Evolving Thoughts

Evolution, culture, philosophy and chocolate! John Wilkins' continuing struggle to come to terms with impermanence... "Humanus sum, nihil humanum a me alienum puto" - Terence

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Kong Love Interest

The New York Times has a piece by Clive Wynne on a possible inspiration for the King Kong love interest - the attempt by a Soviet biologist to "prove evolution" by cross breeding humans with chimps in the 1920s.
The young Soviet Union, in its effort to stamp out religion, was determined to prove that men were descended from apes. In 1926, a Soviet scientist named Ilya Ivanov decided the most compelling way to do this would be to breed a humanzee: a human-chimpanzee hybrid.

Ivanov set off for a French research station in West Africa. There he inseminated three female chimpanzees with human sperm. Not his own, for he shared the colonial-era belief that the local people were more closely related to apes than he was. He stayed long enough to learn that his experiment had failed.

Next Ivanov wrote a Cuban heiress, Rosalia Abreu. Abreu was the first person to breed chimps in captivity and had a large menagerie outside Havana. Ivanov asked if any of her male chimpanzees might be available to inseminate a Russian volunteer known to posterity only as 'G."

Now why anyone would think that cross-breeding humans and chimps would prove evolution is beyond me. Buffon, back in the 1780s had tried cross-breeding species to show that the concept species was arbitrary, and that a limited form of common descent united all cats, as it did all cattle, sheep and goats, and various fowl. Buffon was prior to evolutionary ideas, with one exception of no influence (Pierre Maupertuis). He wasn't trying to show that evolution happened, but that local climates and soils affected species more widely than had previously been considered (he also hated and opposed Linnaean ideas, especially the taxonomic ranks).

Hybridisation has always been known. Aristotle discusses it in the History of animals, Book VIII, chapter 28 (605b22-607a7). Aristotle considers what will produce variety in animal life - the main cause is locality, including climate. In Africa ("Libya"), "animals of diverse species meet, on account of the rainless climate, at watering-places, and there pair together; and such pairs will breed if they be nearly of the same size and have periods of gestation of the same length". He goes on to say, "Elsewhere also offspring are born to heterogeneous pairs; thus in Cyrene the wolf and the bitch will couple and breed; and the Laconian hound is a cross between the fox and the dog." He then reports that "they" say that the Indian dog is a bitch-tiger third
generation hybrid.

Linnaeus famously found hybridisation in the genus Peloria, forcing him to revise his species fixism somewhat. This was widely known in the early 19thC - and yet nobody thought that it was "proof" of the recent evolutionary views of Lamarck. If anything, it would have been proof of Buffon's views, before Lamarck. At the end of the 19thC, Flaubert could write, satirically, of two muddle headed amateurs seeking to breed and eat anything they could:
They opened Buffon again and went into ecstasies at the peculiar tastes of certain animals.
They wanted to try some abnormal mating.
They made fresh attempts with hens and a duck, a mastiff and a sow, in the hope that monsters would result, but quite failing to understand anything about the question of species. This is the word that designates a group of individuals whose descendants reproduce, but animals classified as different species may reproduce, and others, included in the same species, have lost the ability to do so.
[Flaubert 1976, 87]
So why would Ilya Ivanov think this would prove evolution (and even worse, disprove God)? It has to do with the nature of Marxist dialectic. Marx was, like Darwin, a philosopher of change, but the basis for change he used wasn't the undirected and tree-like change of evolution; rather it was the progressive and linear change taken by Hegel from Christian providentialism. For Marx and his followers, there was a necessary sequence that had to be followed by historical necessity. For Darwin, there simply wasn't. But in Stalin's Russia, biology was subordinate to political theory, and so evolution had to occur in the same manner as the predicted (and already falsified even then!) evolution of human society.

So hybridising a chimp and human would show that the dialectic of history had formed humans from prior apes. And this view of history, in which apes like chimps are less evolved than humans, is linear, progressive and much more like Lamarck's view of evolution than Darwin's, in which humans and chimps represent independent branches of the evolutionary tree, and in which neither is more evolved than the other except with respect to some particular traits.

Whether Wynne is correct that this inspired King Kong (one of my favourite childhood movies, just like Peter Jackson) or not is irrelevant (although I think it's a long bow). But in no way did Ivanov's experiment test evolution as we know it. Instead, it was perhaps another test of a failed theory, of the dialectic of history.

[That said, there's a lot in Marx of value. But not, it seems to me, for biology.]

Flaubert, G. (1976). Bouvard and P├ęcuchet, with the Dictionary of Received Ideas. Harmondsworth, Penguin.