Soviet Ape-Men

In February 1926, Russian biologist Ilia Ivanov set out for Guinea in French West Africa, where he planned to perform one of the world’s most sensational experiments. Ivanov was an expert in artificial insemination and had used his ground-breaking methods to create an assortment of hybrid animals. Now he was going to try something even more radical – crossing an ape and a human. . . .

So why did Ivanov want so badly to produce a baby that was half-ape, half-human? And why did the Bolsheviks encourage him?

When Ivanov put his proposal to the Academy of Sciences he painted it as the experiment that would prove men had evolved from apes. “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,” says Etkind. When Ivanov approached the government, he stressed how proving Darwin right would strike a blow against religion, which the Bolsheviks were struggling to stamp out. Success would not only bolster the reputation of Soviet science but provide useful anti-religious propaganda to boot.

That might seem motive enough, yet as Etkind points out, some have suggested that the ageing Bolshevik leaders had something less intellectual in mind. “There is conjecture that Ivanov was sent to Africa to bring back apes in order to provide them with glands for rejuvenation. . . .”

There is a third possible motive – that Ivanov’s research was part of an ambitious plan to transform society. The high-ranking Bolsheviks who backed Ivanov were intellectuals who saw science as a means of realising their dream of a socialist utopia. “Politicians could change the political system, nationalise industries and turn farms into vast collectives – but the task of transforming people was entrusted to scientists,” says Etkind. “The aim was to match people to the socialist design of Soviet society.”

One way to do that was through “positive eugenics”, using AI to speed up the spread of desirable traits – a willingness to live and work communally, for instance – and to get rid of “primitive” traits such as competitiveness, greed and the desire to own property. “There were many projects aimed at changing humanity,” Etkind says. “Ivanov’s was the most extreme but if he succeeded then that would show that humans could be changed in radical and creative ways.”

The forgotten scandal of the Soviet ape-man

Etkind’s preferred theory, about changing society by changing human nature, is actually opposed to the Marxist ideas about human nature, society, and the path of history. Marxism explicitly claims that human thoughts and behavior change in response to external material conditions, and that the social basis for these conditions changes according to a natural dialectical process.

It also contradicts the later Soviet communist position against eugenics, but that position was probably not formed until the 1930s, in opposition to the Nazi ideology of eugenics.

The most likely explanation is the most obvious one: the Bolsheviks hated religion, and they believed that proof of Darwin’s theories of evolution would show religion to be false.

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