In November, Ivanov returned to Guinea, captured his chimps and with considerable difficulty eventually inseminated three of them. By now, he had a second experiment in mind: to inseminate women with chimp sperm. Knowing that no local woman would agree, he planned to do this under the pretext of a medical examination, but the French governor forbade it.
None of the three chimps conceived. Disappointed, Ivanov headed home with 20 chimps to stock a new ape nursery in the subtropical Soviet republic of Abkhazia. He knew now that his best chance of creating his hybrid was to find Soviet women willing to carry half-ape babies in the interests of science. In the event, only four chimps made it to Abkhazia and so while the nursery set about acquiring more apes, Ivanov looked for volunteers.
At least five women volunteered. But although the nursery did get hold of an assortment of apes, they never flourished, and by the time Ivanov was ready to go ahead the only adult male left was Tarzan, a 26-year-old organ-utan. Ivanov pressed on until fate dealt his project a fatal blow. Tarzan had a brain hemorrhage. “The orang has died, we are looking for a replacement,” Ivanov cabled the woman he had lined up to receive Tarzan’s sperm. More chimps arrived in 1930 – but Ivanov fell victim to the widespread purge of scientists and was exiled to Kazakhstan. He was released the next year but died soon after.
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 to give them glands for rejuvenation.” The Kremlin’s doctors certainly dabbled in rejuvenation treatments and Ivanov did have links to Voronoff, but Etkind is not convinced. “If you want to cover up a bizarre scheme to rejuvenate aging politicians then you wouldn’t choose an even more bizarre project that’s going to attract a lot of publicity.”
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 realizing their dream of a socialist utopia. “Politicians could change the political system, nationalize 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.”
Etkind believes this is the most likely reason the Bolsheviks backed the project and that it was also what motivated Ivanov, at least in part. Like many others, Ivanov was swept along by the Bolshevik dream, he says. “He had proved that AI had the capacity to change nature, and testing its limits was perfectly in tune with the revolutionary times.” At the end of the day, Ivanov was a typical Russian intellectual. “His ends and means today sound truly radical. But if you think about it, a successful hybridization with apes is no more fantastic than a happy life in a communal apartment.”