Dec 12 2010

Despised Theories, No. 3: Lysenkoism

If contemporary ‘modern-synthesis’ genetic determinism was tainted with the over-extrapolations of eugenics, Lamarkism and epigenetics labored under its own set of miasma –brought about as much by differences in political philosophy as by differences in scientific doctrine.

As the great Western monarchies toppled in the aftermath of the Great War (1914-1918) two great ideological models or systems, each of which has their own tributaries, essentially governed the world. They were Capitalism and Marxism. Since this is not a textbook of economic theory, suffice it to say that both have fundamentally differing worldviews about the role of both the state and the individual. Surprisingly enough, this can be illustrated by their relative valuation of the role of genetics, variation, and the methods of inheritance.

Marxist theory holds that concepts such as racism merely serve the interests of the capitalist or employer class by dividing black and white workers, reducing their potential unity and thus their bargaining power. Marxists at the turn of the Twentieth century believed in the coming of the “new man” without vices; in essence a new superior species, albeit one caused by socio-economic changes, not genetics. At the time the only significant country espousing Marxist theory was the Soviet Union, which became a communist state in the aftermath of the collapse of both the Russian monarchy and the fledgling post-monarchy Russian republic.

Trofim Denisovich Lysenko

Soviet doctrine, especially after the rise of Josef Stalin (1880-1953) held that genetics, and especially eugenics, were capitalistic devices. Some of this animosity stems from rather trivial sources, such as Stalin’s irritation that the basic laws of inheritance were discovered by a religious cleric, others from core concepts of Marxism, which dictated that change can essentially be the product of willpower as much as circumstance. This led the Soviets to reject methods of biological improvement, such as eugenics, as “fascist science.”

The Soviet campaign against genetics began in the 1930’s and was orchestrated by Trofim Lysenko (1898-1976), an agricultural scientist. Under Lysenko, many traditional Soviet geneticists were executed or exiled to the Gulag prison system. In 1948, genetics was officially declared “a bourgeois pseudoscience” and all geneticists were fired from work.

Lysenko had Stalin’s ear because he could promise amazing improvements in crop yields by methods that, he claimed, directly disproved capitalist biology and genetics. Soviet economic policy was characterized by series of “great leaps forward,” where a combination of resources and human industry were supposed to be able bypass certain early stages of industrial development that are required by capitalism. These were usually done as part of “Five Year Plans.” The reason for the great rush to industrialize was that according to Marxist theory actual socialism or communism, being based on the redistribution of wealth to the most oppressed sectors of society, couldn’t come to pass until that society’s wealth was built up enough to satisfy the whole population.

Although Lysenko’s theories and actions have come down to us as Lysenkoism, he preferred the term Michurinism in honor of Ivan Vladimirovich Michurin (1855-1935) one of the founding fathers of scientific agricultural selection. Michurin did much important work on the hybridization of plants of similar and different origins and locations. One quote of Michurin’s was widely popularized in the Soviet Union and neatly encapsulates the Soviet idea of a “great leap forward” in genetics:

“We cannot wait for favors from Nature. To take them from it — that is our task.”

Lysenko worked principally with foodstuffs and many of his early successes, widely popularized in such publications as Pravda, may have been apocryphal at best. These included a method of fertilizing fields that did not require fertilizer and a way to grow certain pulses and legumes in winter. His most famous series of experiments centered on a process to increase the success of wheat crops by soaking the grain and storing the wet seed in snow to refrigerate over the winter. This is termed vernalization, and it is a known biological process: many temperate plants have a vernalization requirement and must experience a period of low winter temperature in order to be able to initiate or accelerate the flowering process or leave their dormant state. Lysenko’s assertion was that the verbalized state could be inherited, i.e. that the succeeding generations of vernalized plants would no longer require vernilization.

Most of the research of Lysenko and his associates (Lysenkoites) was later shown to be faked or the result of actions that could be considered to require greater investments of labor than vernalization. However, Lysenko was what we would now call a “political animal” and spent considerable time and effort to denounce the conventional academic scientists and geneticists, with the assertion that their research was not helping the Soviet people. Under Stalin, Lysenko was put in charge of the Soviet Academy of Agricultural Sciences and was responsible for the elimination of all study and research involving Mendelian genetics and the expulsion, imprisonment and death of hundreds of scientists. In 1948, genetics was officially declared “a bourgeois pseudoscience” by the Soviet government and the ban on researching Mendelian genetics was not officially lifted until the 1960s.

  1. Gould, SJ. The Mismeasurement of Man. WJ Norton. New York (1981)
  2. Proctor R. Racial Hygiene: Medicine Under the Nazis (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988): 108.

Portions excerpted from Fundamentals of Generative Medicine copyright 2010, Drum Hill Publishing, USA.

One response so far

One Response to “Despised Theories, No. 3: Lysenkoism”

  1. Carina says:

    I always find it intriguing when a person is able to use ignorance and dogma to ostracize and almost eradicate others for doing something that they themselves are doing as well. While under another name, I feel it would suffice to say that Lysenko, was indeed working with genetics. Whether it was Mendelian or not, he was part of the society he ostracized. Nonetheless, it was ingenious of him to impart an idea that what he was doing was so far removed from the others, that he was able to continue his work that later become fraudulent with the expense of the demise of his colleagues. Interestingly heinous historical moment.

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