Hugo Reinhold, Ape with Skull. A copy of the sculpture was gifted to Lenin.

Project (2018)

Evolution in Times of Revolution: Darwinism, Nature, and Ideology in the Soviet Union

This project examines the conflicted history of Darwinism in Soviet Russia and the political implications of the theory of evolution for Bolshevik theories of revolution. Darwinism, the Bolsheviks contended, was a cornerstone in their fight against religion and for a new, atheist, and materialist culture. Yet Darwinism as a gradualist theory that embraced chance, rejected teleology, and decentered humankind posed unique challenges to key Bolshevik suppositions about progress and nature.

Through the Moscow Darwin Museum, founded in 1907 and still existing today, this project offers a reappraisal of the history of Darwinism in Soviet Russia. The museum’s exhibits and scientific research were shaped by the Soviet Darwinists struggle with the question whether evolution indeed develops gradually, as Darwin had argued, or in leaps, thus confirming Bolshevism’s understanding of history as progressing via revolutions. In addition to popularizing science, the museum housed researchers who worked on comparative psychology, cryptozoology, and extinction. What unites these seemingly disparate projects and research is the central problem of defining humankind’s place in nature. What was the relationship between the laws of human and natural history? How do humans influence evolution? Are we truly just an animal among other animals? In sum, the Darwin Museum with its long history functioned as a key site for research, for shaping future generations of biologists and nature protectionists, and for negotiating the close but conflicted relationship between evolutionary theory with Bolshevik revolutionary ideology.