Picks and Pans Review: An Ape in the Family

updated 03/17/2008 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 03/17/2008 AT 01:00 AM EDT

NIM CHIMPSKY
by Elizabeth Hess |

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CRITIC'S CHOICE

REVIEWED BY CAROLINE LEAVITT

NON-FICTION

Loving your research subject is a no-no in science, but as journalist Hess's Greek tragedy about ape-human communication shows, it can be tough to avoid. Meet Nim, a chimp taught sign language as part of psychologist Herbert Terrace's 1970s attempt to disprove Noam Chomsky's assertion that only humans can learn language. Raised by Columbia University grad student Stephanie LaFarge and her family in their brownstone, Nim could sign over 100 words, do laundry and, apparently, enjoy his celebrity. But Nim grew belligerent as he aged, and the project lost funding. Taken from the humans he loved, he was eventually relegated to a cage at the Institute for Primate Studies in Oklahoma. Shortly afterward, scientists concluded Nim didn't understand what he was signing, and he was sold to a vaccine-testing facility before being rescued by a group spearheaded by Terrace and LaFarge. He spent his remaining years on a Texas ranch in a kind of half life, "too wild for a house and too human for a cage." Hess's fascinating book makes Nim seem so heroic that readers will find themselves weeping, both for this extraordinary chimp and for the way we humans failed him.

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