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Scientific Ethics and Stalin’s Ape-Man Superwarriors

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Author’s Note: The following originally appeared at archy.

"Stalin" by Nathaniel Gold

        "Stalin" by Nathaniel Gold

The anti-Darwin industry among fundamentalist Christians has produced thousands of pages of misinformation in their attempt to tar and feather the theory of evolution. I have responded to many of these false claims previously. However, one assertion that is especially outlandish is that the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was a devoted Darwinian who funded a program to create “ape-man Superwarriors” in his goal for world domination. As Creation Ministries, publisher of the Journal of Creation and advocate of a young Earth literal interpretation of the Bible, insisted in 2006:

Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin wanted to rebuild the Red Army, in the mid-1920s, with Planet-of-the-Apes-style troops by crossing humans with apes. . . Stalin is said to have told Ivanov, ‘I want a new invincible human being, insensitive to pain, resistant and indifferent about the quality of food they eat.’

Their only legitimate source for the claim comes from a 2002 paper in the academic journal Science in Context, by the Russian historian of science Kirill Rossiianov. Rossiianov’s study follows the ill-fated attempt by the Russian physiologist Il’ya Ivanov to cross-breed humans with anthropoid apes. His research offers an important warning about the ethical abuses that can occur when proper standards are not enforced, but Rossiianov’s paper clearly demonstrates that creating “superwarriors” had no part in Ivanov’s work. The alleged quote from Stalin is not found in the paper and there is no evidence that Stalin ever made such a statement. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that Creation Ministries’ assertion has absolutely no foundation.

However, why the Soviets would fund such a human-chimp hybridization program in the first place and what can be learned from this sordid tale of ethical misconduct is an important topic and fascinating in its own right. Ivanov represents a scientist, widely respected in his field, whose dedication to find out if something could be done blinded him to ask whether it should be done. It also reminds us of the role that politics can play in the development of scientific research even if the scientists directly involved are not political themselves.

Contrary to the claims of conservative Christians, Il’ya Ivanov’s interest in hybridization occurred long before the Russian revolution of 1917 and had little connection with Marxist ideology. Following his graduation in 1896 with the equivalent of a PhD in physiology, Ivanov conducted research in bacteriology at the Institut Pasteur in Paris before working with the world famous physiologist Ivan Pavlov. Ivanov utilized the same surgical techniques that earned Pavlov a Nobel Prize and was successfully able to extract animal sex glands so as to develop techniques of artificial insemination in purebred horses. This research was subsequently expanded to farm animals more generally and Ivanov became the leading international figure in the study of artificial insemination.

Ivanov’s first mention of his idea for using artificial insemination to determine if a human-ape hybrid could be produced occurred at an Austrian zoology conference in 1910. There is no indication that he had any plans to carry out such research at this time. However, seven years after the revolution, in 1924, Ivanov was conducting experiments on sperm disinfection at the Institut Pasteur when he was offered the institute’s support for his hybridization scheme:

They offered Ivanov free access to animals at the institute’s recently organized chimpanzee facility in the village of Kindia, French Guinea, but could not pay for other operational and travel expenses of the project.

After several failed attempts to secure funding, Ivanov eventually received $10,000 from the Soviet Financial Commission and his project was subsequently approved by the Soviet Academy of Sciences (Ivan Pavlov was a distinguished member of the Academy and was present the day this decision was made). It was certainly Ivanov’s distinguished reputation that allowed the project to move forward. In his proposal to the Academy he stated that he wanted to test various hypotheses that had been suggested in the scientific literature.

One such hypothesis was that of the German scientist Hans Friedenthal whose analysis of blood cells in 1900 between chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and humans showed that they were serologically far more similar than had previously been expected. As a result, Friedenthal proposed that anthropoid reproductive cells could be similar enough to result in a hybrid between humans and other apes. In the following two decades other researchers, such as the Dutch zoologist Hermann Marie Bernelot Moens and the German sexologist Hermann Rohleder, sought to test this prediction by inseminating chimpanzee females with human sperm. However, their attempts never got beyond the planning stage and, in the case of Moens, his research plans resulted in him being fired from his teaching position.

With his small budget and use of Institut Pasteur’s facility Ivanov and his son traveled to French Guinea in Western Africa to carry out his artificial insemination experiments in March, 1926. However, his research was hounded at every turn. The “research station” had only two veterinarians on staff and Ivanov’s presence resulted in outrage that he might report on the atrocious conditions:

Ivanov explained that the hostility of the station’s staff arose from their fears that he would report back to Paris about the real problems at the facility. According to the documentation that he managed to see, about seven hundred chimpanzees had been bought from native hunters since the founding of the station in 1923, and more than half of them had died before they could be shipped to Paris for biomedical experiments.

Local hunters had kidnapped the chimpanzees from the wild as infants and all were still juveniles when Ivanov arrived. He only attempted to inseminate three females before being forced to abandon the project as useless. Desperate to make use of his limited funding, Ivanov then made the horrific decision to attempt the insemination of African women with chimpanzee sperm without their knowledge. He made a proposal to doctors at a local hospital about his experiment and was ready to proceed when the General Governor of French Guinea, Paul Poiret, rejected the plan. Out of options and funding, Ivanov and his son decided to return home. By the time the two boarded their ship they had been in Africa for just over one month.

Ivanov hoped to pursue his experiment again in Russia through the use of women volunteers (and he found at least one who was willing to participate). However, when word got out that Ivanov had attempted to inseminate African women without their consent he was condemned by the Soviet Academy of Sciences and all support was eliminated. An investigation concluded that Ivanov’s behavior:

[M]ight undermine the trust of Africans in European researchers and doctors and make problematic any further expeditions of Russian scientists to Africa. Thereafter, the Academy did not want to deal with Ivanov and deprived him of any further support.

While some of his previous support was based in the political ideology at the time, there were strong political divisions that split scientific opinion on a range of issues and Ivanov was caught in between. To some Marxists it was hoped that a program of positive eugenics could lead to an improvement in the population similar to Marx’s description of historical materialism. Researchers in this camp, such as Herman Muller, hoped to use “scientific” techniques so parents thought to have a good genetic background would have more children, a policy in sharp contrast to the negative eugenics later employed by the Nazis that emphasized sterilization. Muller and other geneticists hoped that Ivanov’s research could lead to a better understanding of what qualities to look for. However, other scientists rejected genetic research as bourgeois or imperialist and advocated the inheritance of acquired characteristics (what is commonly known as Lamarckism). It was these researchers, led by the charismatic biologist Trofim Lysenko, who had Stalin’s support at the time.

Trofim Lysenko

Lysenko rejected genetic inheritance and advocated Lamarckian acquired characteristics. Image from Soyfer, V. N. The State and Science (Hermitage, New Jersey, 1989), Wikimedia Commons

In a telling example of the political divisions Ivanov became caught up in, Cambridge historian Martin Richards describes how Muller, one of Ivanov’s supporters, sent a letter to Stalin advocating a positive eugenic program. However, the timing couldn’t have been worse. Lysenko and his followers had warned Stalin that genetic research would lead to eugenics as well as fascism and, now, Stalin was convinced. Muller was forced to flee Moscow for fear of being arrested and, days later, received word that several of his colleagues were shot as “enemies of the people.”

It was in this atmosphere that Il’ya Ivanov met his end. After several additional attempts to receive support for his research without success, Ivanov was caught up in the ideological battle. One of his scientific enemies, Orest Neyman, accused him of “sabotage” because some of his artificial insemination farm instruments had apparently malfunctioned. On December 13, 1930 Ivanov was arrested by the secret police and convicted of “having created a counterrevolutionary organization among agricultural specialists” and banished to Kazakhstan where he died two years later. His main accuser took over Ivanov’s position as head of the laboratory.

This history raises a number of troubling issues. The fact of the matter is that Il’ya Ivanov cannot simply be dismissed as a rogue ideologue abusing science for dubious political purposes. Rather, he was an internationally respected leader in reproductive physiology and the foremost expert at the time on the artificial insemination of farm animals. His human-chimp hybridization experiments came out of collaboration with other respected scientists and with the direct assistance of the Institut Pasteur, one of the leading scientific institutions in the world at the time. Furthermore, while there was apparently no overt racism in his research, his decision to inseminate African women without their knowledge or consent can only be understood in the context of a racist and sexist colonial attitude.

While Ivanov doesn’t seem to have had a political motivation for his research, some of those involved in supporting his work certainly did. In this way Ivanov’s experiment was only made possible because of a network of individuals and institutions with specific political ambitions even though Ivanov himself wasn’t directly involved in them. When we consider scientific experimentation today, where do we draw the line between sound research and ethical violation? In what ways are funding decisions based on political considerations unrelated to the direct question a researcher hopes to answer? How does state power influence scientific research, and what relationship do scientists have with those on the receiving end of this power? Even though no one, other than the scientists involved, were ever hurt by this cross-breeding research it nevertheless raises serious concerns. While the question of the “ape-man superwarriors” myth can easily be discarded after examining this history, other questions are not as easy to dismiss.


Rossiianov, K. (2003). Beyond Species: Il’ya Ivanov and His Experiments on Cross-Breeding Humans with Anthropoid Apes, Science in Context, 15 (02). DOI: 10.1017/S0269889702000455

Richards, M. (2008). Artificial insemination and eugenics: celibate motherhood, eutelegenesis and germinal choice, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 39 (2), 211-221. DOI: 10.1016/j.shpsc.2008.03.005

Eric Michael Johnson About the Author: Eric Michael Johnson has a Master's degree in Evolutionary Anthropology focusing on great ape behavioral ecology. He is currently a doctoral student in the history of science at University of British Columbia looking at the interplay between evolutionary biology and politics.

Follow his work on Facebook and Google+. Follow on Twitter @primatediaries.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Torbjörn Larsson, OM 5:39 pm 11/10/2011

    The difference with today would be that there are ethical boards, right? Many modern areas such as genetics (“genetic engineering”) have been successful in self policing as well.

    Returning to the anti-science claims, it is remarkable how 20th century dictators have managed to screw simple farming and biology up: Stalin Russia, Hitler Germany, Mao China, Pot Cambodia, Castro Cuba, Duvalier Haiti. Most of them rejected biology officially in lieu of lamarckism (Stalin), eugenics (Hitler) and agricultural myths (Mao, Pot).

    “a policy in sharp contrast to the negative eugenics later employed by the Nazis that emphasized sterilization.”

    Claiming that eugenics is evolution is ludicrous, besides that Hitler officially rejected it.

    If you cut down on alleles, you decrease the robustness of a population what I understand, since alleles are sources for more variation and selection as the environment changes. Trying to remove harmful but surviving alleles makes sense only for moral reasons, to minimize individual hurt.

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  2. 2. EricMJohnson 6:32 pm 11/10/2011

    I think you’re quite right that eugenics as the Nazis employed it had nothing to do with Darwin. Both positive eugenics (encouraging certain individuals to breed) and negative eugenics (preventing certain individuals from breeding) came out of animal husbandry as well as the Christian concept of stirpiculture that existed for centuries prior to Darwin’s work.

    I think your point about dictators and science is also well taken. As Timothy Ferris has recently pointed out in his book The Science of Liberty, science is antithetical to dictatorship. Scientific progress and innovation comes out of debate and the openness to new ideas. It requires an open society and a free market of ideas, both of which threaten the hold that a dictator has over a society. This is why Russian science, particularly in biology, underwent substantial decline under Lenin and, especially, Stalin.

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  3. 3. jgrosay 8:45 am 11/11/2011

    I was told that in the 1933-45 Germany, besides sterilizing some ethnic groups, an arian race selection breeding was conducted, people with some body traits they considered more perfect, were brought to some kind of “farms”, to produce a leading group of humans. Not very much information about this is available, as far as I know. There are some data pointing to some experiments were also conducted outside specially dictatorial regimes,the movie “O lucky man”, produced by Malcom McDowell, the actor in Kubrick’s “Clockwork orange”,shows some experiments. The problem with this movie is that the nuclear reactor accident described there really happened,but it was kept hidden until some 20 years after the movie was released, so it puts you in doubt about how true were the other facts in this movie.

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  4. 4. Wayne Williamson 5:38 pm 11/11/2011

    nice history lesson…Thanks!

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  5. 5. mhenriday 2:24 pm 11/13/2011

    Excellent article ! Alas, the rubric – «Scientific Ethics and Stalin’s Ape-Men Superwarriors» – and Nathaniel Gold’s accompanying illustration are likely to mislead the hasty (read : ideologically motivated) reader to draw a conclusion directly the contrary to that presented in the text : i e, that no evidence exists to show that attempts to create «Ape-Men Superwarriors» ever occurred in the Soviet Union. Perhaps the article title could be corrected to read «Scientific Ethics and the Myth of Stalin’s Ape-Men Superwarriors». Admittedly less catchy – but far more accurate ?…


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  6. 6. EricMJohnson 2:42 pm 11/18/2011

    @jgrosay: I’m not aware of any evidence for these eugenic “farms” you mentioned, at least not ones that were officially endorsed by the Nazis. However, it is the case that Himmler was obsessed with German reproduction and wrote frequent memoranda encouraging his SS officers to make careful decisions in who they had sex with.

    In one such memorandum Himmler wrote: “Aus dieser Erkenntnis heraus mögen auch folgende Gedanken verstanden werden. Alles gute Blut auf der Welt alles germanische Blut, was nicht auf deutscher Seite ist, kann einmal unser Verderben sein. Es ist deswegen jeder Germane mit bestem Blut, den wir nach Deutschland hold.” [From this realization, the following thoughts may also be understood. All good blood in the world is German blood, [and] what is not on the German side can only be our undoing. Therefore, it is each German with the best blood whom we take for Germany.]

    As I’ve written previously, the Nazis specifically rejected any connection with Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Their racist biology was heavily influenced by Christian views about creation and the “degeneration” of pure Aryan blood. An excellent commentary on this history was recently posted by Coel Hellier, astrophysicist at the University of Keele in England.

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  7. 7. EricMJohnson 2:48 pm 11/18/2011

    @mhenriday: I’m sympathetic to your concern. But if someone isn’t willing to read past the headline, there’s not much I can do for them. I encourage people to link to this piece if they want to claim that Stalin advocated this kind of program. They’ll probably wish they’d read more carefully if they did.

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  8. 8. unclebeard 11:49 am 01/11/2014

    Thanks for the informative piece! After being introduced to the idea, I was surprised by how many search results came from conservative websites. I am interested in the “Christian concept of stirpiculture” that you mention. Do you have any further reading that you would suggest?

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