Apes and Us: Odd Similarities and Interbreeding Between Humans and Chimpanzees

A most unusual case was brought before Austria’s Supreme Court in 2007, which involved recognition for certain civil rights of a 26-year-old individual named Matthew Hiasl Pan. The campaign had been launched by animal rights activists, who argued that the court should legally recognize the personhood of Mr. Pan, after a provincial judge in the city of Wiener Neustadt had dismissed the case previously.

The catch, of course, was that “Mr” Pan was a chimpanzee. Provincial judges argued that, because of this, the Association Against Animal Factories (the animal rights advocacy group supporting Pan’s personhood) had no legal standing for their case.

Matthew the chimp’s circumstance was not the only case of its kind. Animal rights activists have long argued over whether humans should be the only species on Earth to be recipients of fundamental rights and privileges under the law. In Matthew’s case, while some might have seen the court battle as being little more than a publicity stunt, the Association Against Animal Factories had launched the campaign after Pan’s former home, an animal shelter where he lived alongside one other chimp since he was an infant, filed for bankruptcy. With news of the shelter’s closing, concerns arose over whether Pan and other animals would be left homeless, which the activist group hoped to prevent by making a legal case that the chimp could be legally declared a person.

Occasional legal claims for their personhood aren’t the only areas where our similarity to chimpanzees comes into question. For years, DNA studies have shown a tremendous degree of similarity between the species, enough so that some have argued that there is a genetic basis for the assertion that chimps should not only be recognized as people, but as members of the same genus as us, meaning essentially that chimps are humans. Similar arguments have been made that, conversely, humans aren’t so special as we seem to think, and are essentially just another kind of chimpanzee.

However one chooses to look at it, the similarities are undeniable, particularly in light of what our DNA has to say about it. This raises a number of interesting ethical questions, as we have already seen… but other things come to mind as well. For instance, the long-standing question remains as to whether chimpanzees could actually interbreed with humans, resulting in a sort of “hybrid” offspring.

There is a surprisingly long and complex history behind this idea. One of the earliest stories of alleged human-chimpanzee hybrids (or humanzees as they are often called) dates back to the 11th century, recounted in St. Peter Damian’s De bono religiosi status et variorum animatium tropologia. The story Damian recounts for us tells of a Count Gulielmus, who had an ape which he kept as a pet. Apparently, the ape took on an unusual fondness for the Count’s wife, assuming the role of her lover. Science writer Clifford Pickover writes of the affair that, “One day the ape was jealous when seeing the woman lying with her husband, and the ape attacked the man and killed him. Pope Alexander II showed Damian the offspring of the countess and the ape! The monster, an apelike boy, was called Maimo after his simian father.” It is unclear how much of this account can be taken as literal fact; it nonetheless represents one of the earliest historical references to an alleged human-chimp hybrid offspring.

Prior to World War II, it is widely believed that the Soviets were engaged in experiments aimed at the hybridization of humans with ape species. In 1926, Russian dictator Joseph Stalin reportedly directed biologist Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov to create, “a new invincible human being, insensitive to pain, resistant and indifferent about the quality of food they eat.” Ivanov’s interest in the subject actually predated Stalin’s military aspirations for having a “hybrid” army; he had already given a presentation to the World Congress of Zoologists in Graz in 1910, where he speculated on how one might obtain such a chimera using artificial insemination. Stalin’s interest in the military applications for this prospective cross-breeding operation now provided a financial basis for Ivanovich to begin his ethically questionable work, in addition to removing any fear of possible political repercussions from it.

Ivanov’s experiments began in the middle 1920s with attempts at the insemination of chimpanzees on three instances. After this proved unsuccessful, future experiments involving the fertilization of a female embryo with the sperm of a deceased chimpanzee were carried out, but these also failed. Ivanov received support for his experiments from the Society of Materialist Biologists in the spring of 1929, at which time his studies were moved to a primate facility at the Abkhazian capital of Sukhumi.

There were reportedly at least five women who had volunteered to undergo studies aimed at inducing such an unnatural pregnancy–this time involving an orangutan, rather than a chimpanzee. However, the experiments were delayed with the passing of the ape, and increasing political pressures that had begun to mount. Ultimately, Ivanov was exiled by the Soviet government to Alma Ata, where he died two years later, never having completed his controversial study.

Ivanovich’s studies are among the few “humanzee” experiments that are historically recognized as having occurred, despite their failure. Similar tests were reportedly carried out in China though, and confirmed by an associate of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 1981. The outrageous claim appeared in the February 12 edition of the St. Petersburg Independent, in an article titled “Chinese Aim To Implant Human Sperm In Chimps.” As with the Soviet tests, there is no indication that such tests were successful.

With the similarities that exist between humans, chimpanzees, and other apes, it is only natural to presume that successful cross-breeding between some of these species might at least be possible. Studies performed during the 1970s by J. Michael Bedford indicate that there may also be a degree scientific basis for the idea as well; human sperm has been observed successfully penetrating the protective membrane on the exterior of a gibbon egg.

Whether or not this lends itself to the case for reproduction between humans and various ape species is anyone’s guess, although successful cross-breeding isn’t necessary in order to acknowledge the similarities between us. With time, the political concerns over animal rights may end up redefining what we mean when we say “people”… and if the mounting DNA evidence has anything to do with it, this might happen even sooner than we think.

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