It is still one of the most bizarre scientific experiments in history.
While crossbreeding between species has been occurring for thousands of years, genetic dissimilarities between most animal species make successful crossbreeding extremely rare. In the case of horse-donkey crossbreeds, for instance, mules (the offspring of male horses and female donkeys) and hinnies (the rarer offspring of male donkeys and female horses) combine the best elements of both parent species due to hybrid vigour. Unfortunately, mules and hinnies are almost always sterile given the different number of chromosomes in the two parent species. While lion-tiger crossbreeds also exist, they invariably depend on human intervention to bring them into being and the same sterility issues usually apply. For that matter, climate change has led to a significant rise in coywolves (coyote/wolf hybrids) and "grolar bears" (polar bear/grizzly hybrids) in recent years.
But what about other highly similar species such as humans and chimpanzees/bonobos? Despite the strong genetic similarities between homo sapiens sapiens and pan troglodytes/pan paniscus, the genetic differences between the species appears too great to allow any kind of viable intermating. With the human genome containing 46 chromosones versus 48 for the chimpanzee/bonobo, the gap seems no greater than the genetic difference between horses and donkeys. As a result, the concept of deliberately creating a humanzee or a chiman has attracted a certain morbid interest despite the vast legal and ethic issues involved. Genetic evidence has even suggested that interspecies sexual activity occurred long after the human and chimpanzee lineages diverged allowing chimpanzee genes to enter the gene pool of early humans. While there have been rumours of humanzees, "missing links", and other human-animal crossbreeds occurring, no real evidence that humans and other species of primates could be capable of producing viable offspring has ever surfaced.
Still, by the turn of the 20th century, the distinction between humans and chimpanzees seemed far less rigid than it does now. Along with Charles Darwin's revolutionary contributions to biology, advances in genetics and comparative anatomy demonstrated that chimpanzees were far more similar to humans than anyone realized. The primate research pioneered by Alexander and Nadiya Ladygina-Kohts at Moscow's Darwin Institute showed that chimpanzees were capable of the same sort of cognitive development previously seen only in human beings. Such research, along with the radical discoveries of Ivan Pavlov, suggested that even the most unlikely projects into human and chimpanzee intelligence might be attainable.
Which brings us to Ilya Ivanovitch Ivanov...
Born in 1870 in Russia's Kursk region, Ivanov went on to become one of Tsarist Russia's most prominent authorities in veterinary medicine and a pioneer in the use of artificial insemination in horse breeding. Already a full professor at Kharkov University, Ivanov founded Russia's first institute for artificial insemination in 1901. He also became well-known (or notorious in some circles) for his radical ideas on interspecies hybridization. Using artificial techniques, Ivanov successfully created zebra-donkey and European bison-cow hybrids and demonstrated similar pairings with rodents. But Ivanov had more ambitious plans in mind. As early as 1910, he presented a paper at the World Congress of Zoologists raising the possibility of human-ape hybrids. Though the Tsarist government had no interest in such a project, the Russian Revolution of 1917 would bring new opportunities.
It was during his time at the Pasteur Institute in Paris that Ivanov began planning the ape-human hybrid project that would make him notorious. The Pasteur Institute had an experimental primate research station in French Guinea which Ivanov decided would be a perfect setting for his experiments. All that remained was to seek funding from the Soviet government. According to a 2005 news story describing Ivanov's project, it was Joseph Stalin who had personally authorized the project stating that, "I want a new invincible human being, insensitive to pain, resistant and indifferent about the quality of food they eat." Since the Red Army had been left dangerously depleted following the Russian revolution and the infighting that followed, replacing them with human-ape hybrids seemed to make sense. Creating strong, servile workers who did what they were told without complaining appeared to be the perfect way to complete Stalin's new Five-Year-Plan.
Given that the Soviet Union was already carrying out massive social engineering projects including farm collectivization, egalitarianism, and industrialization, Ivanov's project seemed plausible enough to attraact funding. According to Cambridge professor Alexander Etkind, another explanation for Ivanov's success in obtaining funding rested in the political value of demonstrating the link between humans and animals. As Etkind pointed out in a 2008 paper:
If he crossed an ape and a human and produced viable offspring then that would mean Darwin was right about how closely related we are. Ivanov’s approach to the government stressed how proving Darwin right would strike a blow against religion—Ivanov of course knowing that religion was something the authorities ‘were struggling to stamp out" which made his proposal all the more attractive.
Whatever the motivation, Ivanov received the equivalent of $1,000 to put his plan into action. Using the Pasteur Institute's research station in Africa, the plan involved artificially inseminating female chimpanzees with human sperm. The identity of the sperm donor is still unknown though Ivanov reportedly used the sperm of local men based on racial theories arguing that Africans were more closely related to apes than people of European stock. Since there were no sexually mature chimpanzees already at the station, Ivanov was obliged to do his experiment with three female chimpanzees at the zoo in French Guinea's capital. Not surprisingly, none of the chimpanzees became pregnant and Ivanov returned to the Soviet Union to continue his work there.
By this time, the Soviet government had built the Sukhumi Primate Centre near Stalin's birthplace in Georgia. Intended to become a world leader in primate research, the Soviet government decided to use the centre to raise Ivanov's hybrids. Still, his failure in Africa meant that Ivanov needed to move on with the next stage of his project: artificially inseminating human females with chimpanzee sperm. That failed as well when the last postpubescent male chimpanzee available to him in Sukhumi died. To keep his project alive, Ilya Ivanov decided on a new, and more desperate, gamble. He wrote a Cuban heiress named Rosalie Abreu requesting her help with his breeding experiments. Abreu had a large ape colony outside Havana and was well-known for her success in breeding chimpanzees in captivity.
In his letter, Ivanov requested a male chimpanzee for use in impregnating a female subject known to history only as "G". Though Abreu was initially agreeable to the proposal, she quickly changed her mind after approaching Charles Smith of the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism for funding. It was Smith who leaked the story to the press with explosive results. The New York Times reported the story under the headline, "Soviet Backs Plan To Test Evolution" and the Ku Klux Klan began crusading against the entire project. They even went so far as to threaten Abreu since the entire project was "abominable to the Creator." She quickly withdrew her support.
While he was still trying to find another chimpanzee breeder, Ivanov found the political climate in the Soviet Union changing rapidly. Presumably Stalin was no longer so enthusiastic about human-ape hybrids and the tide turned against Ivanov and his experiments. By 1930, Ivanov and many of his fellow scientists at Sukhumi lost their positions and he came under political attack. Whether he was deemed to be an embarassment to Stalin or simply due to bad luck, Ilya Ivanov was arrested and sentenced to five years in exile in Kazakhstan. His sentence put him to work at the Kazakh Veterinary Zoologist Institute though his science career was effectively over. He died of a stroke on March 20, 1932 as he was waiting for a train to Moscow.
Despite an obituary written by Ivan Pavlov, Ilya Ivanov's place in the history of science is hard to determine. His achievements with animal breeding and artificial insemination are still noteworthy but it his "humanzee" project for which he is best remembered. The Sukhumi Primate Centre remains active though the stigma of Ivanov's long-ago experiments continue to linger. Along with media accusations that the Centre was founded by Stalin for the purpose of raising human-ape hybrids, the breakup of the Soviet Union also brought accusations of other bizarre experiments conducted there. During the 1990s, after Russian science fiction writer, E. Parnov, managed to gain access to many documents about the Centre's founding, he published his findings with various speculations about the type of research that researchers carried out with Stalin's full approval. While there is no evidence that any human-ape hybrid experiments had actually been conducted there (largely because Ivanov could not find a sexually mature ape), the centre seemed to have no shortage of human volunteers. According to some sources, they were beseiged with letters from willing subjects but no actual experiments took place prior to Ivanov's arrest.
Though most of these media stories were largely exaggerated, they also called attention to the legitimate primate research at Sukhumi that Western researchers would not see until decades later. The centre was also the hub of some of the Soviet Union's most ambitious biomedical research including tests of the Sabin polio vaccine and treatment of radiation poisoning. It also became the model on which the U.S. National Primate Research Centers were based (and similar centres around the world). Since the end of the Soviet Union, the centre continues to do research though economic hardship has meant a large reduction in staff and resources.
Still, that the centre exists at all can be viewed as a testament to the cutting-edge primate research done there. Though the lingering stigma of Ilya Ivanov continues to give the centre an undeserved media notoriety, the researchers there can claim enough legitimate achievements to earn respect from primatologists around the world.
Ivanov and Stalin never got their ape-men but the legacy that the centre leaves behind is likely far more important.