When Bedtime for Bonzo wasn’t a comedy

And didn’t star Ronald Reagan opposite a chimp.

On July 8, a documentary on the fate of Nim "Chimpsky" opens in U.S. theatres (trailer). In “Project Nim: A chimp raised like a human” (New Scientist 4 July 2011), Rowan Hooper tackles the question of why:

What on earth were they thinking of? Nim was put in diapers and dressed in clothes. He was breastfed by his human surrogate mother, Stephanie Lafarge. "It seemed natural," she says.Lafarge's daughter, Jenny Lee, has a better explanation: "It was the seventies". Jenny was 10-years-old when Nim came to live with her family. The film, assembled from archive footage shot at the time, recreated scenes and interviews with the main characters, tells the story of Nim's chaotic life.

The  purpose was to show that chimpanzees could learn American Sign Language, under the right conditions, and converse like a human. Nim learned 120 signs, but …

see the film.

The seventies? In context, celebrity skeptic Carl Sagan had written in The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Nature of Human Intelligence (New York: Random House, 1977),

Although a few years ago it would have seemed the most implausible science fiction, it does not appear to me out of the question that, after a few years in such a verbal chimpanzee community, there might emerge the memoirs of the natural history and mental life of a chimpanzee, published in English or Japanese (with perhaps an “as told to” after the byline). (p. 126.)

Skeptic: A person who is prepared to believe just about anything his engineer neighbour would doubt.

See also Evilicious?: Monkeys r’ us prof Marc Hauser barred from Harvard lecture room

Slate reporter muses on Harvard’s recent evolutionary psychology scandal

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Denyse O'Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.

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