birds are the only animals that can learn to speak; and it is the bird with the most hideous voice, the parrot, that speaks best of all. Let no one object that the parrot does not understand what it says. It is true that for the sheer pleasure of talking and associating with human beings, the parrot will chatter for hours at a stretch, continually repeating its whole vocabulary. But within the limits of its range of concepts it can also learn to understand what it is saying. Teach a parrot swear words in such a way that it gets an idea of their meaning (one of the great amusements of sailors returning from the tropics); tease it and you will soon discover that it knows how to use its swear words just as correctly as a Berlin costermonger. The same is true of begging for tidbits.
While “Project Nim” might have left the audience with the impression that Herb Terrace’s experiment was in the spirit of similar ones conducted with the chimpanzee Washoe or the gorilla Koko, the opposite is true. Terrace was actually skeptical of claims that primates could be taught to use language and sought to prove that with controlled experiments.
If Engels remarked that parrots will use swear words to get a tidbit, Terrace’s conclusion was not that far apart. He came to believe that Nim used the word “banana” in many different contexts, but only after learning that a banana would be the reward if he signed correctly. In other words, what you were seeing was simply a variation on Pavlov’s dogs or the Skinnerian psychology that Terrace subscribed to. Having a conditioned response to an environmental stimulus might produce results that look like intelligence but appearances can be fooling.
Nim Chimsky’s namesake, the cognitive science professor at MIT and long-time opponent of U.S. foreign policy, is almost as dismissive of theories that primates use language as he is of excuses made for wars in places like Indochina. In an email exchange with Matt Aames Cucchiaro that can be found on the Noam Chomsky website, Chomsky describes such experiments as a waste of time:
CUCCHIARO: It seems that even after the numerous studies conducted in the 1970s — and well beyond — had clearly failed, the notion of chimps possibly learning language still persists. What do you think when researchers to this day, such as Susan Rumbaugh (ape trainer), claim that Bonobo chimps can draw signs and refer to it as language similar to humans’ ability?
CHOMSKY: It’s all totally meaningless, so I don’t participate in the debate. Humans can be taught to do a fair imitation of the complex bee communication system. That is not of the slightest interest to bee scientists, who are rational, and understand something about science: they are interested in the nature of bees, and it is of no interest if some other organism can be trained to partially mimic some superficial aspects of the waggle dance. And one could of course not get a grant to teach grad students to behave like imperfect bees. When we turn to the study of humans, for some reason irrationality commonly prevails — possibly a reflection of old-fashioned dualism — and it is considered significant that apes (or birds, which tend to do much better) can be trained to mimic some superficial aspects of human language. But the same rational criteria should hold as in the case of bees and graduate students. Possibly training graduate students to mimic the waggle dance could teach us something about human capacity, though it’s unlikely. Similarly, it’s possible that training apes to do things with signs can teach us something about the cognitive capacities of apes. That’s the way the matter is approached by serious scientists, like Anne and David Premack. Others prefer to fool themselves.
Perhaps a better goal would be to get human beings to act like human beings. Back around 1974 or so, when I was living in Houston and active in the Trotskyist movement, I got to know some of the more colorful characters in my Montrose neighborhood, a blend of gays, hippies, radicals and old-time eccentrics. One of these eccentrics was famous (infamous, to be more exact) for keeping an adult gorilla in a cage abutting his living-room that provided huge amusement for the hosts when they had unsuspecting guests like me.
You would be ushered into the living room and told to stand near the bars of the cage. Upon a signal given by his masters, the gorilla would charge from the far end of the cage toward the bars at a frightening pace and hurl himself against the bars. Your natural inclination would be to recoil in fright.
I didn’t say anything at the time, but wished I had. As someone who was a deep admirer of Jane Goodall and Diane Fossey, field scientists who had lived among the chimpanzees and gorillas respectively, the thought of keeping such proud and intelligent animals in a dank hole such as that one strikes me now as just what you would expect from such a benighted state as Texas. If it were up to me as Minister of the Interior of a Socialist America, I’d close down not just the ownership of such inappropriate household pets but zoos in general. What the world needs is fewer prisons and zoos and more human and animal development on a healthier and liberated basis.
The beautiful and gentle Orangutan is facing extinction in East Asia because the rainforest is being turned into palm oil plantations. The idea that such an animal can become extinct in order to make more cooking oil is in and of itself enough to condemn capitalism as a social system.
Last Friday the Washington Post reported on moves to end laboratory tests involving chimpanzees, a practice that of course is implicitly condemned in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”. It quotes Jane Goodall:
They arranged for Goodall — for decades the world’s most prominent chimp advocate — to speak from Britain.
“From their point of view, it’s like torture,” Goodall said of chimpanzees kept captive for developing new medicines. “They are in prison and have done nothing wrong.”
A short time later, Eugene Schiff, a hepatitis researcher at the University of Miami, said, “I’ve never worked with chimps, but just listening to Jane Goodall, I got a guilt trip.”
Humanity, it seems, is on a collective guilt trip. “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is a blockbuster. And in April, Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett (R-Md.) and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) reintroduced the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act, which would ban “invasive research” on great apes in the United States.
“We wouldn’t be having this meeting if ethics wasn’t an issue,” Frans de Waal told the IOM committee. The Emory University researcher, whose pioneering studies with captive chimpanzees have revealed their human-like empathy, continued, “We don’t have this kind of meeting about rats.”
The irony of course is that with the continually escalating commercial attacks on the rainforest and the ocean, the only creatures left alive after 50 years or so will be those that have learned to live alongside human society: the crows, pigeons, squirrels and rats. That is a prospect that is even gloomier than the original Planet of the Apes that ends with the discovery that the human race has made itself extinct in the sometime distant past.
Stumbled across this on Counterpunch:
Orangutans, Resistance and the Zoo
While bread and circuses might work on the human species, orangutans require a different combination of incentives. Their control lies in bananas and sex. Orangutans are almost helpless to such things. It’s instinct, don’t you know. Surely, if San Diego Zoo officials could just discover the correct instinctual cocktail, they could solve their orangutan problem before it got any worse. All they needed was a lot of bananas, some willing female participants, and time.
Efforts on this project began in earnest in the summer of 1985. The new Heart of the Zoo exhibit had opened three years earlier, and day to day operations could not have been going better. But then that darn Ken Allen started acting up. Ken was born in February of 1971 to San Diego’s Maggie and Bob. He was, officially speaking, a Bornean orangutan – although he never stepped foot on the island nor knew anything about arboreal culture. It might be more correct to classify him as a zoo orangutan. Institutional life was the only one that Ken ever experienced. The zoo is where he was born, and the zoo is where he died of lymphoma in 2000. In between, Ken had to deal with captivity on a daily basis. Interestingly, the San Diego Zoo understood from the very beginning that he was going to be more difficult to handle than the facility’s previous orangutans.
In his nursery, Ken would unscrew every nut that he could find and remove the bolts. Keepers would no sooner put them back when he would be at it again. Nor could he ever be kept in his room. One of his favorite schemes, a trainer described, was to “grab someone’s hand who was waving at him, and swing himself up.” Good luck trying to catch the little red ape after that. Yet, for the zoo, his later life would represent a much greater challenge. In fact, when Ken was first moved into the Heart of the Zoo exhibit, he was caught throwing rocks at a television crew that was filming the neighboring gorillas. When he ran out of rocks, Ken threw his own shit. The crew scattered. In an ironic twist, there would be a similar problem at the zoo several years down the road. Large glass windows had been installed in the exhibit, and the orangutans took to pitching rocks at them. San Diego officials, thinking quickly, instituted an exchange program. One non-thrown stone would get you a banana. But the orangutans were not interested and kept trying to break the windows. The park finally had to bring in a contractor to dig up the entire ground floor of the exhibit in order to remove all of the rocks, as each shattered window cost the zoo $900 to replace. What happened next? The orangutans began to tear the ceramic insulators off of the wall and threw them instead. Evidently, these animals really wanted out.