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Ape, All Too Human

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Big Think: ďProject NIMĒ asks the question of the extent to which the inner life of a chimp is like the inner life of a human, and if we could bridge the gap and communication, whether weíd see something more like us.

James Marsh: The idea of the experiment that the film starts with was to try to figure out, if you gave a chimp the skills of language to find out what he was thinking about.† Now, the experiment didnít end up reaching those very high optimistic objectives.† But clearly in the course of this study, in the course of Nimís life and indeed our film, you could understand an overlap between the species, which is basically on the level of the emotions.† That Chimpanzees definitely have an emotional life that is comparable to our own; itís quite complicated, itís quite sophisticated, they feel emotions in the same way that we do.

But the overlap is sometimes more interesting than that.† And one of the things thatís quite striking about Chimpanzees is that they are very hedonistic as a species they seek altered states and they seek the same kinds of, you know, kind of stimulation that we do in that respect. So our Chimpanzee likes to smoke marijuana and drink beer and actively seeks those out. And so that appears to be hardwired behavior. In other words, he appears to have an innate desire for an altered state.† And we heard tales of Chimpanzees in an institution that would cue up for Ketamine, which is a very powerful horse tranquilizer, itís also a hallucinator.† So Chimpanzees in that respect have this desire for an altered state that we have.

The other quite striking element about Chimpanzees is theyíre very aggressive in ways that actually show human aggression in a very interesting light too.† Chimps can kill each other, but not nearly as aggressive as we are.† I think thatís one of those interesting aspects of our film that you see Nim the Chimp as he occasionally is behaving quite violently towards people around him.† And you kind of think, oh this is terrible, heís, you know, what a violent little creature he is.† But in fact his aggression is much less dangerous to the world that he lives in than ours is.† So that, I found that kind of intriguing.

One of the things that the film shows you is there is a kind of limit to how we can communicate with other animals and in fact perhaps there is a lesson to be learned from the story of Nim in that the attempt was to try and teach Nim human language, human grammar.† And in fact, there was never an attempt to understand his language, his repertoire of communication and signs and body language, itís very rich in Chimpanzees.† And so we imposed upon him the constructs of language and he resisted that.† He was able to learn signs and use them for his own ends, but we gave him the tools to deceive us essentially, not to communicate with us.† He uses signs to get what he wants and to get out of situations he doesnít want to be in.

So to answer your question directly, there is an overlap in our, in our lives.† But itís very hard to quantify what that is in any sort of scientific way because we canít, we have to understand ourselves better first, I think, before we can understand the Chimpanzee and their inner lives.

 

yuki_alm_misa/flickr

Big Think: In ďProject NIM,” I felt the story becomes less about finding the humanity in the animal and more about finding the–

James Marsh: The animal in the human. Of course, as a filmmaker, youíre looking for certain types of stories that are amenable to be told in a documentary — not all stories would work. Some stories work much better in a book than they would in documentaries, which tend to work in quite broad strokes.

So youíre excavating in territory that is already there and youíre looking to put together your version of that story.† And as a dramatist, which is what all filmmakers are ultimately, youíre looking for the dramatic elements of a story and how they would conform to essentially the arc of a fictional story.† So our story, in many ways, is more like an 18th century novel.† Thereís a whole genre of the very early novels in the English language where life stories, were written by Defoe and Fielding and Richardson.† They would either invent or, indeed, find a real life story and lay it out for you as an instructive kind of story.† This life was like this and you could learn from it.† And I felt the story of Nim was a little like that.† It was like a Bildungsroman which is a German word for the life story as an instructive kind of narrative.

That felt to me part of what this story was about. It was to take the life story of an animal and understand that animalís behavior, his, you know, what happened to him, what became of him.† And indeed the people he befriends who become his companions, who becomes his antagonists and try and understand you know, what that life story means as a reflection on our human world as well as on the animalís life arc.

This post was originally published by Big Think and is reprinted with permission.

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Photo from tom hartley via flickr creative commons

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98 comments

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5:35PM PST on Nov 14, 2012

Maybe it should be Human, all to Ape.

6:02PM PDT on Oct 13, 2011

i think it's hilarious that this chimp bit people i hope he drew blood

7:02AM PDT on Sep 20, 2011

I also wonder why people put human clothes on dogs and cats.

4:02AM PDT on Sep 1, 2011

should we set horses and dogs and cats free? they entertain us.

8:25PM PDT on Aug 31, 2011

I know I already posted, but I have another thought. I'm GLAD he bit people. I hope they remember that for the rest of their lives. I hope every member of that project who didn't stand up for that chimp feels terrible and I hope they never have to go through what that poor chimp went through. How could they do that to another living, breathing, feeling creature? I hope every person who sees this is appalled. I think I need to stop reading comments and just calm down. This is a touchy subject for me I guess. Damn scientists

8:06PM PDT on Aug 31, 2011

I wish everyone could just let the animals be. Yes, they are like us. But they have their OWN world, and us imposing our world on them isn't helping anyone. I watched Rise of the Planet of the Apes and I cried for the first, idk, hour. Because animals do NOT belong in cages. In fact, I almost left halfway through because my heart was breaking. Yes, it was only a movie. But testing on animals is real and it happens every day. They are creatures with feeling like ours. With relationships like ours. With desires and needs, similar to but different than ours. Let nature be. Let animals be animals, and let people be people. In a perfect world, we could watch and observe and learn, but as it turns out, people just have to push their ways on everyone and everything. It's so sad

6:51PM PDT on Aug 25, 2011

I was trying to send you all stars for comments that supported leaving the wild in the wild and not using Nim or any other animal for our entertainment or enjoyment but I kept getting kicked off. Although they did not treat this chimp badly, he was definitely mistreated. No matter where he came from - even is his mother had died - then he was snatched from his own kind, from living in his own space - and treated too humanlike. As they admitted, they didn't try to understand him - they tried to teach him their language. Leave the wild animals alone!

2:42AM PDT on Aug 22, 2011

Thanks for the article.

6:23PM PDT on Aug 21, 2011

if we can get them to act like us, maybe people will respect them more? if someone views a speciese as just "some screaming beastie", but then learns they can, will and want to do people things, then they get new respect for them.

Apes and elephants can paint, some ask to paint. They would never try to paint in the wild, but people will like chimps more when they learn they make art. I know of some other animals "that make art", but that is because they are made into paintbrushes. The only one that possibly would paint for fun would be a hog. Other than that, I don't think a stoat is as smart as the big 5(was it 5 of the most intelligent animals?)
Stoat is only as smart as it needs to be. They aren't pigs or border collies. and I don't think cotton can do as good job as they do, nor would petroleum derived materials do the job too.

1:16PM PDT on Aug 21, 2011

Why are we trying to make animal act like humans? They are who they are for a reason. I can't say that humans have any characteristic's that would be desirable in any other species.

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