Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A Tragic True Story

Making the limited-engagement rounds of select theaters is a movie called "Project Nim", a documentary that is also a tragedy, an indictment of academia, and a loud cry for people in general to wake up and think about how they treat other living beings.

Project Nim was supposed to be about raising a chimpanzee in a human-oriented environment to see if he could acquire skills in using human language; American Sign Language to be precise, since chimpanzees are physically incapable of speaking English words.

It is important to note that it is the learning of human language at the center of the project, since no one involved seemed to consider that animals can have languages of their own.

A chimpanzee was chosen as the subject since chimps are so much like Us. But the insanity of the researchers' unexamined preconceived notions about non-human animals is revealed right at the start: The days-old baby chimp is ripped away from his mother, after she had been paralyzed (but still conscious) with a tranquilizer dart.

So, are chimps like us, or are they not? Why is it so convenient to shut out any thought of chimps having an emotional life while contending that they are intellectually similar to humans? This isn't just insanity, it's wanton insanity.

As the high-profile experiment proceeds, it becomes clear that those in charge had no idea of how to proceed, and seemingly no desire to come up with an idea. The chimp is raised without structure or discipline, which does nothing to promote learning. At the end, the head of the project proclaims that the chimp did not really have language skills; all the chimp ever communicated was immediate wants. But the same thing would happen with a human child raised in the same way--a completely free-form upbringing induces a detachment from all others, and no desire to communicate anything except immediate wants. I've seen it happen.

What happened to the chimp after the conclusion of the project is horrifying at best. It's a real shame that there is a high-profile fictional movie about chimps in theaters at the same time. "Project Nim" needs to be seen, discussed, and taken to heart because it is true, and so revealing about our society and its detachment from all other forms of life.

Also this week is an article in the Washington Post about a possible end to medical research on chimpanzees. The United States is one of only two countries in the entire world that still allow such things (the other is Gabon). This change is, of course, a good thing, if too slow in coming about. The end of this legal torture is presumably the result of a growing recognition among some that chimps are like Us. It's also due to the fact that genetically-altered mice and rats are taking over from chimps in medical research projects.

We've got a long way to go before people start thinking that mice and rats might have enough of an intellectual and emotional life that they should be spared torture, too.
“We wouldn’t be having this meeting if ethics wasn’t an issue,” Frans de Waal told the Institute of Medicine 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.”