Dr Itard reads about the boy and brings him to Paris to be the subject of his own experiment in nature and nurture, to see whether a child of around 11 can be transformed by education from a near-animal into a civilised man.
At first, there are many parallels in the behaviour of the boy, whom the doctor names ‘Victor’, and that of Nim.
It is an ideal that sits well in their hippy era and milieu.
Unfortunately for them, a chimpanzee is not a child.
Both—in strikingly parallel scenes—love to be wheeled around at high speed, Nim in a child’s pushchair and Victor in a wheelbarrow.
But there are vital differences in the two experiments.
As well as criticising human willingness to treat animals as experimental subjects, Project Nim draws implicit parallels between Nim’s behaviour and that of the humans studying him.
It takes care not to elevate Nim to human status, but it does, at times, reduce the humans to primate social groups, with dominant males and nurturing females.
And when Herb removes the chimp, and puts Nim in the care of attractive 18-year-old student Laura-Ann Pettito, the human dynamics continue to overshadow the scientific study of an ape learning sign language. If they can teach a chimpanzee to communicate, they can find out how it ‘thinks’.
They are well aware of how radical an idea this is, a potential breaking down of the barrier between humans and animals.