You can’t make this stuff up. In Scientific American, Eric Michael Johnson tells the sad story of Russian physiologist Il’ya Ivanov’s efforts to cross-breed humans with anthropoid apes. Ivanov was not planning to make super-soldiers, nor was he up to any comic book scale medical mischief. As is so often the case, Ivanov just wanted to see if a human-ape hybrid was possible via cross-breeding. As Johnson puts it, “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.” Johnson’s investigation into Ivanov underlines the fact that this kind of atrocious research was conducted not by some rogue lunatic, but by a highly respected individual with the support of major institutions in Russia and France.

Once he got the support, here is how things went down:

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.

The pursuit of science became a blinding force for Ivanov. Ivanov’s efforts were repudiated by the very foundations that supported him upon discovery of what he’d done to the African women.

My larger question here is what would Ivanov have done if successful? Raised the hybrid? How? In what conditions? With what expectations? His zeal to prove the possible did nothing to take into account the outcomes of his actions.

Discoveries open up not only new scientific possibilities, but new ethical obligations as well. We cannot remind ourselves of that too often.