The appliance of science

Project Nim gives the scientific method a long withering stare, and in the process deserves a place on the Christmas lists of scientists everywhere, ready to be produced the next time someone asks why their profession can sometimes have such trouble getting from A to B. It won’t answer the question, but it’ll prove that at the moment when the rational men involved realise they might have been building on sand, the shadow behind the eyes always looks the same.

James Marsh’s documentaries bear all the hallmarks of his parallel career as director of fiction, which is a polite way of saying that his knack for using the techniques of one in the context of the other plays the audience like a harp. Compared to the atmospherics of Werner Herzog or Asif Kapadia, Marsh’s tactics are positively tub-thumping. But in the circumstances, given the film’s clear and proper biases, his decision to let the researchers who inserted themselves into the life of Nim Chimpsky speak for themselves with a minimum of on-screen demonization or ridicule and their dignity intact was surely the right approach. The audience will supply the incredulity when required.

But the point about Nim from a science perspective is that the project’s instigator, the easily mocked for several reasons Herb Terrace, came to realise that he was on a hiding to nothing. At which point that shadow behind the eyes is on full display. A lay audience will see it as just desserts. A science audience may see it as that, plus something rather more illuminating about the price of certainty. Since the trickster god of film distribution has arranged for Project Nim and Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes to come out at the same time, everyone involved should probably be grateful that poor Nim didn’t pick up a jawbone and go to town.

I spoke to Bob Ingersoll, originally a primate studies student and now a tireless advocate for Nim’s legacy and the welfare of animals used in scientific research, at the Edinburgh International Film Festival for Little White Lies.


August 7, 2011