Kissing Cousins

December 12, 2005

This op-ed appeared Dec. 12 in the New York Times.

By: Clive D. L. Wynne
Clive D. L. Wynne, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Florida and the author of “Do Animals Think?,” is working on a book about apes and people.

WHAT is it about watching young women being ravished by oversized middle-aged gorillas that presses so many buttons – and fuels so many King Kong movies, including the latest version opening on Wednesday?
Cynthia Erb in “Tracking King Kong” suggests a few of the factors behind the success of the first King Kong movie in 1933: racist fear of miscegenation, Depression-era desire for the exotic and sexist lust to see a woman taken against her will.

But 70 years of academic study have overlooked one crucial bit of history: a human and ape sexual drama widely reported in North American newspapers in the mid-1920′s that, though now forgotten, must surely have informed the first Kong movie’s creators.

In the mid-1920′s, the culture wars were dominated – as they are today with “intelligent design” – by the debate between creationism and evolutionary thinking. In 1925, John T. Scopes had been found guilty of teaching that mankind arose from something other than divine creation. But the United States was not the only country passionate about the issue. 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.”

At first Abreu was agreeable. But Ivanov made the mistake of approaching Charles Smith of the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism for fund-raising support. Smith was something of a showman – he liked to appear in public with a chimpanzee dressed in a business suit – and went to the newspapers with Ivanov’s proposal. The New York Times thundered, “Soviet Backs Plan to Test Evolution.”

The resulting publicity brought the case to the attention of the Ku Klux Klan, which threatened Abreu with retaliation if she took part in Ivanov’s experiment, calling it “abominable to the creator.” Abreu withdrew her consent.

Before Ivanov could find another chimpanzee breeder, he fell out of favor in one of Stalin’s purges and was exiled to Kazakhstan in 1931. He died a year later, in March 1932, waiting for a train home to Moscow.

Twelve months later the first King Kong movie opened in New York. Though The New Yorker regretted “the need felt for a plot and love interest,” other moviegoers clearly did not agree and the film grossed $89,931 in its first weekend (tickets were only 15 cents). This success, in the darkest days of the Great Depression, saved the film’s makers, RKO, from bankruptcy.

We now know that, though we share much of our genetic code, chimp-human hybrids are probably impossible because the genetic material is arranged quite differently on our chromosomes. But I doubt that will stifle interest in this kind of interspecies romance.

Because, in the end, it isn’t the science, history or philosophy that keeps drawing us back to King Kong, but an age-old story. As the showman Carl Denham says at the end of the original “King Kong,” with the beast dead at his feet on a New York City street: “Oh, no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.”