Project Nim: Chimps, people and ethics

If you approach James Marsh’s new film, Project Nim, as a chance to gain further insights into the science of a piece of evolutionary psychology’s history, you may be disappointed.

Marsh has chosen to tell the story of Nim Chimpsky not as a lesson in the development of language but rather as a biopic with the chimp as the silent protagonist; interviewing the humans that come and go throughout his life and revealing the ways in which people with power can impact on the lives of the powerless.

It is this story of power that most interested me. Terrace, the psychologist behind the project, is depicted as the arbitrary "God" being shown to move Nim from home to home upon a whim. The science is only discussed when Terrace and his colleagues allude to poor methodology and inconclusive outcomes.

The humans surrounding Nim are shown to be in enduring conflict with each other, competing for power over Nim whilst anthropomorphically mindreading the chimp’s best interests to suit their own.  It says a lot that at the end of the film the human whom we have most empathy for is the Grateful Dead fan Bob - and he was pushing Nim marijuana.

It is important for us as psychologists to reflect on the way we manage power with our clients, patients and participants. The lessons of experiments such as Project Nim and the Stanford Prison Experiment have contributed to the codes of conduct in research and practice that are so central to our training. A vet is quoted in the film as saying that “no animal experiments are humane”. With other humans, we can take informed consent but this only makes it marginally easier to avoid the abuse of power.

It is interesting how Terrace has criticised the bias of the film and it strikes me that if a film director who sets out to expose the abuse of power can inadvertently take liberties with his own power to shape public opinion, then surely we are all guilty of falling into this power trap.

This review was written for us by Nick Hartley, a psychologist in clinical training at the University of Leeds.