This week saw the back-to-back UK release of two films about signing apes raised in human families: Project Nim and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Nim is a documentary aimed at the arthouse audience (very Erroll Morris style with talking heads interviews interspersed with re-enactments and archival footage); Rise is an expensive blockbuster aimed at the summer sci-fi crowd (and is more in the King-Kong and Jurassic park mould).
A tale of two apes
Both films document a similar story of extraordinary humanization and then extraordinary dehumanization of their ape subjects.
In Rise of the Planet of the Apes this humanization is biological as well as social – the chimpanzee protagonist, Caesar, has been genetically engineered for accelerated brain development, and is also raised and educated in a human household. But after violently intervening to defend a member of his adoptive human family, Caesar is remanded to a dismal primate facility where he must negotiate both his brute ape inmates and endure the persecutions of the abusive human keepers, before mounting his escape.
While the captive conditions of all of the apes in Rise are shown to be abysmal, Caesar’s fall is more acute because of his human intelligence and human attachments.
But while the fictional Caesar might fall from a loftier height, real ape Nim Chimsky falls far further: Nim was adopted out to a human family and taught American Sign Language in an effort to disprove Noam Chomsky’s theory that the language instinct was uniquely human. But as Nim enters adolescence and becomes stronger, more assertive and more dangerous the project is abruptly terminated and Nim is abandoned to the primate facility from which he was first taken as an infant. Unlike Caesar, his fall does not stop there. After adjusting to this relative deprivation, Nim is sold on to a medical centre for animal-testing human vaccines.
But more than Nim himself, the real subject of Project Nim seems to be the heady cocktail of naivety, arrogance and narcissism which characterised the 70s: throughout the film, Nim is essentially a pawn in the self-centred dramas of his human guardians: for Professor Terrace, Nim is a vehicle to advance his media profile and academic career; for adoptive mother Stephanie LaFarge, Nim is an exotic pet who undermines the male authorities in her life; for undergraduate student Laura Ann-Petito, Nim is a route to Professor Terrace’s affections; and for a sign-teacher Renne Falitz, Nim is just a ticket to some fancy accommodation. Nim’s nadir as a vaccine subject is almost the logical extension of his serial objectification by the human beings in his life.
A failure of empathy
But not all of the characters in Nim’s story are unsympathetic, a few humans are sufficiently compassionate to see past their own dramas and projects and encounter Nim as an ape on his own terms. They include project staff Joyce Butler and Bill Tynan; Bob Ingersoll, an attendant at the primate centre and Nim’s most perseverant advocate, and even the research veterinarian James Mahone from the animal testing laboratory.
In fact it is only through the strength of their compassion, remorse and regret that we have any sense of the personhood of Nim, a personhood of which the film affords us scant direct glimpse.
Bill and Joyce reveal that it wasn’t a lack of primatology so much as a lack of empathy which was to blame for Nim’s insensitive treatment. The happy resolution to the story of Christian the Lion makes a telling contrast. In a similar fit of naivety and hubris, gay London couple John Rendall and Anthony Burke purchased a lion-cub from Harrod’s (it seems that dangerous exotic pets were the height of fashion in the 70s) but as Christian reached adolescence and became more dangerous and more difficult to care for, the couple took great pains and expense to arrange for his reintroduction to the African wild by conservationist George Adamson. A flim-clip of their reunion with the wild Lion has become a Youtube sensation:
I have written earlier about the knots that people tie themselves in attempting to sidestep accusations of anthropomorphism despite the strong physiological foundations for the behavioural and emotional overlap we experience with mammals in general and apes in particular (see earlier blog Mammalomorphism). But Bill and Joyce needed no special training to recognize Nim’s needs as an ape any more than John and Anthony needed no special training to recognize Christian’s special needs as a lion. Neither do good dog owners need special training to recognize the responsibilities owed to their animal companions.
The uncanny valley
But despite their remarkable closeness to us, we seem to find it more problematic to emotionally identify our common ground with apes than we do with more distantly related mammals like dogs. I have often felt this is an artefact of a psychological effect that animators call “the uncanny valley”.
As CGI animations and robots come to more successfully approximate human appearance and movement, they risk crossing a threshold where their increasing appeal suddenly gives way to revulsion, where we stop finding its humanness charming to finding its subtle inhumanness disturbing.
Apes are a freely-occurring example of this effect insofar as their expressions, gestures and behaviours closely resemble, but are not quite, our own. Apes “ape” mankind, and the tendency to frame them in terms of their difference to us rather than their similarities with us was one of the great emotional obstacles to the recognition that we had evolved from a recent common ancestor, a barrier which is truly remarkable given that chimpanzees are more closely related to humans than they are to Gorillas.
This observation is made very eloquently by the father of ethology Konrad Lorenz back in 1963 – note how closely this anticipates the notion of the uncanny valley (which did not emerge in the robotics community until 1970):
“An inexorable law of perception prevents us from seeing in the ape, particularly the chimpanzee, an animal like other animals, and makes us see in its face the human physiognomy. From this point of view, measured by human standards, the chimpanzee of course appears as something horrible, a diabolical caricature of ourselves…he is irresistibly funny and at the same time as common, as vulgar, as no other animal but a debased human being can ever be…just because he is so similar to us.”] 
Curiously, the animators of Rise have largely managed to bypass the uncanny valley effect by combining both ingredients: they have managed to disguise the imperfections of their art by animating apes instead of humans, and have circumvented the inhumanness of apes by artificially granting them human capacities and expressions. By cancelling these two effects out in this way, the filmmakers are able to harness the uncanny valley to powerful effect when Caesar crosses some new unexpected threshold into humanity.
But despite its clever negotiations of the uncanny valley, Rise is no masterpiece, and doesn’t really pretend to be more than the summer sci-fi blockbuster that it is. Some ape welfare advocates have been overly enthusiastic in welcoming this film, as when primatologist Sue Savage-Rimbaugh gushes it “will radically change the current mythology of how we view the human/ape divide”, because it makes audiences “willing and almost eager to look through the eyes and feelings of an ape, therefore it begins to humanize apes”.
To cross the human/ape divide, more humans need to observe, interact and even bond with real apes, not to identify with CGI-animated super-apes. Unfortunately, while Project Nim provides hints, mediated through its more compassionate human subjects, audiences might find it difficult to disaggregate their legitimate opinions from the confused sentiment and cod psychology of the 70s. It will still be the David Attenboroughs of this world, who will best help us to bridge that divide, supported by an army of primatologists, comparative psychologists and the rest. Along the way, though, a few precocious signing apes like Kanzi the bonobo might accelerate the process by acting as ambassadors for their kind:
 Konrad Lorenz, On Aggression (University Paperback, 1967) p.190