Medical life: The tale of one chimp can teach us a lot about human cruelty
Jeremy Laurance is a writer on health issues. He is former health editor of The Independent and the i and has covered the specialism for more than 20 years. He thinks the harm medicine does is under-appreciated, the harm it prevents over-rated, and that cycling works better than most drugs. He was named Specialist Journalist of the Year in the 2011 British Press Awards.
Tuesday 16 August 2011
Home from a holiday at the weekend to a story of bad parenting. No, nothing to do with the riots. We went to see Project Nim, the distressing but wonderfully told story of the chimp raised by humans in the Seventies, in a supposedly scientific experiment, to see if it was possible to teach another species language.
Like many others, I imagine, I felt as I left the cinema like signing up immediately as a supporter of animal rights.
The folly of the attempt to raise a wild animal as if human contact, plus a bit of old-fashioned schooling, were enough to domesticate it, has been much remarked on. The biting started when Nim was only a few months old and was bad enough to hospitalise a number of his, mainly female, carers.
For evidence of the harm that animals can do, we need look no further than Charla Nash, the 57-year-old US woman whose face transplant was unveiled last week, after her original features were ripped off during an horrific attack by her friend's pet chimp in 2009.
But what also struck me was the folly of expecting the young female researchers recruited by Professor Herbert Terrace, whose project Nim was, to maintain scientific objectivity while mothering Nim Chimpsky as if he was their own child.
Each became deeply attached to the chimp and each began to resent the sterile demands that the scientific process imposed. The emotional temperature was raised by the grand professor's habit of seducing his youthful recruits. All very Seventies.
Despite all this, Nim mastered the signs for scores of words and even managed to put them together in rudimentary sentences. He featured on TV and the front of the New Yorker magazine. Then suddenly, Prof Terrace pulled the plug. Alarmed by Nim's growing strength, he closed the project and sent Nim back to the Institute for Primate Research from whence he had come – little more than a jail. Briefly, Nim became a subject for medical tests – vaccines for hepatitis and HIV – before being rescued by an animal sanctuary where he lived out the rest of his days.
The failure of the experiment was confirmed when Prof Terrace recanted his earlier claim that Nim had learnt language. Instead, he said, he had learnt how to beg, mimicking his human
carers to get what he wanted. But what is undeniable, as the most consistent of his carers, Bob Ingersoll, makes clear is that there was "real communication" going on of a kind not seen with other animals.
Peter Singer, the Australian philosopher who has done more than most to champion animal rights, has highlighted the apalling suffering involved in factory farming, medical testing, zoos and the rest. "To change, we need to persuade the public to change their attitude to animals," he says.
Project Nim may help. Watching it you cannot but wonder at the casual cruelty meted out by homo sapiens to our closest relatives.
peopleContenders for Time magazine's Person of the Year are a mixture of the good, the bad and the holy
newsAs the world remembers Mandela the hero, the prison where he spent 27 years seems all the more brutal
tvSteven Moffat reveals the actor was dying to take on the role of the Time Lord and says he is excited to see what he will do with the character
sportBayern Munich 2 Manchester City 3: City come from two down to beat reigning European Champions
arts + ents... and a chance to paint Booker Prize winning author Hilary Mantel
danceUnder Tamara Rojo's inspired direction, it seems possible that it could challenge the dominance of the Royal Ballet. We meet some established names and rising stars
travelDiscover Uruguay's jet-set beach resort, an Atlantic enclave with plenty of art and culture to explore on the side
Life & Style blogs
Low-cost metal 3D printer could be the next step in home manufacturing revolution
$183,000 fine for man who joined Anonymous attack for 'one minute'
People who drink alcohol outlive those who abstain, study shows
Exercise most effective lifestyle choice for preventing dementia, researchers say
GTA 5 update: Content Creator released, online heists and story mode updates coming soon
- 1 Mountain goats' miraculous escape from avalanche captured in dramatic video footage
- 2 It’s shameful that our universities have accepted gender segregation under pressure from the most oppressive religious fanatics
- 3 Sir Ian McKellen hits back at Damian Lewis' 'fruity actor' claims
- 4 Kenyan politician Mike Sonko left red-faced after photoshopping himself next to Nelson Mandela
- 5 Selfie at funeral: Cameron squeezes in on Obama snap at Mandela memorial
- < Previous
- Next >
attractive: Citifocus: Highly prestigious Investment Management house based in...
£46,000 plus car and benefits: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recrui...
£50000 Per Annum dependent on experience: The Green Recruitment Company: The G...
£60k: Charter Selection: Prestigious ultra high end fit out and refurbishment ...