Ilya Ivanov: The Russian Scientist Who Tried To Create a 'Humanzee'

Ever heard of the concept of a humanzee? A hybrid animal that's half chimpanzee and half human.
Rupendra Brahambhatt

Russian biologist, Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov was a master in the field of animal hybridization and artificial insemination. He conducted a number of experiments to create mixed-breed animals such as the Zedonk (a hybrid of a zebra and a donkey) and a guinea pig-mouse. 

However, among all his peculiar experiments, his proposal for a humanzee (a hybrid of human and chimpanzee) was the most sensational and controversial of his career. 

Beginning of the Humanzee Experiment

Ilya Ivanov: The Russian Scientist Who Tried To Create a 'Humanzee'
Source: Internet Archive Book Image's Photostream/flickr

Ivanov first put forward the idea of humanzee in 1910 at the World Congress of Zoologists in Graz, Australia. In his presentation, he claimed that it might one day be possible to create hybrids between humans and their closest relatives, using artificial insemination. At the time, this notion was just speculation, but that would change after the Russian revolution in 1917.

In 1924, Ivanov put his proposals for a human-chimp hybridization experiment to the government. Although the scientific community were not on board, Ivanov got both approval for his work and funding for a trip to Africa to collect apes. Documents indicate the decision was pushed through by leading members of the Bolshevik government.

Ivanov set off for Africa in 1926, after first securing the support of Pasteur Institute, who ran a primate centre in Guinea, then part of French West Africa. He reached Guinea in late March, but none of the Institute's chimps was mature enough to breed. In November, Ivanov returned to Guinea to try again.

Did Ilya Ivanov Create the Humanzee?

Ilya Ivanov: The Russian Scientist Who Tried To Create a 'Humanzee'
Source: Francesco Ungaro/pexels

Despite Ivanov's efforts, his experiments in French Guinea failed. None of the chimps conceived. However, this failure didn’t shake Ivanov’s will to create a humanzee, he came up with a new idea, in which he aimed to fertilize a human female with the sperm from a male chimpanzee. Ivanov headed home with an assortment of chimps to stock a new ape nursery in the subtropical Soviet republic of Abkhazia. 

Ilya Ivanov: The Russian Scientist Who Tried To Create a 'Humanzee'
Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov. Source: Wikimedia Commons

At least five women eventually volunteered for the bizarre experiment. But the apes Ivanov had brought back did not flourish in the unfamiliar surrounding, and by 1929, when Ivanov was ready to proceed, the only adult male left was Tarzan, a 26-year-old orangutan, who suffered from a brain hemorrhage and died. 

New apes were about to arrive at the facility in 1930, but before they could, Ivanov fell victim to the widespread purge of Soviet scientists and was exiled to Kazakhstan. Although he was released the following year, he remained in exile in Kazakhstan, and died of a stroke in 1932. Soviet attempts to create a human-chimpanzee hybrid died with him. 

Shocking Facts about Ilya Ivanovich, aka the Red Frankenstein

Ilya Ivanov: The Russian Scientist Who Tried To Create a 'Humanzee'
Source: priya b/flickr

Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov was a controversial scientist and researcher. Although he couldn’t fulfill his dream, some would say that his experiments challenged the laws of nature by creating animal hybrids that were never seen before. 

  • When Ivanov approached the Soviet government to fund his experiment, he came up with a strong tactic to convince the Bolshevik leaders. He was aware of the anti-religious sentiment the Bolshevik government promoted to weaken the hold of religious leaders and clerics at that time. Therefore, he presented the humanzee experiment before the Academy of Sciences, as a way to validate Darwin’s theory that suggested that humans originated from apes. He proposed that if he proved Darwin right then it would be a very big blow to the staunch forces of religion.
  • Voronov, the central character in Mikhail Bulgakov’s popular Russian novel, Heart of a Dog, is inspired by Ilya Ivanov. The novel is considered a masterpiece in Russian literature, it is a satire on the Bolshevik rule and the early days of the Soviet Union. 
  • Although Ivanov's experiments, including his work on a human-ape hybrid, were soon forgotten, when the story of the attempt to create a humanzee was revealed in the Russian archives in the 1990s, they made headlines again, and Ivanov was referred to as the ‘Red Frankenstein’ of the Soviet era. This news also gave rise to speculations in the media suggesting the presence of secret societies and evil experiments to create monsters during the Soviet period.    
  • Conspiracy theorists have suggested that Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin was interested in creating a powerful ape-man army, and supported Ivanov’s humanzee idea. There is no evidence for this.
  • It has been suggested that the Bolshevik leaders who approved Ivanov's work were actually interested in rejuvenation treatments. This may not be as far-fetched as it seems. Ivanov had links to celebrated Paris surgeon Serge Voronoff, who had invented a "rejuvenation therapy” which was fashionable among the wealthy in the 1920s. However, it seems unlikely that Soviet politicians would hide a rejuvenation project with an even more bizarre-sounding humanzee experiment.
  • Another motive that has been suggested is that the Bolsheviks who supported Ivanov were interested in applying his work to the field of eugenics in the hopes of breeding the perfect Soviet worker of the future. Perhaps to speed up the spread of desirable traits, such as a willingness to work communally. Again, there is no evidence for this.

Other experiments for human-ape hybrids

Ilya Ivanov: The Russian Scientist Who Tried To Create a 'Humanzee'
Source: Yerkes National Primate Research Centre

Gordon Gallup, an American psychologist, claimed that a human-chimp hybrid was successfully bred at the Orange Park Laboratory, Florida in the 1920s. Gallup claims his former university professor told him about the work, and that the researchers involved had almost immediately second thoughts about the moral and ethical considerations and euthanized the infant. 

In 2019, it was reported in El Pais that an international team of researchers created chimera embryos containing both human and monkey cells. The controversial project was conducted in China to avoid legal issues. Its ultimate goal was to grow viable organs for transplantation into humans, but the embryos, which were grown in vitero, were only allowed to develop up to 10,000 cells, at which point the researchers interrupted the study

Scientists and ethicists say there are a huge number of concerns involved in letting this work proceed. The work was published in detail in the journal Cell in 2021.

Also in 2021, a team led by French biologist Pierre Savatier published details of their attempt to create human-monkey chimeras. The French researchers only managed to grow an embryo composed of up to 10 human cells and 250 monkey cells which lived for seven days.

The creation of a living humanzee is still an opportunity and a challenge before scientists. While the idea of a living "humanzee" is science fiction, the development of a human-chimp chimera may well be achievable soon. If or when that happens, it may help scientists to better understand how humans function in order to develop treatments for diseases but it would come with a host of ethical considerations that will need to see serious discussion.

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