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.
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?”).
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.
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).
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.
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.