throwback thursday

Throwback Thursday: What Makes Us Human: Analyzing Nim Chimsky’s Case Study Against the Philosophy of Varsava

Throwback Thursday, where, essentially I post old writing samples, essays and short stories that I dig up from my pile of hoarded papers and school assignments or from the depths of my computer. So everyone can see how my writing has changed/improved over the years.

What Makes Us Human: Analyzing Nim Chimsky’s Case Study Against the Philosophy of Varsava

Animals are often considered in how human they are when considering the ethical implications of animal research – this anthropomorphism, and arguments against it, are the main focus of Nina Varsava’s philosophical paper “The Problem of Anthropomorphous Animals: Toward a Posthumanist Ethics.” Chimpanzees are often given more ethical consideration than, for example, mice. The focus of anthropomorphism, and ethical issues are on chimpanzees due to the biological similarities with humans, which is explored thoroughly in the case study of Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human by Elizabeth Hess. In this paper, I will examine these pieces against one another, analyzing Varsava’s arguments through the case study of Nim Chimpsky, analyzing what it means to be human. If language is the marker of being human, than did Nim really learn to speak, and if so, the implications of that.

What is Anthropomorphism? – Varsava’s Central Argument

At its core, anthropomorphism is, according to Varsava’s definition, “seeing elements of the human in the nonhuman.” (Varsava, pg.2)  In other words, applying human characteristics to nonhumans, particularly in the application of human traits or comparision of human traits to animals. Varsava argues, in “The Problem of Anthropomorphous Animals: Toward a Posthumanist Ethics,” that anthropomorphism is an unfair assessment, as the lines between the human/animal binary are not clearly defined, and that valuing an animal purely in terms of anthropomorphic traits is a disservice to both humans and animals.

Nim Chimpsky: A Summary

While Varsava explores the theoretical, and future implications of anthropomorphism of animals, Elizabeth Hess explores, in depth, one case study of a truly anthropomorphised animal: Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee raised as a human child, and taught sign language, meant to disprove the claims that language is a purely human trait by Noam Chompsky, and which Varsava credits as a reason for the increasing blurred lines of the animal/human binary. 

Hess pieces together the events of Nim’s life, from birth, to human home, to LEMSIP, to finally Black Beauty Ranch, and the people in his life, both those whom Varsava would consider anthro-insisters and anthro-deniers, whether they believed Nim could truly speak and understand, or didn’t, Nim Chimpsky is a pivotal figure in anthropomorphic animals, and the ethics of animal research boundaries as a whole.

Did Nim Learn to Speak? – What Makes A Human

Language is often considered one of the biggest definers of the line between humans and animals, as Varsava puts it, “a key distinguishing factor between the human and the animal in the humanist tradition” (Varsava, pg. 2). The study of Nim Chimpsky set out to disprove the theory that language is a solely human trait, further supporting Varsava’s argument of the deterioration of the animal/human binary – if Nim can learn to speak, then the animal/human binary collapses in on itself, furthering Varsava’s championing of post-humanistic ethics, and the ethics of animal research as separated from anthropomorphic reasoning and anthropocentric values. If Nim didn’t learn to speak, but was still socialized as a human, and is considered, as Hess states, that Nim himself was considered “more than a chimp, but less than a human,” which furthers the idea that the animal/human binary is inherently flawed. 

Nim is raised as a human child, by human parents, with the belief that human socialization would allow for the development of human language. The Nim Project, spearheaded by Herb Terrace, is entirely based upon the anthropomorphism of chimpanzees to disprove language as a purely human trait. Nim’s family initially asks “was this a new baby, or was this a new pet?” (Hess, p.76) before eventually becoming attached as if he were a real human child, with the youngest daughter Jenny claiming him as her brother, and adoptive mother Stephenie even breastfeeding Nim. The anthropomorphism is so ingrained, that Nim’s pediatrician compares his growth month-to-month with his own human child, astonished at Nim’s progress (Hess, p. 78). Nim’s socialization as a human leads to his eventual belief that he is a human, as when asked to sort pictures of humans and apes “he would put his own picture in the pile with humans” (Hess, p.104), this contrasts with what Varsava mentions as an “ethical protocol that animals know themselves—that is, that they know they are animal and not human” (Varsava p.8) – which clearly did not apply to Nim, regardless if you believe in his language acquisition or not. 

To teach Nim human language, they taught him ASL (American Sign Language), which had inherent flaws, as many of his teachers were not fluent themselves. Varsava mentions the Nim Project, stating that Terrace “ultimately renounced his own work” (Varsava p.10) because, as Hess mentions Terrace believed that Nim had no “comprehension of what he signed…Noam Chompsky was right” (Hess p.241) a complete reversal of his earlier theories. But with the largest complaint being Nim’s lack of grammar or ability to string words together properly, the lack of fluent ASL teachers plays a large role, as ASL grammar differs greatly from english grammar. Terrace also frequently ignored other hallmarks of “human-ness” in Nim that his family insisted on, treating him mostly as an animal (ie. locking him in a cage) which may also have a hindering effect on affective language acquisition. Measuring Nim’s language acquisition is difficult because of the inherent “catch-22” (Hess, p.238) researchers face – needing a personal connection which inherently biases results. Though Nim’s family insists on his understanding of language and human empathy, science claims he failed in being “human enough”. Varsava specifies that her “concern is not whether nonhuman apes are actually capable of acquiring human language, but rather that high ethical stakes rest upon the answer to that question” (Varsava p. 11). If Nim is closer to being human, than his treatment by IPS (including a cattle prod) is considered inhumane, if he is an animal, that many consider itt justified, which Varsava argues against, thinking of animals ethically is independent of human traits, which, if Nim is not considered to have acquired the necessary language to be “human enough” achieves, winning people over despite being a “mere animal”. 

Conclusion – Deconstructing the Animal/Human Binary

Nim, despite not achieving, by a scientific perspective, the language necessary to be considered human, as considered human enough to testify to get out of LEMSIP (Hess p.270), too human to live in a medical research lab. Despite the “failure” of Project Nim, LEMSIP shut down, and the use of primates in medical research has forever changed, granting greater ethical consideration for these animals, despite the conclusion that they are not anthropomorphic enough for many scientists, one step closer to Varsava’s ideal of post-humanist ethics, where she seeks “posthumanism where moral considerability would not depend upon anthropo-identity” (Varsava p.14), for which Nim is a major first step closer towards.


Hess, Elizabeth. Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human. Bantam Books, 2008.“The Problem of Anthropomorphous Animals: Toward a Posthumanist Ethics.” Society & Animals, 2013, pp. 1–16., doi:10.1163/15685306-12341270.

Say Something!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s