A Toxic Brew

Have you ever heard of Ilia Ivanov?  No?  Well, after this posting, you probably won’t forget him.

He was a Russian biologist who, in the mid 1920s, received funding from the Soviet government to carry out a highly bizarre experiment. Ivanov had expertise in artificial insemination and his goal was to hybridize humans and apes.    His exploits are described in the following paper:

Etkind, Alexander.  2008. Beyond eugenics: the forgotten scandal of hybridizing humans and apes. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biol & Biomed Sci vol. 39 issue 2 p. 205-210.

There are many aspects to Ivanov’s work that are quite disturbing.  Some excerpts from this article are found below the fold.

From the state budget, Ivanov received $10,000 to organize a trip to French Guinea to catch the chimps and to start his insemination experiments. He made a long stop in Paris, then visited French Guinea, returned to Moscow for additional money and was back in Kindia, French Guinea, in 1926. Supported by the French governor of Guinea, Ivanov was accompanied by his son and local black servants. Together they successfully caught several live adult chimps. The locals told Ivanov about their fears connected to the apes. From time to time, chimpanzee males raped local women, they said. If such a thing happened, the community forever ostracized the woman. This news confirmed Ivanov’s beliefs in the technical possibility of insemination. However, Ivanov realized that he would not be able to inseminate local women with chimps’ sperm even if he paid them in dollars, which was the initial plan. So he tried other venues. He inseminated chimp females with human sperm, which may have been donated by his son. He also wanted to inseminate black females with ape sperm without their consent, under the pretext of medical examination in the local hospital. The French governor, however, forbade him from carrying out this part of the project. But Ivanov saw no moral problem here. He angrily reported to his sponsors in the Kremlin about the primitive fears of the blacks and the bourgeois prejudices of the French. In Moscow, a special committee of academics and officials considered the issue and ordered Ivanov to abstain from impregnating women without their consent (Faiman, 1991; Shishkin,2003; Rossiianov, 2006).

It’s nice to know that someone on that committee put the brakes on this guy.  To say the least.  In the United State, an atheist organization wanted badly to help fund this work:

The New York Times told Ivanov’s story, relying on sources from the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism (Soviet backs plan to test evolution, 1926). The president of this association, Charles Lee Smith, here asserted that the objective of Ivanov’s experiments in Africa was to accomplish ‘artificial insemination of the human and anthropoid species, to support the doctrine of evolution, by establishing close kinship between man and the higher apes’ (ibid., p. 2). The atheist or, in Bolshevik terms, the anti-religious context of the project had been equally emphasized by Ivanov’s supporters in Russia. But in the America of the 1920s, atheism was hybridized with racism, which produced another bizarre outcome. Speaking on behalf of the Association for the Advancement of Atheism, the lawyer Howell S. England demonstrated insider knowledge of Ivanov’s affairs in Africa and, also, familiarity with the recent achievements of the anthropology of races. First, England expressed his confidence that hybrids between humans and apes can be produced and moreover, would be fertile. Second and more carefully, he stated that, ‘in the event we are successful’, the evolution of humankind would be proved to everyone’s satisfaction. Third, he said that orangutans,chimpanzees, gorillas, and possibly gibbons would be employed in the experiments. Fourth, he developed an essentially new, racist version of the hybridization project. Orangutans should be crossed with humans from the yellow race, gorillas with the black race, and chimpanzees with the white race, proclaimed England. Gibbons would mate, he said, with ‘the more brachycephalic peoples of Europe’ (he probably meant Jews).3 In these conditions, hybrids would be fertile and ‘it would be possible to produce the complete chain of specimens from the perfect anthropoid to the perfect man’. Having unfolded his ideas, England returned to Ivanov and promised to raise money for his activities. In England’s understanding, the project would cost $100,000. The Russian Government gave the first $10,000, after which, prominent American patrons of science were interested, said England.

As it turned out, Ivanov and the Soviets turned down this offer of financial support. We should also note that scientists, as a whole, did not support this work:

Indeed, while the Academy of Sciences reviewed Ivanov’s results in Africa in 1927 and produced a negative verdict, the Communist Academy confirmed its support for the project of hybridization in 1929. Again, different bodies of power responded differently to Ivanov’s project; and again, politicized intellectuals provided their support to Ivanov while scientists withdrew it. The Communist Academy gave Ivanov a new chunk of money, but now this subsidy was counted in rubles. Experiments had to be continued in Sukhumi. Five Soviet women were to be found to take part in these experiments; the Communist Academy required Ivanov to obtain their written consent to be inseminated with sperm from apes. The Academy specifically claimed that these Soviet women should undergo the insemination, pregnancy, and motherhood of the hybrids because of their pure interest in science; they would receive no money for their service to science, though the Primatological Nursery would take care of their needs. Ivanov found the women; at least one enthusiastic letter is available to historians.

Ivanov was never able to complete his work.

Fresh chimps did arrive at the nursery in 1930, but Ivanov was arrested in December of that year. He was exiled to Kazakhstan and died there in 1932. The formula for his arrest, the support of the international bourgeoisie, was standard for this time and had nothing to do with Ivanov’s projects. The Primatological Nursery near Sukhumi outlived its founder. It was populated by apes and monkeys of all kinds, including those who were sent into space in the Sputniks in the 1960s. In 1992 the nursery was closed because of the war between Georgia and Abkhasia.

The author of this article asks:

Why did the Bolsheviks want to hybridize humans and chimps? Why did they want to do it so badly that they gave hard currency to Ivanov when they had little to spare? Why did they allow Ivanov to go abroad when they forbade it to many others? And why did they take public risks connected to this project when they wanted diplomatic recognition and international respect?

He then raises three reasons, where all three were probably in play.

The first explanation, one that the Bolsheviks gave themselves in their governmental documents, was that Ivanov’s success would mean the decisive victory of materialism and atheism. To put it into more familiar words, this hybridization would help in the anti-religious warfare that was waged by Trotsky and his people and was a strategic aim of the government. It would also prove the superiority of Soviet science.

The second explanation adds another bizarre twist to it:

The Bolshevik elite needed apes for a fashionable therapy that was called ‘rejuvenation surgery’. The method had been developed in Paris by the Russian-born doctor Sergei Voronov (1866–1951), a member of the College de France. In this therapy, the sex glands of male chimps, sliced into parts, were implanted in men’s bodies with the expectation of a quick and dramatic improvement in their functioning: ‘Blood pressure diminishes, sight improves, metabolism is intensified, muscles regain their spring, and new hair grows’ as the London Times reported in 1923 of Voronov’s successes (Voronoff & Steinach, 1923; see also Ape-child?, 1926; Hamilton, 1986; Hirshbein, 2000).

Apparently, the human-ape hybrids were to be bred so Soviet elites could harvest their organs in to create some pseudoscientific fountain-of-youth.

Finally, the third reason has to do with eugenics.  It was also thought that by creating and experimenting with these hybrids, a “new man” could be formed:

The New Soviet Man was to be shaped by methods of positive eugenics, artificial insemination, and state-organized psychological transformation. Hybridization with apes was just an extreme point of the same program.

So there you have it.  A toxic brew of atheism, science, pseudoscience, eugenics, elitism, and racism all converging on one goal – to create a human-ape hybrid.

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