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Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human [Kindle Edition]

Elizabeth Hess
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

Print List Price: £11.99
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Book Description


Now Elizabeth Hess’s unforgettable biography is the inspiration for Project Nim, a riveting new documentary directed by James Marsh and produced by Simon Chinn, the Oscar-winning team known for Man on Wire. Hess, a consultant on the film, says, “Getting a call from James Marsh and Simon Chinn is an author’s dream. Project Nim is nothing short of amazing.”

Could an adorable chimpanzee raised from infancy by a human family bridge the gap between species—and change the way we think about the boundaries between the animal and human worlds? Here is the strange and moving account of an experiment intended to answer just those questions, and the astonishing biography of the chimp who was chosen to see it through.

Dubbed Project Nim, the experiment was the brainchild of Herbert S. Terrace, a psychologist at Columbia University. His goal was to teach a chimpanzee American Sign Language in order to refute Noam Chomsky’s assertion that language is an exclusively human trait. Nim Chimpsky, the baby chimp at the center of this ambitious, potentially groundbreaking study, was “adopted” by one of Dr. Terrace’s graduate students and brought home to live with her and her large family in their elegant brownstone on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

At first Nim’s progress in learning ASL and adapting to his new environment exceeded all expectations. His charm, mischievous sense of humor, and keen, sometimes shrewdly manipulative understanding of human nature endeared him to everyone he met, and even led to guest appearances on Sesame Street, where he was meant to model good behavior for toddlers. But no one had thought through the long-term consequences of raising a chimp in the human world, and when funding for the study ran out, Nim’s problems began.

Over the next two decades, exiled from the people he loved, Nim was rotated in and out of various facilities. It would be a long time before this chimp who had been brought up to identify with his human caretakers had another opportunity to blow out the candles on a cake celebrating his birthday. No matter where he was sent, however, Nim’s hard-earned ability to converse with humans would prove to be his salvation, protecting him from the fate of many of his peers.

Drawing on interviews with the people who lived with Nim, diapered him, dressed him, taught him, and loved him, Elizabeth Hess weaves an unforgettable tale of an extraordinary and charismatic creature. His story will move and entertain at the same time that it challenges us to ask what it means to be human, and what we owe to the animals who so enrich our lives.

From the Hardcover edition.

Product details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 2678 KB
  • Print Length: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Bantam (26 Feb. 2008)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B0013TPY8K
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #332,174 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Nim Chimpsky--Unique 26 Jun. 2009
If there's anyone left on the planet who needs convincing that chimpanzees are more like us (or we're like them) than they'd care to think they need to read Elizabeth Hess's biography of Nim Chimpsky, the chimpanzee who was taught to communicate in American Sign Language (ASL).

Animal biographies are a publishing curiosity. Me Cheeta: The autobiography, the memoir of Cheeta, the celebrity chimpanzee who swung from tree to fame in the Tarzan movies, was recently published. As clever as chimpanzees are no one really believes it was Cheeta who wrote it (it was James Lever). American Presidential pets are also notorious for writing books. Socks, the Clinton's cat, wrote Dear Socks, Dear Buddy: Kids' Letters to the First Pets (well, Hillary claims to have written it which is just as likely as Socks writing it). Bush Senior's dog, Millie, wrote Millie's Book; As Dictated to Barbara Bush (debatable, again, as to whether it was Millie or Barbara who wrote it). We look forward to the literary delights of Barney (Bush Junior's dog), who will presumably write from his residential retreat in Midland, Texas. (Barney already has his own page on the White House website.

Writing a serious biography of an animal is a formidable challenge, as I know from working with the artist, Sue Coe, on a project about Topsy, the elephant electrocuted by Edison in 1903. Human lives, unlike animal lives, are documented from birth to death. Hess's accomplishment in Nim Chimpsky: The chimp who would be human is framing the biography to address his life and the lives of the humans and chimpanzees who shaped his life, starting as a controversial research tool and ending as a rescued celebrity.
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0 of 6 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars nim chimpsky 16 Sept. 2011
I found this book dull to say the least, not what i expected after reading other reviews, good for bedtime as it would send any Insomniac to sleep, dissapointing
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.0 out of 5 stars  53 reviews
61 of 71 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars False and misleading information 11 Nov. 2009
By W. Benesch - Published on
It appears that Ms. Hess failed to check with the all participants of Project Nim for accuracy. The information about Delafield is both inaccurate and the time frame of those in the house is terribly incorrect. The initial move involved 4 people, Laura, Walter, Amy, and Andrea (who is never mentioned). The author states: "Terrace hired Amy Schachter and Walter Benesch (this reviewer), a couple who had occasionally worked with Nim over the past year and a half. Terrace invited them to move into Delafield, where they would share a bedroom (120)." This is not only false but liable. I was (a volunteer - not hired) moved into the room over the kitchen and Amy moved into a room on the 3rd floor. They were not a couple and did not meet each other until shortly before the move to Delafield. She also has the incorrect age for me. I worked as a youth service worker for the City full time and did not have his degree in social work as stated. I became involved in the project through his graduate work in anthropology, when Ralph Holloway referred him to Terrace. When I left the project it was to obtain a degree in social work.

Walter is described as "had hard work to keep ahead of the chimp." That is not so. Hess says that "Benesch would dutifully replace it (locks) with a new and more complex system." He never replaced a single lock. Likewise he never experienced the throwing of feces and other extreme behavior described while Nim was a Delafield with the one exception of the tantrum described below.

On page 124, she has Bob Johnson living in Delafield at the same time as Benesch. Again this is false information. Bob did not move in until Walter had left for more graduate work at Boston University. It appears the author did not read Dr. Terrace's book about the Sunday mornings where Walter (not Bob as he was not in Delafield at this time) would create pancake receipts together. When Walter left the project, Nim would not eat the plain pancakes others fixed since they lacked the spices and combination of flours and fruit Nim and I would put into the batter. We actually wrote (but never published) a pancake cookbook for children with the receipts Nim made, with his rating of each.

The story about Nim being dragged "into a small upstairs kitchen on the human side of the house. Benesch stayed with Nim as Tynan, outside locked the door (page 156-7)" is pure fictionalization of what actually happen. Tynan was not in the house at the time. Nim escaped into the upstairs common room that Laura and Amy would use. Yes, Walter was locked in while Nim had his tantrum. Likewise, he could not have "Called Tynan for help" since Tynan was not in the house at the time. It was Laura that called Walter for help. The rest of what is described on the following pages is again filled with half truths and a lot of misinformation.

Based upon reading the episode in which I was involved with Nim and how inaccurate it is, I have to raise serious doubts about the remainder of the book. Although I was very happy to find out about what happen to Nim after Delafield, the inaccuracies are so great it puts the remainder of the book in serious question.
22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A bittersweet, but wonderful piece 22 Mar. 2008
By Lisa M. Teehan - Published on
To keep this short and sweet, I received this book in the mail yesterday morning and finished all 300+ pages by last night. I could not put it down. It really touched my soul. I always considered myself an animal lover, but after reading this tragic story there is no doubt in my mind that animals really do have personalities, emotions and souls. Shame on people who treat them as if they were worthless and disposable. Although I found myself crying during various chapters in the book, I am so glad I read it because it really opened my eyes. It makes me want to get involved in animal rights! What a great tribute to such a wonderful soul that was Nim Chimpsky.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Great Read 11 Mar. 2008
By Mary Gail Biebel - Published on
This book is a wonderful biography of Nim, a signing chimp, but it also serves as a study of the sometimes blurred boundaries between what it means to be an "animal" and what it means to be human. Elizabeth Hess has done an extraordinary job of unraveling Nim's story and presenting it in a lucid and compelling manner. She makes the story, the science, and the learnings from Nim's life accessible to the reader.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Moving Account Of An Unwittingly Cruel Experiment 28 Jun. 2008
By Michael G. Radigan - Published on
A thought-provoking, moving account of Columbia professor Herbert Terrace's attempt to teach a chimpanzee, Nim Chimpsky, American Sign Language. Among other things, this compellingly written account illustrates humanity's casual cruelty toward animals, even when the animal is as human-like as the chimpanzee. Lovingly raised as a human child for purposes of the research, Nim was cast aside once the experiment was deemed a failure. Even the most intelligent of Nim's human handlers had failed to think through the ethical implications of raising an intelligent, wild creature as a human being, or thought much about Nim's intense emotional life and connections to human beings. I really enjoyed this book and recommend it to anyone with an interest in primates, human linguistics, animal rights, or, especially, our responsibilities toward the "dumb" animals that share the planet with us.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Power of Nim 19 Mar. 2008
By Sarah Houston - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
One of the real tragedies of Nim Chimpsky is that he and the other chimps profiled in the book have more intelligence, honesty, and "humanity" than the so-called scientists entrusted with their care. What an indictment--not only of medical testing and laboratories who are now the whipping boys of animal activists--but of the "social" scientists who believed that their experiments were any less traumatic or inhumane for the chimps than the biologists with their Hepatitis C vaccines! Out of all of the psychologists, students, and volunteers in Project Nim, only a hand full displayed the loyalty, perservance, compassion, and integrity of Nim and his fellow chimps. This book calls into question all of our preconceived notions of what species is the most advanced and enlightened. My money is on the chimps.
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