Blurred Lines, Part III: The Mad Russian Attempt to Breed Humans with Apes

Part I here.

Part II here.

Part III

OUT OF TIME and out of money, Ilya Ivanov decamped from Africa without accomplishing his goal of breeding a human-ape hybrid. He was tired, but not disheartened, and back home in the Soviet Union he prepared to orchestrate one final effort. But this time things would be different. In Africa he had tried to inseminate chimpanzees with human sperm, but it hadn’t worked. Chimpanzees were too difficult to work with. They were too violent, too unpredictable, and too expensive. So Ivanov opted for some role reversal. Instead of working with chimpanzee females, he would use the sperm of a male ape to try and impregnate a human woman.

In truth, this may have been Ivanov’s original plan. In the early 1920s, prior to his African expedition, Ivanov corresponded regularly with a man named Serge Voronoff. Voronoff, a French-Russian surgeon, was the doctor of choice for the rich-and-famous who crowded the French Riveria in the 20s. His specialization was “rejuvenation”: the ability to prevent and even reverse the aging process. “Rejuvenation” hinged on a technique called xenotransplantation: the transfer of tissue or organs from an individual of one species to an individual of another species. It could be the future of organ transplanting.

So in a way, Voronoff was a trend-setter, decades ahead of his time. And in another way, he was a weird guy. Voronoff ‘s primary rejuvenation technique involved harvesting testicular tissue from chimpanzees, and grafting it onto human patients. According to the good doctor, xenotransplantation increased the sex drive and prevented aging. Yes, in the 1920s celebrities in search of the proverbial Fountain of Youth surgically attached chimpanzee testicle tissue to their bodies. Before we judge them, consider that it was probably healthier than the Botox of today (though not for the chimpanzees).

The French Riviera: movie stars, white sand beaches...chimpanzee testicle grafts? Credit: travelnostalgia.com

The French Riviera: movie stars, white sand beaches…chimpanzee testicle grafts? Credit: travelnostalgia.com

Owing to his peculiar career choice, Voronoff was an expert in the reproductive systems of apes, and Ivanov was curious if it would be possible to obtain chimpanzee sperm that could be used to inseminate humans. The idea interested Ivanov, but both he and Ivanov were leery of the public condemnation that had cut short Hermann Moen’s efforts ten years earlier. Eventually, nothing came of their collaboration. But Ivanov would revisit the ideas after his failed efforts in Africa.

Back in the Soviet Union, Ivanov installed himself in the city of Sukhumi (now in Georgia), and opened the first Soviet primate research station. He then set about developing a new experiment. Unfortunately for him, the Soviet Academy of Sciences rescinded their support. They were happy to help with hybridization experiments that involved inseminating apes, but were repulsed by the ideas of impregnating humans. Ivanov lost his funding, and began to rely solely on the patronage of wealthy supporters. Undeterred, Ivanov and his coterie of patrons forged ahead. First, they located an ape, a 26 year-old orangutan named Tarzan. Then they began soliciting for human participants.

Sukhumi is just down the tracks from Sochi, if you happen to be in Russia for the Olympics. But please don't read this as a recommendation for the trip.

Sukhumi is just down the tracks from Sochi, if you happen to be in Russia for the Olympics. But please don’t read this as being a recommendation for the trip.

Ivanov and his funders settled on trying to “attract the participation of women whose interest would be or idealistic and not of monetary nature.” They looked for volunteers dedicated to the cause of science — both because they thought volunteers would be more agreeable, and also (more practically) because money was tight.

And while they didn’t appear in droves, they did appear. Wrote one volunteer from Leningrad: “Dear Professor, …With my private life in ruins, I don’t see any sense in my further existence…. But when I think that I could do service for science, I feel enough courage to contact you. I beg you, don’t refuse me …. I ask you to accept me for the experiment.”

This eager volunteer, named only G., exchanged letters regularly with Ivanov and he planned to use her in his experiments. But then disaster struck. Tarzan died of a brain hemorrhage, and the institute at Sukhumi was left scrambling for a replacement male. They located five male chimpanzees at other research institutes, and prepared to have them shipped to Sukhumi the following summer.

Unfortunately for Ivanov, the political ideology of the Soviet Union, always unstable, had shifted beneath his feet and below his awareness. His break with the Academy of Sciences over the continued hybridization experiments had incensed some party members and his work on artificial insemination in agriculture was criticized (groundlessly — this was one area where Ivanov was by any account a brilliant scientist) by aggressive young communists. Increasingly, he was viewed as a relic whose particular brand of science did not march in lock step with the Cultural Revolution.

Soviet science was down for lots of weird stuff, but even they drew the line at inseminating a woman with orangutan sperm. It's important to have boundaries.

Soviet science was down for lots of weird stuff, but even they drew the line at inseminating a woman with orangutan sperm. It’s important to have boundaries.

On December 13th 1930, Ilya Ivanov was arrested by the secret police, convicted of counterrevolutionary activities, and exiled to Kazahkstan. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his main accuser took over most of Ivanov’s recently vacated professional positions — including the head of the Soviet Veterinary Institute.

Two years later, the tides shifted again, and Ivanov’s exile was commuted. But by then it was too late. Disheartened by seeing his life’s work in shambles, feeling betrayed by his government, and punished by life in a Kazahk prison, Ivanov’s health had deteriorated beyond help. On March 20th, 1932, Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov died of a stroke — one day prior to his scheduled release.

A few years here took a fatal toll on Ivanov's health.

A few years here took a fatal toll on Ivanov’s health.

Ivanov’s legacy is a strange one. The primate station he founded at Sukhumi went on to become one of the premier primatology research stations in the world until it closed down in 1992 during post-Soviet violence.  Artificial insemination of primates was not attempted again for nearly 50 years, when it began to be used for the captive breeding of endangered species. His efforts at primate hybridization were forgotten, so much so that in 1971, Geoffrey Bourne, the director of the Yerkes Primate Center in Atlanta wrote: “It is surprising that this type of hybridization [human and ape] has not in fact already taken place.”

Perhaps Bourne should brush up on his Russian.

Neil Griffin

References

Bourne, GH. 1971. The Ape People. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Rossiianov K. 2002. Beyond Species: Il’ya Ivanov and His Experiments on Cross-Breeding Humans with Anthropoid Apes. Science in Context 15(2): 277-316.

Sorenson, J. 2009. Ape. Reaktion Books.

Yerkes, Robert. 1925. Almost Humans. New York: Century

Blurred Lines, Part II: The Mad Russian Attempt to Breed Humans With Apes

Part I available here.

Part II

UPON ARRIVING in the African city of Conakry to fulfill his ambition of creating an ape-human hybrid, Professor Illya Ivanovich Ivanov faced an immediate problem: locating apes suitable for his work.

Acquiring apes for captive research has always been difficult. The ape species — gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans — live in tropical countries that have historically been difficult to access. Getting into, and maneuvering through, a rainforest is an exercise in sweaty frustration. And that’s even with modern vaccinations and prophylactics. It’s difficult enough camping in the rainforest when you’re protected against malaria, carry de-worming pills, and have enough Pepto-Bismol to constipate a small nation. Prior to these inventions, tropical travel (at least by white-folk) was a calling restricted to maniacally focused, often egotistical, and frequently deranged individuals.[1]

A tropical field workers best friend.

A tropical field worker’s best friend.

Even once explorers had entered a forest, locating apes was no mean task. Dense vegetation and low light limited vision, and the cacophony of rainforest life was overwhelming. Adult apes are too big and too dangerous to capture, so hunters preferred infants. But that meant killing large, angry adults. This is (rightfully) considered barbaric today (as is capturing wild apes for captive research in general), but in the early 20th century it was accepted.

Accepted, but not commonplace. The costs associated with mounting an expedition, capturing apes, and returning them to a laboratory in a cold, unsuitable European climate were enormous. Even if successful, most captives only lived a few years. Sourcing apes was a significant challenge for a scientist, even one with the backing of the Soviet government. Ivanov had already tried acquiring chimpanzees from an anthropoid research station in French Africa and a private ‘collection’ in Cuba. With the help of a Detroit lawyer and the American Society for the Advancement of Atheism, he even tried to raise funds from American philanthropists to buy a chimpanzee. None of these efforts worked. But in Conakry, Ivanov thought he had uncovered a solution.

The Botanical Gardens in Cayemmene. Credit: austinfeildersdiary.com

The Botanical Gardens in Camayenne. Credit: austinfeildersdiary.com

On the outskirts of Conakry lies Camayenne.  Now a suburb of Conakry, in 1927 Camayenne was a separate town, well known for its expansive Botanical Gardens. The Botanical Gardens had the facilities, laboratory space, and holding cages necessary for Ivanov to complete his work. At the behest of the governor of French Guinea, Ivanov was granted access to a two-story building in the Botanical Gardens, and given both the permits and the manpower needed to capture chimpanzees.

In short order Ivanov mobilized two hunting expeditions into the Fouta-Djallon, a mountainous highland region in the centre of French Guinea. With the aid of local hunters, he captured 13 captive chimpanzees and brought them back to his base in the Camayenne Botanical Gardens. He was ready to begin his experiments. But there was a problem.

The Fouta Djallon region of Guinea.

The Fouta Djallon region of Guinea.

The Botanical Gardens were staffed by French Guineans. They cleaned the cages, fed and watered the chimpanzees, and maintained the grounds. It was a job — and probably not a bad one. But they were not fond of the idea behind hybridization experiments. In his diaries, Ivanov speculated that this discomfort was because “The Negroes treat the apes and, in particular the chimpanzees, as an inferior human race.” Ivanov argues, within the racist mindframe of the 1920s, that native Africans were uncomfortable with his experiments because it reminded them of how similar they were to apes (read: much more similar than white people).

Personally, I suspect they were uncomfortable because a) they realized it was more than a little weird, and b) they probably weren’t fond of the racist assumption that the ‘savage’ Africans were basically chimpanzees in clothes.

But neither of those possibilities seemed to have occurred to Ivanov.

Ivanov felt he had to hide his activities from the groundskeepers and caretakers. To do so, he engaged in what must be one of the most bizarre acts of scientific subterfuge in history. One morning, when the research lab was unoccupied, he stole into it with vials of sperm in his pocket, intent on inseminating two female chimpanzees, named Babette and Syvette. With the help of his son (great father-son bonding, Ivanov), he managed to inseminate both females and sneak out before the morning caretakers arrived.

A female chimpanzee. She would likely be unimpressed with Ivanov's research. Credit: flickr user paldor.

A female chimpanzee. She would likely be unimpressed with Ivanov’s research. Credit: flickr user paldor.

Who was the donor for these seminal[2] experiments? Ivanov’s notes are quite detailed about the quality of the sperm, but not about the source. It was “not completely fresh, but approximately 40 per cent of spermatozoa were movable.” Whose sperm was Ivanov acquiring so that it was partially fresh at 8 a.m.? His notes indicate that neither he, nor his son, were the donor. So we’re left to wonder. One of the great questions of science, which sadly, goes unanswered.

Ivanov succeeded in surreptitiously inseminating the two apes, but hastily and sloppily, and both attempts failed: Babette and Syvette both had their periods in the next month.

Not to be deterred, Ivanov tried again when the opportunity arose a few months later. This time he was clearer about the sperm donor (perhaps realizing that, if he wanted to publish his research, a reviewer would certainly ask). In this second attempt, the sperm was “freshly collected from a man of thirty years old.” Lest we doubt the virility of the donor, Ivanov writes the man was a bachelor, “but, according to his claims there already have been conceptions from him.”

Again, the attempt failed. In six months in Africa, Ivanov had only two opportunities to inseminate the female chimpanzees, and neither of them was successful. That’s not particularly surprising as the rates of artificial insemination were low — hovering around 30%.  Ivanov needed more chimpanzees, and more time, but neither was available.

My own illegible research notes (sadly lacking in insane ideas).

My own illegible research notes (sadly lacking in insane ideas).

Discouraged but not dissuaded, Ivanov, like a good scientist, rummaged through his research notes and uncovered a new angle of attack. Chimpanzees, he decided, were difficult to acquire, expensive to keep, and finicky to work with. Humans, on the other hand, were pliable, plentiful, and cheaply available. Why focus on having a plethora of female chimpanzees and one human male, when the other way around was cheaper?

Excited by this realization, Ivanov began making preparations for one more attempt at cross-breeding humans and apes: he would inseminate human women with ape sperm.

Part III here.

References

Rossiianov K. 2002. Beyond Species: Il’ya Ivanov and His Experiments on Cross-Breeding Humans with Anthropoid Apes. Science in Context 15(2): 277-316.

Sorenson, J. 2009. Ape. Reaktion Books.

Yerkes, Robert. 1925. Almost Humans. New York: Century


[1] Also a description of the average university anthropology department.

[2] Sorry.

HG Wells' "The Island of Dr. Moreau". Missing here is Val Kilmer chewing up the scenery in the 1996 film version.

Blurred Lines: The Mad Russian Attempt to Breed Humans with Apes, Part I

Part I.

FEBRUARY, 1926. Professor Illya Ivanovich Ivanov stepped delicately onto the gangway leading from the steamship down to the bustling dock of the West African city of Conakry. After weeks at sea he had finally escaped the chill grey of a Russian winter and landed in warmer climes. Behind him the crew of the ship were working rapidly to unload their cargo: seeking to discharge their duties as soon as possible so that they might make for the brothels and bars that lined the dirty streets around the port. Ivanov looked eager too. However it wasn’t prostitutes and booze that had whetted his appetite, but the prospect of seeing a project close to his heart come to its culmination. After nearly 20 years of effort, he hoped that in this small colonial city he would be able to fulfill his dream of breeding an ape with a human to create a new hybrid species.

Ilya Ivanov in 1927, shortly after his trip to Africa.

Ilya Ivanov in 1927, shortly after his trip to Africa.

Hybridization between apes and humans has long been a fascination of science fiction writers and naturalists. Classic novels like The Island of Dr Moreau by HG Wells, and more contemporary sci-fi like Michael Crichton’s Congo both contain at their centre examples of human-ape hybrids with the intelligence of a human, and the strength of an ape.

Scientific researchers also encouraged the blurring of any ape-human boundary, though for more prosaic reasons. Keeping and studying apes in captivity was expensive (just as studying primates in the wild is expensive today), but by connecting ape biology to human biology researchers were able to secure the large sums of money they needed. (An activity that still takes place in primatology departments today: “How can I convince a funding agency that my research on flower-eating in monkeys is related to human evolution so I can get money?”)[1].

HG Wells' "The Island of Dr. Moreau". Missing here is Val Kilmer chewing up the scenery in the 1996 film version.

HG Wells’ “The Island of Dr. Moreau”. Missing here is Val Kilmer chewing up the scenery, as he did in the 1996 film version.

The interest in blurring that boundary peaked in a very literal way in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, under the supervision of Illya Ivanov.

Ivanov was born in 1870 in Kursk, Russia. With an interest in bacteriology and physiology, by the time he was 30 Ivanov had become an internationally recognized expert in artificial insemination — moving it from a laboratory curiosity to a legitimate tool of veterinarians and animal breeders. His success, coupled with a new government focused on rapid modernization, made Ivanov a scientific superstar, and gave him access to the funding and support necessary to open his own research lab.

With a new lab,and government support, Ivanov was able to return to his research roots. His work on artificial insemination had been a side-interest: a challenge he found technical interesting, but not intellectually stimulating. Ivanov’s real interest was in the physiology of reproduction and experimental biology. Specifically, he was interested in the creation of animal hybrids, especially the tantalizing possibility of crossing a human with an ape.

Ivanov wasn’t the first scientist to develop in interest in ape-human hybrids. In 1908, the same year Ivanov was establishing his first laboratory, the Dutch zoologist Hermann Marie Bernelot Moens proposed inseminating female chimpanzees with human sperm. His idea was supported by the Institut Pasteur in Paris (better known for its efforts combating infectious disease), and enthusiastically championed by the developmental biologist and evolution expert Ernst Haeckel. Unfortunately for Moens, the support of the scientists did not carry over into popular society. When he published a short book in 1908 outlining his research plan and asking for funding, a morally outraged public condemned the idea, and Moens’ plan died on the spot.[2]

Hermann Moens.

Hermann Moens.

The scientific discussion of ape-human hybrids disappeared from the public eye, but continued unabated in obscure conferences and by quiet correspondence. In 1910, at a conference in Graz, Ivanov gave a talk on the theoretical possibility of using human sperm to inseminate a female ape. But, lacking funding, a colony of captive apes, and government support, the idea slipped to the back-burner until the Russian Revolution of 1917.

The Russian Revolution gave Ivanov access to something Moens did not: a government capable of covering up, ignoring, or suppressing any sort of moral outrage, and the financial backbone necessary to make things happen. In the new Soviet government, he had a governmental apparatus that found his ideas interesting, and his research worth funding. (According to an unsourced article in The Scotsman, that interest came straight from the top: allegedly, Joseph Stalin was interested in the possibility of creating an army of ape-human warriors).

Planet-of-the-Apes-1968-movies-14704094-1920-811

The end result of ape-human experiments, if Stalin had it his way.

More realistically, the Soviet government saw Ivanov’s ideas as potential dynamite in their ideological war. The project, wrote the Commissariat of Agriculture, could provide “a decisive blow to religious teachings, and may be aptly used in our propaganda and in our struggle for the liberation of working people from the power of the Church.” If Ivanov could prove that humans and apes could interbreed, the uniqueness of humans as taught by religion would be undermined, leaving a void for Soviet materialism to fill. With this in mind, on September 21st 1925, the Soviet government’s Financial Commission awarded Ivanov $10, 000 for “the realization of scientific work on the hybridization of anthropoid apes in Africa.”

Five months later, Illya Ivanovich Ivanov was on his way to Africa to realize a project he had been developing for nearly 20 years — breeding humans with apes.

Part II to follow.

References

Rossiianov K. 2002. Beyond Species: Il’ya Ivanov and His Experiments on Cross-Breeding Humans with Anthropoid Apes. Science in Context 15(2): 277-316.

Sorenson, J. 2009. Ape. Reaktion Books.

Stephen, C and A Hall. ’Super-Troopers: Stalin Wanted Planet of the Apes-like Troops, Insensitive to Pain and Hardship’. The Scotsman, 20 December 2005.


[1] I couldn’t (because it isn’t).

[2] Moen, and later Ivanov, spent shockingly little time discussing the ethics of their shared dream. Perhaps its a good thing that, in this case, the non-scientific public was there to do it for them.

The Roots of Red Riding Hood

If you grew up in the West, odds are you have at least a passing familiarity with Grimm’s Fairy Tales (or at least the sanitized and castrated versions presented by Disney). One of the most enduring of these folktales is Little Red Riding Hood — the story of a little girl in a cap or cape that delivers treats to her grandmother in the deep, dark forest, is tricked by a wolf, and ultimately saved by a lumberjack.

A Red Riding Hood woodcut by Gustave Dore.

A Red Riding Hood woodcut by Gustave Dore.

The story has been told and retold: as a tale of stranger danger, ritual rebirth (and more recently), sexual awakening.[1] But despite its ubiquity and familiarity, the roots of Red Riding Hood have sometimes been obscure. The earliest known written version dates to 17th century France were it was included in the Histories et contes du temps passé, avece des moralitiés. Contes de ma mère l’Oye,[2] a collection of French folktales, by Charles Perrault. In Perrault’s version, the wolf eats Red Riding Hood, and no lumberjack appears to save her — and the moral of the story is that children shouldn’t listen to strangers.

But the story existed in Europe as an oral tradition long before Perrault’s written version, and an 11th century Latin poem from Liège in Belgium hints at an earlier version of it. The story also exists in similar form in parts of Asia and Africa, but the relationship between those versions and the European tale has been uncertain, until a paper published recently tried to shine some light on the situation.

Using phylogenetic analysis, Jamshid Tehrani at Durham University in the UK tried to understand the relationship between different strains of Red Riding Hood tales, and how they related to a similar story, “The Wolf and the Kids” (one of Aesop’s fables).

Phylogenetic analysis is a tool use by evolutionary biologists to determine the relationship between animal species. Using shared characteristics, and a few simple rules; it calculates the most likely evolutionary path a group of species may have taken to reach its current arrangement. It’s a useful tool for evolutionary biologists, but also for anthropologists and linguists interested in understanding the cultural evolution of folktales and languages.

An example of a phylogenetic tree, detailing broadly the evolution of life.

An example of a phylogenetic tree, detailing broadly the evolution of life.

In his study, Tehrani took 58 variants on the Red Riding Hood and “Wolf and the Kid” folktales from around the world, and analyzed them using 72 plot variables (for example: did the victim escape? gender of the protagonist? type of villain?).

His results suggest that these folktales can be split into international “types”. Red Riding Hood-type tales are common in Europe, but virtually non-existent in Africa, where “Wolf and the Kid” are more frequently told[3] (although the ‘wolf’ in question tends to be an ogre — the names of the archetypes are based on European traditions, as most scholarly analysis of folktales has been centered in-and-around Europe).

The story varients used in Tehrani's study. Note the lonely red dot in Nigeria, signifying a 'Red Riding Hood' variant.

The story variants used in Tehrani’s study. Note the lonely red dot in Nigeria, signifying a ‘Red Riding Hood’ variant. Credit: Tehrani 2013

The Asian “type” though, is different altogether. It doesn’t show a distinct difference between the two story types — Red Riding Hood stories and “Wolf and the Kid” stories co-exist, and overlap with one another significantly. One interpretation of this is that this combined story is the original, ancestral folktale that gave rise to both Red Riding Hood and “Wolf and the Kid” stories — that is, that European folktales were actually born in Asia, and then transmitted across the continent by trade, before they arrived in Europe and diverged into the two types of story we know today.

That would be a fun re-telling of Western folkloric history, but unfortunately, we know that “Wolf and the Kid” stories date back to at least 400 AD, and the “Out of Asia” hypothesis wouldn’t have taken place until at least the 12th century.

A phylogenetic tree showing different 'types'. The red shows the European "Red Riding Hood stories". Blue is the Africa "Wolf and Kid" variants, and purple are the Asian hybrid stories. Credit: Tehrani 2013.

A phylogenetic tree showing different ‘types’. The red shows the European “Red Riding Hood stories”. Blue and green are the African “Wolf and Kid” variants, and purple are the Asian hybrid stories. Credit: Tehrani 2013.

Two other, more reasonable hypotheses are that an ancient version of the Red Riding Hood story, perhaps earlier even than the Latin poem at Liège, travelled from Europe to Asia. Or — more exciting, to my mind — the stories had an independent origin in both Europe and Asia. Rather than descending from a shared ancestor, these international “types” may have evolved independently — by convergent evolution, rather than shared homologies.

Story telling is a quintessentially human activity. If ever you were looking for a trait that separated humans from other animals, you’d be hard-pressed to find something more distinctly Homo sapiens then sitting around a campfire, radio, or television, enjoying the shared experience of an utterly fabricated tale. Tehrani’s research on the roots of Red Riding Hood highlight that story-telling nature: whether evolved independently, or transmitted across the globe by caravan and merchant-ship, diverse populations of humans have been telling and re-telling the same tales for centuries.

So next time you tell your children, or nieces and nephews, the story of Red Riding Hood, stop and consider for a second that you’re continuing on a global tradition that has been shared, day-in and day-out, for hundreds of years. That’s pretty cool.

Story telling is one of our 'most human' traits, and it's pretty ancient.

Story telling is one of our ‘most human’ traits, and it’s pretty ancient.

References

Tehrani, Jamshid J. 2013. “The Phylogeny of Little Red Riding Hood.” Edited by R. Alexander Bentley. PLoS ONE 8 (11) (November 13): e78871. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0078871.


[1] One of my favourite retellings, sympathetic to the wolf, is found in Sara Maitland’s book-length meditation on forests and folktales, Gossip from the Forest.

[2] Book titles used to be a little longer.

[3] One exception, visible on the map, is the Igbo in Nigeria, who tell a version of the Red Riding Hood tale. Tehrani speculates that this is an Igbo re-telling of a European folktale, transmitted to the area via sea-trading.

Why are Mammals Called Mammals: Breasts, A Swede, and the French Revolution

Why are mammals called mammals? The answer, which your biology textbook won’t tell you, is because a fussy scientist in the 18th century held very strong feelings about breasts.

The fussy scientist in question was Carl Linnaeus, who I’ve covered in some detail before. Linnaeus was a Swedish biologist with a life-consuming passion for classification. He invented a system of scientific naming called binomial nomenclature, which is still used today. Binomial nomenclature gives every species on Earth a two part name, consisting of a genus and species. These two part names are then structured into a hierarchy based on shared physical traits, creating the hierarchical system of naming you might’ve learned in grade school: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species.

Born Carl von Linne, changed his name to Carolus Linnaeus 'cause he loved his own system that much.

Born Carl von Linne, changed his name to Carolus Linnaeus ’cause he loved his own system that much.

This system allows taxonomists to easily compare relative relatedness among different species, and gives every species on Earth a unique identifier. For example, humans:

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Primates
Family: Hominidae
Genus: Homo
Species: Sapiens

Linnaeus’s crowning achievement though was not necessarily the creation of this system, but his fanatical implementation of it. Over the course of his career, he named and classified some 4,400 species of animals, and nearly 8,000 species of plants. These names were collected in the Systema Naturae, a mammoth book which, by forcing itself into the public and scientific conscience, forever codified Linnaean taxonomy as “the way things are done.”

Linnaeus’s self-appointed position of “Namer-in-Chief” also gave him great power, which, as we all know, comes with great responsibility. Generally Linnaeus’s decisions were uncontroversial and immediately accepted. Birds, for example, where placed in the class Aves – simply Latin for ‘bird’. (Or I should I say bird is English for Aves?).

That’s not to say Linnaeus was above a little bit of fun. Being the arbiter of names also gave him ample opportunity for revenging himself upon his enemies. For example, Linnaeus named the small, ugly plant Siegesbeckia after a scientist who had criticised him.

It's pretty ugly. Credit:

It’s pretty ugly. Credit: M. Belov.

Passive aggressive? Perhaps. But also a compelling reason not to cross him — lest you be forever associated with a noxious smelling weed.

But Linnaeus’s most curious, most controversial, and most political-driven choice was in the naming of the class we now call ‘mammals’. Naming this particular group of animals has proven tricky ever since Aristotle first took a stab at it, and despite various deviations, that first Aristotelian attempt – Quadrupedia – stood until Linnaeus came along and opted to change it.

Linnaeus included two groups – whales and humans – in the Quadrupedia which made that name incompatible with the general theme, so he had to change the name. Natural historians had a few suggestions, based on physical traits shared by all animals of that grouping. Pilosa, they suggested, “the hairy ones”; or Aurecaviga, “the hollow-eared ones”. More recent anatomical research suggests that Neocorticia “the ones with a neocortex” would be appropriate too. But Linnaeus choose a different name, Mammalia – “the ones with breasts.” Specifically, the ones with mammary glands.

Breasts (meaning here, mammary glands), while undeniably a shared trait among a large group of animals, are a curious choice. They are present in only one-half of individuals (females), and even then are biologically functional for a relatively small portion of the time (lactation). In many mammals, they are shrunken and heavily reduced outside of pregnancy and lactation. For example, platypus and echidna do not have breasts, and instead have highly reduced internal mammary glands which exude milk through the animal’s skin during lactation. In the face of the ubiquity of hair, or the acknowledged anatomical fact of the three inner ear bones, mammary glands seemed to some biologists to be a strange choice of name.

Not 100% accurate, but reasonable enough. Credit: davezilla.com

Not 100% accurate, but reasonable enough. Credit: davezilla.com

But Linnaeus had his reasons — which may have been rooted in the gender politics of the 18th century.

The 18th century was awash in breasts — the maternal breast, in particular. Prior to the 18th century, the ideal breast was the sort found on Greek and Roman statues: high, round, young and decidedly unmotherly. A virginal breast. But in the 18th century, the maternal breast proved resurgent, rising in fascination in the culture of 18th century Europe. Its peak, perhaps, came during the French Revolution, when a maternal breast, heavy with milk, became a symbol used by delegates to the French National Convention.

Prior to the 18th century in Europe, you were likely to see this. Credit: Met. Museum of Art

Prior to the 18th century in Europe, you were likely to see this… Statue of Aphrodite. Credit: Met. Museum of Art

Unfortunately for women, what that flag was meant to symbolize was a return to ‘nature’ — and nature, in a society where the terms of citizenship were determined by men — meant a system where women were denied political agency, forbidden citizenship, and confined solely to a life at home. Breasts were used as a symbol to “legitimize the sexual division of labor in European society”, writes historian Londa Schiebinger. Philosophers, politicians, and natural historians (unsurprisingly, all men) used the breast, and the act of breast-feeding, to argue that women’s proper place was in the home.

But not so much this. Nami Island, Korea. Credit: fie-nuts.net

But not so much this. Nami Island, Korea. Credit: fie-nuts.net

In particular, they took issue with the common practice among upper and middle-class women of wet-nursing. Wet-nursing most commonly involved a wealthy mother having her offspring nursed by a poor woman who had lost her own infant, but was still lactating. Wet-nursing was a hotly debated issue. There was some evidence that it contributed to increased infant mortality, but it also allowed women the choice of continuing in public life while still having a newborn. It was also a useful source of income for poor women, who were paid for their time. The important thing was that women generally had a say: they could use a wet-nurse, or nurse their own offspring — they were given a choice.

Wet-nursing was unpopular with (male) commentators, including Linnaeus. As a practicing physician, and a firm believer in nursing by the mother, he published tracts condemning women who used wet-nurses. In writings that predated his System Naturae, Linnaeus contrasted ‘wicked’ wet-nursing with a wholesome and loving animal mother – whales, lions, tigers – that nursed their own young. Predicting our own contemporary specious arguments about poor people making poor parents, Linnaeus argued that the milk of lower-class wet-nurses could corrupt infants.

Erasmus Darwin (Chuck's granddad) once argued that cause of Caligula's nuttiness was being wet-nursed by a poor woman. Linnaeus quotes him appreciatively.

Erasmus Darwin (Chuck’s granddad) once argued that cause of Caligula’s nuttiness was being wet-nursed by a poor woman. Linnaeus quotes him appreciatively.

Linnaeus wrote strongly, and frequently, about the ‘natural’ role of women as a stay-at-home mom. In a heady culture rife with arguments over the meaning of nature, sexual division of labour, and whether or not women were deserving of citizenship and equal treatment under the law, is it any wonder that he chose Mammalia as a name? Schiebinger writes that Linnaeus “sought to render nature universally comprehensible, yet the categories he devised infused nature with middle-class European notions of gender.”

If you ask a biologist now why mammals are called mammals, they will likely tell you its because of the presence of mammary glands. But the underlying history — why mammary glands were chosen as the signifier instead of another shared trait — is less widely known. But that history is important as a reminder that science, no matter how much it would conceive of itself as disinterested and objective, can be, and often is, political.

References

Koerner, Lisbett. 2001. Linnaeus: Nature and Nation
Schiebinger, Londa. 1991. “The Private Life of Plants: Sexual Politics in Carl Linnaeus and Erasmus Darwin.” in Science and Sensibility.
Schiebinger, Londa. 1993. “Why Mammals Are Called Mammals: Gender Politics in Eighteenth-century Natural History.” The American Historical Review 98 (2): 382–411.

PS: Fun fact: mammalogy, “the study of mammals,” doesn’t mean what it thinks it means. The actual study of mammals would be “mammalology”. Mammalogy just means “the study of breasts.” I couldn’t find anywhere to include that naturally above, but since I live with a mammalogist, I felt obligated to include it here.

Hot Boys, Cool Girls, and the Fate of a Living Fossil

Imagine if the sex of your unborn offspring was determined by the climate you lived in while pregnant. Vacation in Cabo? Guaranteed son. Visiting the Northern lights? You’re having a daughter. This method of sex determination would play havoc with human sex ratios: countries like India and China, already on the verge of sex-ratio breakdown would become even more male-dominated, while Canada and the Scandinavian countries would swing towards a female majority (and given the general state of the world when men have been in charge, that’s a fairly appealing thought).

But sadly that’s not how sex determination works in humans — instead it’s a 50-50 chance based on whether the sperm fastest to the egg carries a male chromosome or a female chromosome. However, it is how sex is determined in lizards and crocodiles,[1] which might prove to be a bit of a problem as the worlds climate changes for the warmer.

When mating season comes, and reptile hormones are all in a tizzy, males donate a packet of sperm to a female, which is stored in her cloaca (how romantic). She then uses this sperm to fertilize eggs, and bury them in a nest for incubation. Lizard moms manipulate the sex ratio of their offspring by choosing where to build a nest: if they want more females, they will build a deeper nest in cooler areas — if they want sons, they build a shallow nest in warm habitats.

A doting mom.

A doting Nile crocodile mom.

Why exactly this method of sex determination has evolved is up for debate. Some research indicates that it may be the ancestral state for all amniote vertebrates (animals which lay eggs on land), dating back around 300 million years. It may continue to exist in lizards, crocodiles, and turtles because it is adaptively neutral — that is, it doesn’t necessary convey a great evolutionary advantage, but it also isn’t disadvantageous.

Other scientists argue that temperature-dependent sex determination (TSD) ensures that regardless of the climate or seasonal conditions, the sex best able to cope will hatch. For example, the spotted skink in Tasmania uses TSD: cool incubation temperatures lead to male offspring, and warm incubation temperatures lead to female offspring. In order for newborn female skinks to survive winter, they need ample amounts of time to grow during the summer. Having a brood of female skinks late in the breeding season is a bad idea: they won’t have time to grow, and will likely die over winter, meaning a wasted breeding season for mum. However, because of TSD, this doesn’t happen – females hatch only early in the summer, when temperatures are warm. As the average temperature cools down in mid- and late-summer, any egg laid hatch as males. No matter what time a clutch of eggs is laid, TSD makes sure that the sex that appears is the one best able to survive.

The Tasman spotted skink. Credit: Parks and Wildlife, Tasmania

The Tasman spotted skink. Credit: Parks and Wildlife, Tasmania

Unfortunately, this can backfire if the climate moves out of the ranges in which that behaviour has evolved to be adaptive (the evolutionary trap that also affects sea turtle behaviour — a behaviour that was previously beneficial becomes negative in light of recent, rapid changes). That’s the possible fate facing the tuatara.

The tuatara is a New Zealand reptile that looks like a lizard, but isn’t. Instead, it is the only living member of an ancient order of reptiles, the Rhynochocephalia, which reached its peak 200 million years ago. Anatomically, they are the most unspecialized amniote, and researchers think they may be good models for understanding the behaviour of dinosaurs. They don’t reach sexual maturity until they’re 20, and can live until well over 100. For millennia they were widespread across New Zealand, until the introduction of rats and cats as invasive predators led to a dramatic decline in their numbers, and eventually extirpation from the main islands. Currently, the tuatara survives in relic populations on the small islands of New Zealand which have never been colonized by predatory mammals.

Looks like a lizard...but isn't.

Looks like a lizard…but isn’t.

But even if it can survive the rats, cats, and minuscule gene pool, climate change might get it. Tuatara sex is determined by temperature — warm temperatures lead to males, cool temperatures to females. Like in other TSD species, to some degree the effect of air temperature can be mitigated by changing nest depth. Digging a deeper nest can, in theory, counter-balance increased solar radiation or air temperature to maintain a balanced sex ratio. Unfortunately, the islands of New Zealand that the tuatara inhabit don’t have a soil base deep enough to allow that sort of digging (plus, tuatara arms are pretty stubby, they’d be hard-pressed to dig a deep nest).

Which means that the tuatara might be in trouble. Researchers predict that, if global climate change proceeds according to schedule, by 2080 tuatara’s will be laying nests consisting entirely of male eggs. This might be great for a fantasy football league, but isn’t quite so good when it comes to species survival.

A tuatara, disturbed by the possibility of living only with other males.

A tuatara, disturbed by the possibility of living only with other males.

Active intervention by humans might help. Tuatara’s can be translocated to islands with cooler climates. Or, as has been done with sea turtles, volunteers can move nests — reburying them in shadier locations, or at lower depths. But without that help, one of the last living fossils could very well go extinct.

Sources

Mitchell, N. J, M. R Kearney, N. J Nelson, and W. P Porter. “Predicting the Fate of a Living Fossil: How Will Global Warming Affect Sex Determination and Hatching Phenology in Tuatara?” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 275, no. 1648 (October 7, 2008): 2185–2193. doi:10.1098/rspb.2008.0438.

Refsnider, J. M., B. L. Bodensteiner, J. L. Reneker, and F. J. Janzen. “Nest Depth May Not Compensate for Sex Ratio Skews Caused by Climate Change in Turtles: Nest Depth and Turtle Sex Ratios.” Animal Conservation 16, no. 5 (October 2013): 481–490. doi:10.1111/acv.12034.


[1] Also turtles, but they’ve got it flipped the other way: high temperatures lead to females, and low temperatures to males. Just to confuse biologists even further, some species have found a third way. Temperature extremes (high or low) lead to female dominated nests, while mid-range temperatures lead to male dominated nests.

papernautilus

Sunday Poem – The Paper Nautilus

The Paper Nautilus
by Marianne Moore

For authorities whose hopes
are shaped by mercenaries?
Writers entrapped by
teatime fame and by
commuters’ comforts? Not for these
the paper nautilus
constructs her thin glass shell.

Giving her perishable
souvenir of hope, a dull
white outside and smooth-edged inner surface
glossy as the sea, the watchful
maker of it guards it
day and night; she scarcely

eats until the eggs are hatched.
Buried eight-fold in her eight
arms, for she is in
a sense a devil-
fish, her glass ram’shorn-cradled freight
is hid but is not crushed;
as Hercules, bitten

by a crab loyal to the hydra,
was hindered to succeed,
the intensively
watched eggs coming from
the shell free it when they are freed, —
leaving its wasp-nest flaws
of white on white, and close-
laid Ionic chiton-folds
like the lines in the man of
a Parthenon horse,
round which the arms had
wound themselves as if they know love
is the only fortress
strong enough to trust to

papernautilus

coverspider

Spider Moms: The Family Lives of Arachnids

In the (fantastic) 1990 horror movie Arachnophobia, Jeff Daniels and John Goodman do battle with a horde of invasive Venezuelan spiders for the soul of a small California town. It’s a great mixture of gross-out, horror, and comedy — although makes for extremely uncomfortable viewing for an arachnophobe.

Arachnophobia-610x331

In the film, a research expedition to Venezuela returns to California with an unwanted hitch-hiker, an aggressive and venomous tropical spider. After completing its illegal immigration, it seeks a green-card by mating with a domestic house spider. The house spider gives birth to infertile babies with poisonous bites that run rampant throughout the town (creating scenes like this one, which for a boy was both titillating and absolutely terrifying).[1]

These small, infertile spiders — intones the mandatory expert scientist — are just preparing the way for the real invasion. The male spider, now called the ‘general’, has produced a queen with which to mate (I don’t know how – spontaneous generation?). This mating will produce fertile offspring, which would be bad news for all of America. Luckily, Daniels and Goodman team-up to hunt down and exterminate the nests before they hatch — contending, along the way, with the aggressive general and the queen who are protecting the nests.

Now, I’m not one to get all Neil DeGrasse Tyson, because it’s tedious in the extreme when a scientist gets preachy about inaccuracies in fiction; but I could always take comfort in the knowledge that generally, spiders don’t work together as families, and don’t actively protect their young, and are generally pretty anti-social. So I never had to worry about evil queen spiders tenderly coaxing thousands of little spiderlings into the world with their eight motherly arms.

I'm trying to temper the nightmare-inducing images that could populate this post. Credit: popgive.com

I’m trying to temper the nightmare-inducing images that could populate this post. Credit: popgive.com

Then I opened my email this morning to find a paper called “Maternal care and subsocial behaviour in spiders”, by Eric Yip and Linda Raynor of Cornell University, and now I don’t know what to believe.

Most spider species (and there are many — over 44, 000 have been described), are what Yip and Raynor call “opportunistically cannibalistic”, which is fun to say, but is nonetheless an undesirable trait in friends, family members and sexual partners. When they’re not actively consuming one another, some species may form fragile alliances where they share in the duties of building or maintaining webs — but they’ll still try to eat one another when their backs are turned. I’ve always thought a spider would be a sensible, honest emblem for political parties.

Yip and Raynor, in their far-ranging review, point out that spider social behaviour is a little friendlier than that (some of the time). Some spider families display “subsocial” behaviour, which sounds like an insult, but really means that they aren’t social all of the time, just occasionally, when there is nothing good on TV. In these subsocial species, mother spiders invest a lot of time and effort into their offspring. They guard egg sacs, and sometimes attach the eggs to their backs with silk and carry them around.[2]

And back to nightmares.

And back to nightmares.

But this maternal care can also extend past-birth. Spider moms may catch prey, and regurgitate it for its babies. For some reason this seems totally okay when birds to do it, but horrific when spiders do it.[3] Baby spiders, when hungry, wave their tiny little baby spider legs in the air to let mom know that they need to be fed. Momma spiders also fulfill the other standard maternal role — chasing off predators (which includes John Goodman dressed as an exterminator – if you’re looking for a niche Halloween costume).

john-goodman-arachnophobia

In most animal species where mothers put a lot of time and energy into caring for their offspring, biologists generally argue they do it in order to ensure offspring survival, and thereby get a good return on their investment (daddy spiders, like so many other animals, exit the picture immediately after mating). But in spiders, the moms might be a little more self-interested. Remember that “opportunistic cannibalism” thing? The first meal of many baby spiders is…mom, a behaviour called ‘matriphagy’.  No wonder they go to the effort of providing food — if they don’t,  they’re on the menu. Ungrateful kids.

Featured photo by Thomas Shahan

Literature Cited

Yip, Eric C., and Linda S. Rayor. “Maternal Care and Subsocial Behaviour in Spiders: Subsocial Spider Review.” Biological Reviews (October 2013): n/a–n/a. doi:10.1111/brv.12060.


[1] A few years ago at a field site in Belize I was showering, and hadn’t poked around too much in the shower stall before hopping in. A large, hairy spider fell off the shower head when I turned on the water, and half-swam/half-ran down my torso. Life imitating art (though this was a little less titillating, and a lot more terrifying).

[2] Working in a lab once, I saw a small brown spider scurrying across the floor, trailing a white blob behind her on a piece of silk. “Oh no,” said my hapless friend, “She has a piece of styrofoam stuck on her. I’ll help.” He leaned down, and pinched the white blob. Which, of course, was not a piece of styrofoam, but an egg sac. Out burst hundreds of tiny little spiderlings, and that was the end of working in that lab for the day.

[3] The discussion of regurgitation in the paper is fantastic, if only for this sentence alone: “Regurgitation is ubiquitous in eresids and common in theridiids. It has also evolved once in lycosids and once in uloborids.” I think Dr. Seuss had a hand in naming spider families.

kananaskisshowshoe

Sunday Poem – Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Since Calgary woke up to snow this morning for the first time this season , I thought it was time for a winter poem — and who better than Robert Frost?

kananaskisshowshoe

Snowshoeing in Kananaskis. Credit: Neil Griffin

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

by Robert Frost

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness  bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Robert Frost, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” from The Poetry of Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem. Copyright 1923, © 1969 by Henry Holt and Company, Inc., renewed 1951, by Robert Frost.

Featured photo by Neil Griffin.

dearbones

Sunday Poem – The Deer Lay Down Their Bones

The Deer Lay Down Their Bones

by Robinson Jeffers

I followed the narrow cliffside trail half way up the mountain
Above the deep river-canyon. There was a little cataract crossed the path,
flinging itself
Over tree roots and rocks, shaking the jeweled fern-fronds, bright
bubbling water
Pure from the mountain, but a bad smell came up. Wondering at it I
clambered down the steep stream
Some forty feet, and found in the midst of bush-oak and laurel,
Hung like a bird’s nest on the precipice bank a small hidden clearing,
Grass and a shallow pool. But all about there were bones lying in the
grass, clean bones and stinking bones,
Antlers and bones: I understood that the place was a refuge for wounded
deer; there are so many
Hurt ones escape the hunters and limp away to lie hidden; here they have
water for the awful thirst
And peace to die in; dense green laurel and grim cliff
Make sanctuary, and a sweet wind blows upward from the deep gorge. –
I wish my bones were with theirs.
But that’s a foolish thing to confess, and a little cowardly. We know that
life
Is on the whole quite equally good and bad, mostly gray netural, and can
be endured
To the dim end, no matter what magic  of grass, water and precipice, and
pain of wounds,
Makes death look dear We have been given life and have used it — not a
great gift perhaps — but in honesty
Shoud use it all. Mine’s empty since my love died — Empty? The flame-
haired grandchild with great blue eyes
That look like hers? — What can I do for the child? I gaze at her and
wonder what sort of man
In the fall of the world…I am growing old, that is the trouble. My
children and little grandchildren
Will find their way, and why should I wait ten years yet, having lived
sixty-seven, ten years more or less,
Before I crawl out on a ledge of rock and die snapping, like a wolf
Who has lost his mate? — I am bound by my own thirty-year-decision:
who drinks the wine
Should take the dregs; even in the bitter lees and sediment
New discovery may lie. The deer in that beautiful place lay down their
bones: I must wear mine.

Featured photo by Suzette A Paduano

Found in “The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers: Volume Three, 1939-1962″.