Biotechnologies of the Future

Nikolai Krementsov

«…”Любовь и голод владеют миром”. Ergo: чтобы овладеть миром – человек должен овладеть владыками мира».

Евгений Замятин, Мы (1920)

The Valley of New Life embodies humanity’s triumph over Nature. The valley’s inhabitants enjoy technologies yet unheard of in the “old” world. They use atomic energy, ride super fast “magnetic” trains, transmit electricity wirelessly, and fly on “electrical wings.” But it is incredible advances in various biotechnologies that make the valley a true place of the future. Even though Il’in does not use the term in his novel, the notion of biotechnology held considerable currency in 1920s Russia. In 1922, Mikhail Zavadovskii, one of the leaders of experimental biology, wrote of “the time, when advances in the study of living nature will create conditions for the flowering of biotechnology [biotekhnii] alongside the technology of dead materials, [and when] the biologist’s tasks in making new life forms, now seem akin to [H. G.] Wells’ fantasy, will be as mundane as those of a construction engineer.”1 Although the narrator apologizes for “possible inaccuracies” in his descriptions of the biotechnologies available in the valley, for he “lacks fundamental biological training,” he asserts that he “cannot avoid biology because it occupies such a prominent place in everything I had lived through” [4]. Indeed, the most astonishing feature of the Valley of New Life—a new race of human beings, which comprise its “native” population—is created by the application of new biotechnologies developed by the valley’s founders.

Furthermore, echoing Zamyatin’s assertion that “love and hunger rule the world. Ergo, to rule the world, one must master love and hunger,” the valley’s inhabitants mastered both with the help of biotechnologies. They conquer hunger through the virtually unlimited production of synthetic foods, employing a variety of chemical and biological processes. And they abolish love by first separating sex and reproduction and then eliminating sex altogether. They reduce human reproduction to the in vitro fertilization of sex cells obtained from embryonic tissue cultures and the subsequent cultivation of human embryos in “incubators.” They control sex drive in adults by the careful application of sex hormones produced by isolated glands of internal secretion grown in artificial media, thus “eliminating all the sex characteristics and passions so harmfully affecting modern humans around the globe” [63]. After a few generations, they discontinue the “production” of females completely, since females “proved to be unsuitable for the Valley of New Life, because they are physically weaker and mentally less stable than males” [63]. As a result, the family is no longer the main social grouping of the valley population. The new human beings have no parents, siblings, spouses, or children, and thus, experience no emotions and affections associated with such biological and social roles.

Il’in goes beyond Zamyatin’s vision to answer the questions of WHO and HOW would rule the world when humanity has mastered love and hunger. Not surprisingly, the valley’s leading scientists form its governing council (presided over by the Queensleys). And the main instrument of their governance is “mind control.” The valley’s founders possess intricate apparatuses that allow them not only to “read” their subjects’ thoughts, but also to control their emotions, communicate orders, and inculcate ideas. In fact, the entire system of education and upbringing of the new human beings is built upon these psychotechnologies.

Yet, as the narrator tells us, “there was nothing fantastic, in the full sense of the word,” in all the bio- and psychotechnologies employed in the Valley of New Life: “There were only the advances of science, the beginnings of which had been known in Europe” [33]. Indeed, in his novel, Il’in compiled a virtual anthology of new research in experimental biology and medicine conducted during the 1920s by scientists all over the world, including Russia. He directly referred to the studies of tissue cultures and organ transplants pioneered by Franco-American surgeon Alexis Carrel, as well as to the investigations into the mechanisms of fertilization and embryonic development initiated by German zoologist Oscar Hertwig. He used the results of extensive studies on isolated organs, hormones, artificial insemination, vitamins, interspecies hybridization, cancer, and many other “hot” new subjects, which captivated the attention of experimental biologists and physicians at the time. Even the seemingly fantastic notion of “mind control” was firmly grounded in the extensive contemporary efforts to uncover the possible mechanisms of hypnosis and telepathy.

Surprising as it may seem, in the early 1920s, Soviet Russia became one of the world’s leading centers in experimental research on “thought transfer.”2 In August 1918, less than a year after the Bolsheviks had come to power, Vladimir Durov, a renowned animal trainer and founder of the country’s most famous animal theater, managed to secure patronage of the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment (Narkompros), an agency in charge of education, arts, and sciences headed by eminent Bolshevik Anatoly Lunacharskii. Clearly, Durov’s first concern was the survival of his animals and his theater amidst the turmoil of the Civil War, epidemics, and famine that came on the tails of the Bolshevik Revolution.

But he also had other ambitions. Durov believed that his remarkable achievements in training various animals—not just the usual assortment of such circus animals as dogs, pigs, and monkeys, but also seals, lemurs, badgers, and elephants—were based on his ability to command animals to perform particular tricks telepathically. Durov wanted not merely to continue performances of his animal theater, but to establish a scientific laboratory to investigate telepathic communications between humans and animals. Lunacharskii was clearly taken by this idea. He personally issued a mandate to protect, fund, and expand Durov’s enterprise. Narkompros even provided Durov with a large mansion (requisitioned from a prominent Moscow merchant) to house his theater and the laboratory.3

Furthermore, Lunacharskii apparently asked Vladimir Bekhterev, Russia’s foremost psychiatrist and neurologist, to check out Durov’s claims and take part in his investigations. At that very time, Bekhterev was actively lobbying Narkompros and Lunacharskii personally to accept his proposal to establish an Institute of Brain Research in Petrograd for his own studies. He certainly was more than willing to accommodate the prospective patron. Especially since Bekhterev regularly used hypnosis in his clinical practice (particularly in the treatment of alcoholism) and was interested in investigating its possible neural mechanisms. Whatever Bekhterev’s motivations were, he quickly amended his proposal to include in his plans a special “department of zoopsychology” to be directed by Durov.4 But Durov declined the offer to join Bekhterev’s Institute. In the end, Narkompros established the Institute of Brain Research in Petrograd for Bekhterev and the Practical Laboratory of Zoopsychology in Moscow for Durov. The two institutions and their respective heads soon launched collaborative studies.

These first studies were quite simple and consisted of Bekhterev’s (and/or his co-workers’) observations, which were conducted in both Petrograd and Moscow, of Durov’s favorite dogs named Mars and Pikki performing certain tricks. Typically, Durov wrote a sequence of actions he would command a dog to perform on a piece of paper and gave it to Bekhterev. He then looked the dog in the eyes for several minutes and the dog did exactly what Durov had written it should do. Bekhterev was impressed. In 1920, he devoted a considerable portion of his just established journal, Issues in the Studying and Upbringing of Personality, to these investigations.5 The experiments seemingly confirmed Durov’s ability to communicate with his animals without using voice, gestures, facial expressions, or any other observable means. But they did not answer the questions of how exactly he was able to do it and what possible mechanisms could underlay these supposedly telepathic communications.

A plausible hypothesis regarding the mechanisms of “thought transfer” was not long in coming. On January 6, 1922, a large audience gathered in the Red Army House of Enlightenment in Moscow to listen to a “popular-scientific lecture” with the intriguing title “Human thought—electricity.” The lecturer—engineer Bernard Kazhinskii—told his audience that human thought was merely a particular form of electro-magnetic energy generated by nervous cells, which could probably be registered by a specially designed apparatus. He suggested that a study of this “mental energy” be conducted “under clinical-laboratory conditions” to lay a foundation for “psychotechnology” (psikhotekhnika)—a new field of science soon to be advanced by “engineer-psychologists.”6

Kazhinskii’s lecture was but a theoretical speculation inspired by recent advances in radio and wireless telegraphy.7 It seems unlikely that a thirty-year old engineer (who had just a few weeks prior come to Moscow from the provinces in search of employment) actually hoped to turn his personal “revolutionary dream” of becoming an “engineer-psychologist” into reality. But his dream did come true. As it happened, Aleksandr Leontovich, chairman of the physiology department at Moscow Agricultural Academy and member of Durov’s laboratory, attended Kazhinskii’s lecture. Leontovich’s scientific interests revolved around the anatomy, histology, and physiology of the nervous cell. He had no trouble in visualizing Kazhinskii’s speculations about condensers, resisters, inductors, and electric circuits in the human brain as particular structures in different types of nervous cells and their assemblages he had observed under the microscope in the course of his own research. In Kazhinskii’s imaginary apparatus, which could register “mental energy,” Leontovich saw a perfect instrument for investigating possible mechanisms of Durov’s communications with animals. Durov apparently shared Leontovich’s enthusiasm. A few months later, Kazhinskii became a staff member of Durov’s Practical Laboratory of Zoopsychology. He soon published an updated version of his 1922 lecture as a brochure, enticingly titled Thought Transfer. The brochure’s cumbersome subtitle revealed that in fact Kazhinskii was searching for “factors, which make it possible for the nervous system to emit electromagnetic waves.8

The same year, Kazhinskii’s search received an unexpected boost: renowned physicist Petr Lazarev, member of the Russian Academy of Sciences and director of the Institute of Biophysics established in 1920 under the auspices of the People’s Commissariat of Health Protection (Narkomzdrav), published his “ionic theory of excitation.”9 Supported by Lazarev’s decade-long experiments, this theory explained various electrical phenomena observed in nervous and muscle tissues (such as the propagation of electrical impulses along the neuron, for instance) as the result of the changing concentrations of ions within and without the living cell. Lazarev’s theory thus provided a plausible physico-chemical mechanism that could explain the generation of electro-magnetic waves by the brain, and hence—telepathy and hypnosis. As Lazarev himself put it, “every sensory or motor act originating in the brain must be emitted into the outside environment in the form of an electromagnetic wave. … [This] allows us to understand the mechanism of hypnosis: … an electromagnetic wave generated by the nervous centers of one individual induces in the [nervous] centers of another individual an [electromagnetic] impulse that starts an oscillating reaction in the centers and generates excitation.”10

In early 1924, Durov published a 500-page volume, Animal Training, that detailed his concept of telepathic communications between humans and animals, supplemented by the protocols of his experiments conducted from 1919 to 1923. The volume also incorporated Lazarev’s ideas about the possible mechanisms of telepathy, as well as Kazhinskii’s schemes regarding the practical ways of studying it.11 It was but a short step from Kazhinskii’s proposal to create an apparatus for receiving and recording of “brain waves” to the idea of an apparatus that could amplify and transmit such waves. In an epilogue to his book, tellingly titled “My ‘scientific fantasy’,” Durov boldly took this step, envisioning a future in which such apparatuses would become “a powerful means to create better thoughts and ideas for humanity and leave no place for harmful thoughts and ideas, which run contrary to the interests of masses, large collectives, and ultimately the laborers of the entire world.”12

Il’in’s novel thus captures a particular preoccupation with technological/engineering solutions to the issues of human nature and human destiny, which permeated 1920s Russia. Biotechnology and psychotechnology together constitute the very foundations of his “valley of new life.” Given Il’in’s professional interests, he was undoubtedly familiar with a large body of experimental research related to the issues of reproduction, internal secretions, sex, and embryonic development. After all, the specialized medical and biological journals he must have read regularly (from the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology to the New Surgical Archive to the Journal of Experimental Biology and Medicine) were full of publications on these subjects, as were the proceedings of various professional conferences he attended. And this specialized knowledge visibly informs his fictional depictions of the biotechnologies used to create the new human race. But it seems highly unlikely that Il’in read Bekhterev’s journal, or Durov’s monograph, not to mention Kazhinskii’s and Lazarev’s treatises. How then could he possibly learn of their studies on telepathy to render their results and promises in his novel?

  1. M. M. Zavadovskii, Pol i razvitie ego priznakov (Moscow: GIZ, 1922), 235. 

  2. Extensive English-language literature on the history of “psychical research” deals predominantly with Western Europe and the United States and is almost completely silent about similar developments in Russia. See, for instance, a recent special issue of Studies in History and Philosophy of Science devoted to the subject and its editor’s introduction: Andreas Sommer, “Psychical research in the history and philosophy of science. An introduction and review,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 2014, vol. 48 (Part A): 38-45. 

  3. A large collection of documents related to the establishment of Durov’s laboratory is preserved among the Narkompros materials housed in the State Archive of the Russian Federation (hereafter—GARF), fond 2307. 

  4. Materials pertaining to the establishment of Bekhterev’s institute could also be found in GARF, fond 2307 and 482. 

  5. See V. M. Bekhterev, “Ob opytakh nad ‘myslennym’ vozdeistviem na povedenie zhivotnykh,” Voprosy izucheniia i vospitaniia lichnosti, 1920, 2: 230-265. Almost thirty years later, an abridged English translation of this work appeared in the United States, see W. Bechterew, “”Direct Influence” of a Person upon the Behavior of Animals,” Journal of Parapsychology, 1949, 13(3): 166-176. 

  6. Materials pertaining to Kazhinskii’s lecture are preserved in the Documental Archive of the Moscow Polytechnic Museum. I am profoundly grateful to Galina Savina for alerting me to this source and providing copies of relevant documents. 

  7. Since Heinrich R. Hertz’s discovery of electromagnetic waves, the hypothesis of “brain waves” became a mainstay of “psychical research.” The analogy between telepathy and radio was very popular in the 1920s and 1930s. See, for instance, Ferdinando Cazzamalli, “Fenomeni telepsichici e radio onde cerebrali,” Neurologica, 1925, vol. 42: 193-218; Upton Sinclair, Mental Radio (New York: Albert & Charles Boni, 1930); Giuseppe Calligaris, Telepatia. Radio onde cerebrali (Milano: Hoepli Editore, 1934). 

  8. B. B. Kazhinskii, Peredacha myslei: Faktory, sozdaiushchie vozmozhnost’ vozniknoveniia v nervnoi sisteme elektromagnitnykh kolebanii, izluchaiushchikhsia naruzhu (Moscow: Novaia derevnia, 1923). 

  9. P. P. Lazarev, Ionnaia teoriia vozbuzhdeniia (Moscow: GIZ, 1923). 

  10. Ibid, 129. 

  11. V. V. Durov, Dressirovka zhivotnykh. Psikhologicheskie nabliudeniia nad zhivotnymi dressirovannymi po moemu metodu (40-letnii opyt). Novoe v zoopsikhologii (Moscow: Universal’noe izdatel’stvo, 1924). 

  12. Ibid, 306. 

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