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Thursday, May 10, 2012

When Does Science Go Too Far?

APA Project Nim is a documentary film depicting the life of the now-famous chimpanzee Nim Chimpsky who was raised by humans and taught to read sign language. In gathering research data on their subject over several years, scientists put Nim through a variety of hardships such as various transfers, poor living conditions at times, and forcing him into a variety of situations he was unprepared for.

The project revealed a number of insights about human–animal communication and the science of animal learning. At the same time, there is controversy as to whether the experiment should have even been started, in addition to whether the research study went on for too long. In her review of the film, Judith Stillion observes that this is an example where psychology lost its way and learned from it. Stillion goes on to say,

The film tries to show that there were no real villains in Nim's case, just human beings who did not have the vision to understand the consequences of their actions. With the benefit of hindsight, all of the principals in the project who were interviewed in the film were unanimous that this study was a mistake.
In considering the risks and benefits of these kinds of projects (also recall the Zimbardo Prison Experiment and the Milgram studies), to what extent do you believe scientific pursuit should compromise the well-being of other beings? How might a researcher best balance consideration of harm and the promise of scientific findings? To what extent do your views change when the subjects are humans, dogs, primates, or rats?

Read the Review
ReviewPsychology: Losing Its Way and Learning From It
By Judith Stillion
      PsycCRITIQUES, 2012 Vol 57(15)


Nelson H Law

It is difficult to judge when science has gone too far. For Nim's project, although it was poorly design and lack of proper data recording system; we can still learn a lot from this project. It is difficult to define the limits of experiments, and sometimes guidelines and limitations can get in the way for finding new answers. Recalling watching old psychology video clips of some unethical psychological experiments such as Little Albert by John Watson (1920), and the Milgram Study by Stanley Milgram(1974) and etc. Similar stuides are not likely to happen again because those studies were considered as unethical, but we still learned a lot from them.

People who participated in the Nim's project all agreed it was a mistake because they have developed relationship with Nim. It was difficult for them to see Nim suffered and gone through all the testing. They also did not expect the changes as Nim was growing up, and later has to accept Nim is just a chimp but not human.

When we have feelings towards the subjects, no mater the subject is human or animals, we would not want them to be harmed and I think that's the nature of us. We should value what had been done, learn from it, and move on.


Using animals for scientific experiments is a highly sensitive subject nowadays. With the example of Project Nim, we can see that the majority of the people participanting in the experiment did not fully consider the conditions needed for keeping the chimpanzee. Simply moving him from place to place when he became too old and dangerous, in addition they did not consider the fact that he was never brought up in a natural environment and habitat to begin with. Thus, it most certainly caused a huge amount of distress for the animal.

When using animals for an experiment where the animal lives in a certain condition, it is absolutely necessary to consider the impact this will have on the overall life of the animal. While the animal is used for the experiment, it is essential to offer the animal the most natural conditions possible – suggesting the opposite of well-known situations where animals are locked up in small cages for experimental use. Additionally, if an alternative to using animals for an experiment exists, the alternative should always be considered first as the well-being and ethical treatment of animals is to be treated with respect. This is especially important for balancing the consideration of harm and the prospects of scientific findings.


Project Nim leaves me the question of why we can treat a living animal with respect, so much so that we interact with him as if he is a human being on one hand but on the other, we can transport him and then leave him in a place/condition in which we would never allow another human being to be in? This project definitely has shown us how we should have anticipated the outcomes before the beginning of the experiment. The question of respect keeps coming up as I read the review. Just because we see chimpanzees as animals, and when we treated him as a subject in an experiment and gave him so much learning space and interaction as a human, shouldn’t we continue to give him what we had been giving even after the experiment had ended? We know a domesticated animal cannot live in the wild because we have not been equipping it with the necessary survival skills. What would make one think Nim could live with other chimps after having lived with humans?

The conclusion of Nim’s mimicking but not acquiring language sounds like survivor’s guilt to me. We mistreated a living being and we deserved to have gained nothing from this. But didn’t Nim show that he could use sign language even in unique combinations? And isn’t language acquisition a mimic of what we are learning in its earliest stage?

As for the earlier experiments, such as Milgram’s, instead of simply condemning it as unethical, would it be possible we look at it as a learning experience that people have the capacity to learn to act differently if the situation should arise again? They might have been lied to and was made to go thought a great deal of distress but I’d believe these subjects, after having gone through Milgram’s experiment, would be more ready to intervene and refuse to take part in other similar situations. To me, the distress is worth it because it will help prevent the actual act of hurting others when we simply think we are following orders.

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Editor of PsycCRITIQUES

Danny Wedding, PhD

Chair of Behavioral Sciences,
College of Medicine,
American University of Antigua

Associate Editors of PsycCRITIQUES

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