My father likes to tell a story from when I was very young as proof that he knew I was going to be a writer before I did. To summarize, my father, his father, and I were walking through my grandfather’s property, which was surrounded by a dense forest. When we crossed the boundary between land and woodland, apparently I said we entered “the dark and dangerous wood.” Well, joke’s on dad, because that’s a fairly popular fantasy trope, and I probably osmosis’d it from a book or cartoon. Nevertheless, it is an interesting question: Do writers write because they are naturally inclined or are they conditioned write, if even subtly, by their parents or other societal pressure points. I’m not sure my dad’s story illuminates anything for us, really, other than to serve as an example that even at that age, I had a healthy respect (re: fear) for the natural world. It’s served me well.
Which is why the trailer for (and actual experiment of) Project Nim is so inherently fascinating. The upcoming documentary, directed by Man on Wire’s James Marsh, seems to satisfy both an appreciation for the unconquerable genetics of nature and the innate desire of humanity to bend however much of it we can to our will. Knowing that humans can become feral when raised by wild animals, taking on their adoptive parents’ characteristics, and that chimpanzees can learn human sign language, some clever scientists asked a logically sound question: Could an otherwise wild animal raised by humans take on human characteristics — in essence, be human?
If you felt like skipping the trailer, I’ll break it down for you (despite your cold, incurious soul). In short, no. Of course not.
Thankfully, none of the people in the film seemed to need to learn the hard way, like Timothy Treadwell or the woman who was nearly killed by a friend’s ape companion, that life always finds a way to do what it’s evolutionarily programmed to do. It can learn new tricks, like how to open doors, fly through space, or breastfeed a chimp, but inevitably it reverts back to its own biology. Sometimes that means little baby dinosaurs, sometimes that means ripping people’s faces off.
Nim Chimpsky might not have done any severe mutilating himself, but that just tells me we really don’t need to take a chance with Rise of the Planet of the Apes coming later this summer. Project Nim comes out this Friday, July 8, a full month before that CGI apocalypse. Thanks for the heads up, Science!
Rob Payne also writes the indie comic The Unstoppable Force, co-hosts the podcast We’re Not Fanboys, and can be mocked on the Twitter @RobOfWar. Even though he finds Li’l Nim adorable, his favorite barely intelligible primate will always be Charlton Heston.
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