Sunday, October 02, 2011

Check out the emotionally powerful "Project Nim"

by Salman Hameed

I did not see this one coming. A few days ago I had a chance to see Project Nim, the new documentary by James Marsh of Man on Wire fame. The film is about a chimp names Nim Chimpsky who was raised amongst humans (and arguably, as a human) to see if he can learn language and construct grammatical sentences (in sign-language). His name, of course, was a play on MIT linguist, Noam Chomsky, who believes that humans have an innate ability for language. Project Nim was set out to show otherwise. Unfortunately, it ended up separating a chimpanzee from his mother, and then shuttling him from one human home to another, often with dire consequences. The movie is not really about science. In fact, some of the critics have complained that it would have been nice to see the science as well. Sure. But I think the movie is more about humans who became a  part of Nim's life.

Implicit in the movie are ethical questions associated with the treatment of apes - our closest relatives. Can we keep them in cages? Can we keep them captive at all? What about testing for new vaccines? After all, we would like to test on some animals before humans, and chimpanzees are the closest.

These are tough questions. The Spanish parliament has already called for granting humans rights to apes. This means that any thing you can't do to humans, you can't do to apes either. I tend to agree with this and hope that at least a complete ban on testing on apes is implemented soon. This month's Scientific American has an editorial endorsing a ban on testing on chimps:
In April, McClatchy Newspapers ran a special report based on its review of thousands of medical records detailing research on chimps like Bobby. The stories painted a grim picture of life in the lab, noting disturbing psychological responses in the chimps. Then, in June, Hope R. Ferdowsian of George Washington University and her colleagues reported in PLoS ONE that chimps that had previously suffered traumatic events, including experimentation, exhibit clusters of symptoms similar to depression and post-traumatic stress disorder in humans.
That chimps and humans react to trauma in a like manner should not come as a surprise. Chimps are our closest living relatives and share a capacity for emotion, including fear, anxiety, grief and rage.
Testing on chimps has been a huge boon for humans in the past, contributing to the discovery of hepatitis C and vaccines against polio and hepatitis B, among other advances. Whether it will continue to bear fruit is less certain. Alternatives are emerging, including ones that rely on computer modeling and isolated cells. In 2008 pharmaceutical manufacturer Gla­xo­Smith­Kline announced it would end its use of chimps.
In our view, the time has come to end biomedical experimentation on chimpanzees. The Senate bill would phase out invasive research on chimps over a three-year period, giving the researchers time to implement alternatives, after which the animals would be retired to sanctuaries.
Read the full editorial here.

In the mean time, go and see the documentary, Project Nim. It is very well done. In fact, if you are going to see one chimp movie this year, see this one. Here is the trailer for the film:

Related posts:
Apes are humans too...
Ecological ethics and the interconnectedness of species
More on the call for rights for apes
Rights for apes threaten Dembski's uniqueness


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