Dominance and Science: Lessons from Chimpanzees

At the weekend I saw the film Project Nim, a documentary about the chimpanzee at the center of a language learning experiment at Columbia University in the 1970s. It’s a great film for anthropologists. Not only are these misdirected intellectual endeavors an important part of the history of the discipline, the social universe portrayed in the film raises questions still relevant today about power, authorship and inequality in the knowledge sector.

The film is partly the tragic story of the chimpanzee, Nim, brought up as a human baby in a New York brownstone, breast fed by his `foster mother’ and taught sign language by a succession of young, mostly female, research assistants.

As Nim matures into adult chimphood his massive strength and capacity to bite mean that he can no longer be contained in a human environment without posing considerable risk to the research team. He is returned to the primate facility where he was born, a brutal environment where electric cattle prods are used to control the animals, who are eventually sold on to a medical research laboratory. Campaigning by one of his previous carers and the intervention of a lawyer prepared to extend arguments about human rights to animals raised as human leads to Nim’s eventual rescue and he ends his days in an animal sanctuary where he is ultimately reunited with some of the other chimps from the laboratory.

Nim’s problematic behaviour as he grows up is oriented toward his quest for dominance, the natural behaviour of an adult male chimpanzee. Nim’s carers and the research staff assigned to work with him have to become adept at displaying dominance in the right way or risk serious injury.Dominance matters in other ways not restricted to the social universe of chimpanzees. The film presents a visual snapshot of the hierarchies of power and domination which structured academic life in the 1970s through the relationships between the lead scientist and his junior, mostly female, assistants. The assistants undertake the bulk of the day to day work of experimentation and hand on care for the chimpanzee. The professor does, disseminates and takes credit for the `science’, at one point totally altering his own interpretation of the significance of the experiment. In his view, which differed from that of the people who spent their daily lives interacting with the animal, the inability of chimpanzees to structure sentences grammatically was conclusive proof that they lacked the capacity for language.

Of course, the professor’s narrow definition of language as opposed to a wider concept of communication and the divergences of interpretation are of considerable interest, not least in demonstrating the ways in which the framing of a research object determines the scope of what can be considered findings within a particular scientific paradigm, the kind of narrow cause and effect paradigm we face on our forays into Grantlandia’s uncertain territory. But what struck me about this film was its insight into laboratory life in another era, and the ways in which some things change and some things become institutionalized to the point of being foundational.

The institutionalization of ethical review and changes in the legal framework about experiments on animals in many countries mean that what happened to Nim hopefully could not happen again so easily. I am less certain about the imbalance of power between lead scientists and staff, between seniors and juniors. While the gender dimensions of exploitation exposed in the film may be less prevalent today there is no doubt that current mechanisms for funding and employment in Universities in the UK and the US work to promote the silverback and embed this kind of structural hierarchy.

The move towards funding modalities of large projects modeled on the natural sciences system raises questions for anthropologists who have worked as individual scholars, contributing to team endeavors certainly, but not seeking to produce data on which a lead scientist’ can pronounce. In such situations how do we manage the balance between individual contribution andscientific case’? What are the lines of authorship and ownership between the project leader who holds the funding and researcher in the field? To what extent are conventions of multiple authorship coming in to anthropology as these funding relations alter the social organization of our work? Given the climate in Grantlandia is the future for more of us, especially postdocs, jobbing support to other, often interdisciplinary, projects?


Maia Green works on issues of social transformation in East Africa and the anthropology of international development. She has written on diverse topics ranging from anti-witchcraft practices to the proliferation of NGOs. She teaches at the University of Manchester.

3 thoughts on “Dominance and Science: Lessons from Chimpanzees

  1. Let me defend the collective production in “big science” with a story told to me by a particle physicist who works on projects with 100s of coauthors from labs around the world. They form committees, have vibrant online deliberative democracy, and generally sound like a highly productive variant of collective intellectual production. Contrast this to the model in the humanities, where intellectual production is seen as an individual craft, and ideas are had by isolated genius authors. I’m an economist, and my (normally intensely individualist) discipline is also moving away from lone genius author to big team production, and I think the resulting organization can be either the factory/assembly line with a big guy in charge who takes all the credit, or it can be an egalitarian communal productive endeavor. I wish we could erase the authors entirely, and publish under team names.

  2. My favorite part of this post is how you made the oh so subtle shift in your discussion about dominance/power from chimpanzees to humans. Nice. I wasn’t expecting that.

    “I am less certain about the imbalance of power between lead scientists and staff, between seniors and juniors.”

    Me too. Ironic, considering all those anthropological discussions about power, agency, and inequality, no?

  3. Completely agree with both of you- about co authorship and about inequality. The challenge for our kind of intellectual production is to acknowledge contributions equitably-other disciplines do this better than we do, even in the humanities, and they have different traditions of working with others (note that I am not saying collaboratively). Working and co-writing with others is difficult. We as a discipline may need to develop rules of the game or change current unstated ones- to include a range of possible practices as kinds of authorship for example.

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