Lisa Schwarzbaum
March 03, 2008 AT 05:00 AM EST

Nim Chimpsky

Current Status
In Season
Elizabeth Hess
Science and Technology, Nonfiction

We gave it an A-

Back in the 1970s, before the words ”No Animal Testing” became a seal of approval for concerned consumers, the subject of Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human was a prehensile celebrity. Those were the woolly days of primate experiments and academic debates about the essence of language skills: Were they inherent and exclusive to humans, or could they be learned by other animals? Behaviorist B.F. Skinner at Harvard said yes; Noam Chomsky at MIT said no.

Nim, a chimp trained in American Sign Language and raised in Manhattan comfort as the adoptive son of a human family, was the star of a Columbia University prof’s project aiming to refute Chomsky’s claim. But Nim became a monkey in the middle when funding for the experiment ran out after four years, and the professor himself conceded the argument to the Chomsky camp.

Elizabeth Hess’ clear, lively, and gently sorrowful biography swings from Nim’s 26-year life story (he died in 2000 at the Texas ”retirement” home run by author/activist Cleveland Amory) to a larger portrait of the human researchers, philosophers, and caretakers who upended Nim’s life. Keep your eye on the chimpanzee and you’ll miss Hess’ acute study of animal behavior among academics, complete with rivalries, power plays, couplings, and aggression just short of hurling feces. A-

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