Yesterday, I fell into a hole, again.

Since I began studying the history of eugenics in 2014, I have fallen into this metaphorical hole many times. The journey starts on the surface: I have a clear destination, a route and the time in which I will cover it. En route, I find a place which was not on my map (nor on topic), but it is fascinating and I am lured off course. My timetable is forgotten as I wander further into the dark labyrinth of the place I have stumbled upon.

Yesterday, it began when I read and researched “The Sterilization Proposals: A History of their Development” by C.P. Blacker in the Eugenics Review, January 1931. In the paper I saw the name Dr R.A. Gibbons who had been influential in the Eugenics Society. When I searched for “Dr R.A. Gibbons Eugenics,” the search engine focused on the last two words and I saw this paper at the top of the results: “Beyond Eugenics: The forgotten scandal of hybridizing humans and apes”.

Humans and apes?

Surely not! …but this was a paper on an academic website, so I clicked the link and read in Alexander Etkind’s abstract:

“In the mid-1920s, the zoology professor Ilia Ivanov submitted to the Soviet government a project for hybridizing humans and apes by means of artificial insemination. He received substantial financing and organized expeditions to Africa to catch apes for his experiments. His project caused an international sensation. The American Association for the Advancement of Atheism announced its fund-raising campaign to support Ivanov’s project but gave it a scandalously racist interpretation.”

The article told how Howell S. England, spokesman of the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism, promoted the project in the United States: according to England, the idea interested “prominent American patrons of science,” though the article mentioned no names. England confidently forecast that the experiments would be successful and that “the evolution of humankind would be proved to everyone’s satisfaction.” This crazy talk became crazier still when England predicted that types of monkeys would be bred with particular human races: orangutans with “humans from the yellow race, gorillas from the black race, chimpanzees from the white race” and gibbons with Jews.

Shocking stuff, and a couple of hours wasted? Perhaps, though on reflection it reinforced my observations that I have made from the study of eugenics:

Firstly, there was (and is) no shortage of “scientists” who will push the boundaries of what is acceptable for the breakthrough that they hope will secure their place in history.

Secondly, then and now, “Science” does not exist in an isolated bubble (knowledge for its own sake) but reflects the underlying philosophies and mores of the society that produces it. In this case, atheists and Darwinists hoped that the experiments would “prove” evolutionary theory, deny man’s place in God’s creation and even “prove” that God did not exist.

Thirdly, Etkind’s article pointed out the link between Ivanov’s expedition and Voronov’s work in relation to monkey glands. It is an important link because it shows that Ivanov’s work was connected to his era, rather than being aberrant to it.

Fourthly, many of the ideas in what are known as “the inter-war years” are forgotten because the history of the 20th century is dominated by World War I and World War II. In my own case, I used to gloss over the inter-war years because I perceived them as “treading water” while waiting for the second world war.

I now realise that the inter-war years were the cradle of “progressive thought” in which the ideas that are still in play in our time were developed: eugenics, Malthusianism, cross-species reproduction, sex education, transhumanism, technocracy, eutelegenesis and transgenderism have re-emerged today.

Interestingly, they are presented as new endeavours that have arisen as a result of (capital-S) “Science” and framed by a promise that this will deliver great benefits to mankind.

Regrettably, many people are conditioned to accept this information uncritically and I have experienced my share of “why are you reading about that? Why don’t you learn something useful?” Or they will dismiss the story as an aberration, or as a crazy story that probably didn’t happen, or even a “conspiracy theory”. Or sadly (and more common than it should be) set up a false dichotomy “So, you don’t think that scientists should seek new knowledge?”

In the investment industry (in which I worked for many years), a reliable indication of future performance is past performance. In a similar way, the principle applies here.

We live in an age in which “the only constant is change” is seen as a cliched, but nonetheless true, statement. It is, of course, nonsense: the only real constant is human nature, which does not appear to have changed much over recorded history.

The drivers of change are ideas and, while people are born and die, ideas are what transcend perishable humans. When ideas become attached to human desires to conquer death, overcome ageing, create unlimited wealth fame and fortune, control the world, sexual prowess, (insert your own folly here), they harness a limitless source of renewable energy.

The failed ideas of the inter-war years are being rolled out again in our times as if they were new. If they failed last time, catastrophically in many cases, why are they being tried again?

“Yes, but,” I can almost hear the reply, “science is much more advanced than it was 100 years ago.” And indeed it is. Though had you asked Professor Ilia Ivanov the same question in 1910, the year he presented his ideas to the International Zoological Conference in Graz, he could have given the same answer. What’s more, he would have been more justified in that answer than someone answering that question today.

Just because you can make these things work in a materialistic, mechanistic way, does not mean that you should. Just because you can, doesn’t make it right. At a time when the creation of euphemistically named “chimeras” have been proclaimed in our newsfeeds, we need to pay attention to the failed ideas that created the world in which we live. Past performance indicates future performance.

Mark Sutherland is the curator of hallidaysutherland.com, a website that celebrates the life and work of Dr Halliday Sutherland. Mark is an experienced executive coach and facilitator, and an accomplished...