In 1871 the English naturalist Charles Darwin caused a huge stir in science, in society and in human thought in general, with the publication of “The Origin of Man”.
A month later the famous cartoon appeared illustrating one of the biggest and most enduring misconceptions of his work: that humans were descended from apes, something that Darwin never proposed.
Four decades later, at the World Congress of Zoologists in Graz, Austria, in 1910, the Russian biologist Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov raised the possibility of creating a human literally descended from an ape, more precisely an ape-man.
Ivanov claimed that one day it might be possible to create hybrids between humans and their closest relatives.
He added that the use of artificial insemination would help circumvent the ethical objections that inevitably arose in the case of natural mating.
At that time I was just talking about a notion .
It was only after the Russian Revolution in 1917 that Ivanov was able to attempt to bring to life the creature that the French novelist Gustave Flaubert had envisioned in his “Quidquid volueris” (1837).
In February 1926, Ivanov set out for Guinea, in what was then French West Africa, ready to carry out one of the most bizarre experiments in history: crossing an ape with a human.
Interestingly, it was funded by the Bolshevik government, something that has since left historians and scientists wondering why they backed it.
Ivanov was a master in the field of animal hybridization and artificial insemination.
After graduating in 1896 with the equivalent of a Ph.D. in physiology, he did research in bacteriology at the Pasteur Institute in Paris before working with world-renowned physiologist Ivan Pavlov.
Using the same surgical techniques that earned Pavlov his Nobel Prize, he was able to extract animal sex glands to develop artificial insemination techniques in purebred horses.
His research was later extended to other farm animals and Ivanov became the leading international figure in his discipline .
However, like many other scientists, the revolution dislocated him.
He lost his patterns and during the first years he did not find a way to develop.
But by 1924, that old idea he had talked about in Austria was taking shape in his mind.
monkeys and dollars
He talked about it at the Pasteur Institute, where he was conducting experiments on sperm disinfection, and liked it so much that he was offered free access to chimpanzees at the institute’s facilities in the village of Kindia, French Guinea.
The offer was valuable, not only because it meant that it had the backing of such a respected institution, but because – unlike other countries that had colonies in Africa – the USSR did not have easy access to primates.
I have lacked funding for the project’s operating and travel expenses .
He turned to the Soviet government’s People’s Commissar of Enlightenment, Anatoliy Lunacharskiy, requesting $15,000 for the project, who was not very interested.
But a year later, when Nikolay Petrovich Gorbunov, one of the leading science patrons in the Bolshevik government at the time, was appointed director of the government’s Department of Scientific Institutions, his fortunes improved.
Enthusiastic about the project, Gorbunov presented it to the government Finance Commission, which recommended the allocation of $10,000 to the Academy of Sciences “for the realization of the scientific work of Professor II Ivanov on the hybridization of anthropoid apes in Africa .”
At last he had everything he needed: monkeys, money and knowledge.
It was time to go.
As you can imagine, his mission was a failure, otherwise this story would be much better known.
First, because that first time he went to Kindia, the chimpanzees were not yet old enough to conceive.
Ivanov had to return to Paris, where he spent some of his time at the Pasteur Institute working on ways to capture and subdue chimpanzees.
But he also worked with the famous surgeon Serge Voronoff, inventor of a “rejuvenation therapy” that was very much in vogue.
He grafted slices of ape testicles onto those of rich, elderly men in the hope of regaining his former vigor.
When Ivanov returned to Africa, he was able to fertilize three chimpanzees with human sperm but was unsuccessful.
He also wanted to inseminate African women, without their knowledge or consent, with orangutan semen , but fortunately the French authorities forbade him.
So he had no choice but to return to the USSR, with a shipment of chimpanzees to continue his experiments, and the hope of being able to get Russian volunteers willing to carry his chimera in her womb.
Although he succeeded, the chimpanzees that did not die on the journey perished before insemination could be done.
While Ivanov was immersed in his experiments, the Soviet nation was going through its cultural revolution.
He was one of the “old specialists”, vulnerable to attack, and in December 1930, he was arrested by the secret police , convicted of having created a counter-revolutionary organization among agricultural specialists, and exiled to Alma-Ata, the capital of the Republic. Kazakh.
One of his main accusers, Orest Neyman, succeeded him as head of the laboratory at the Veterinary Institute, a common practice at the time.
Thanks to Josef Stalin’s opposition in 1931 to the excesses against specialists, his status was restored.
But by then, prison had taken a toll on his health, and Ivanov died in Alma-Ata of a stroke, “a day before the scheduled departure to Moscow, and then to the health center,” according to his obituary.
That, in broad strokes, is the story.
On it are scattered letters, notebooks and diaries in a variety of government archives that scholars were able to consult after the collapse of the USSR.
However, as Alexander Etkind, a Soviet-born Russian historian now at Cambridge University, points out, “none of these documents reveals why” the experiment was done.
With the available evidence, several hypotheses have emerged.
I wasn’t the only one
Ivanov’s curiosity about human-ape hybrids is not an isolated case.
Although incipient, perhaps because it produces an instinctive rejection, scientific interest in hybridization between human and non-human primates already existed before and after Ivanov.
There are those who trace it back to 19th-century France, citing figures such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau as supporters of such experiments.
And as late as 1971, Charles Remington, a professor of biology at Yale University, defended and predicted such research, dryly noting that “the human interest value of the experiment is too obvious to merit much justification.”
But perhaps more relevant is that there were contemporary biologists of Ivanov thinking about it, so what may sound absurd to us was an idea that floated in the world he inhabited.
Élie Metchnikoff, associate director of the Pasteur Institute, had already tried to pave the way for Dutch zoologist Hermann Moens to go to the Congo to conduct experiments similar to Ivanov’s in the mid-1910s.
And a leading German sexologist, Hermann Rohleder, also developed plans for hybridization experiments between humans and apes, thinking that the possible hybrid would provide the crucial evidence for evolution .
science vs religion
Finding such crucial evidence, to the Bolsheviks, seemed valuable, judging from what Lev Fridrichson, the representative of the Commissariat of Agriculture in Germany, wrote in a letter that accompanied Ivanov’s proposal when he first presented it to the Soviet government.
“The theme proposed by Professor Ivanov, … must become a decisive blow to religious teachings , and can be properly used in our propaganda and in our struggle for the liberation of workers from the power of the Church,” Fridrichson said. .
The other letter accompanying the proposal was from Sergey Novikov, the Berlin representative of the Enlightenment Commissariat, who referred to the hybridization project as an “exclusively important problem for materialism.”
If Ivanov did achieve viable offspring from the ape-human cross, ” it would prove that Darwin was right about how closely related we are,” Etkind explains inhis article in the journal “Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences. “
And the fact that Darwin was right was a weapon against religion, which was a problem for the Soviet authorities, who dreamed of creating a society free of superstitions.
Means to realize a dream
That socialist utopia went beyond the eradication of religion. They wanted to transform society.
“Politicians could change the political system, nationalize industries and turn farms into large collectives, but the task of transforming people was entrusted to scientists ,” says Etkind.
“The goal was to match people to the socialist design of Soviet society.”
One way to do this was through “positive eugenics” , using artificial insemination to accelerate the spread of desirable traits and get rid of “primitive” ones, such as competitiveness, greed, and the desire to possess goods.
“There were many projects destined to change humanity,” says Etkind, who favors this hypothesis.
“Ivanov’s was the most extreme, but if it was successful, it would show that humans could change radically and creatively.”
Some wonder if the motive was less intellectual.
Do you remember Voronoff rejuvenation therapy?
Well, they conjecture that perhaps what excited the Bolshevik leaders was that Ivanov was planning to bring chimpanzees to their land… they were going to have the fountain of youth at home.
In any case, to some, Ivanov is an example of a scientist whose dedication to finding out if something could be done blinded him to wondering if it should be done .
Something that, although it occurs in nature and, to some extent, in genetics, crossed lines in arenas that many do not want to step on.