Emeritus, Life Sciences, Long Beach City College
In the former U.S.S.R. the story of Soviet genetics from 1937 to 1964 was one of the most tragic examples, with disastrous results, of a pseudo-scientific belief rising to absolute dogma. During this time a plant physiologist and charlatan named Trofim D. Lysenko rose to power, eventually achieving absolute control over all genetic and agricultural research. Lysenko not only destroyed the lives of thousands of scientists and stifled the development of biology in the U.S.S.R. for decades; he also had a devastatingly destructive influence on Russia’s entire economy.[i]
Stalin came into power as a successor to Lenin in 1929. At same time Russia was experiencing a crisis in agricultural production; severe losses in wheat were occurring. Stalin was power crazy, cruel, treacherous and intolerant of brilliant individualists. He institutionalized terror and during his reign (1929-1953) was responsible for the death of millions.
In 1931 Stalin demanded solutions to the serious agricultural problems in the U.S.S.R. Vavilov, president of the Soviet Academy of Sciences and a world famous geneticist, responded that at least a decade of basic research would first be required. When Stalin became outraged that Russian science could not quickly provide the agricultural miracles he demanded, the green light flashed for Lysenko. Lysenko claimed that he could solve Russia’s agricultural problems in under three years. He convinced government officials that their previous failures to produce rapid improvement in the genetic traits of agricultural plants was the fault of the bankrupt ideology of “bourgeois” science that had become corrupted by the false genetics of the West. Lysenko insisted, instead, (with badly controlled experiments and falsified data) that those agricultural plants which had been made more productive through adjusting the levels of nutrients, water, light and so on could genetically pass on this increased productivity to their offspring.
This claim, known in science as the “inheritance of acquired characteristics” already had been thoroughly scientifically disproved. For example, although a tree can be forced through strenuous trimming to remain small for many years, the resulting bonsai tree has not changed genetically. Trees produced from its seeds will grow to normal size if left unpruned. As another example, for thousands of years the feet of young Chinese girls were tightly bound for the rest of their lives (a very painful practice which severely stunted the growth of women’s feet). Yet when the practice was finally discontinued the foot size of Chinese women had not changed at all; the acquired trait of small feet had not been inherited. And then there are the thousands of years of male circumcision, yet penile foreskins still exist.
Yet, Lysenko’s claim that favorable plant characteristics as a result of the plants’ interaction with its environment could be passed on genetically (a belief that came to be known as Lysenkoism) was politically quite attractive to Stalin, not only because it promised quick agricultural improvement, but also because it implied that loyalty, courage and political dedication to the Communist Party might also be genetically passed on.
The rise of power-driven pathological science
Scientific truth is born from the scientific method. Strong differences of opinion are both common and healthy in science. But in the U.S.S.R. of the 1930s, with its spy hunts and feverish searches for “enemies of the people,” unfounded political accusations became commonplace. Lysenko came to realize that making political accusations against his scientific opponents was a very effective way of eliminating them. So in the 1930s those geneticists and other biologists who disagreed with Lysenko were simply declared to be anti-Marxist saboteurs and enemies of the State who should be unmasked, driven from the temple of Soviet science and annihilated. Slandering and defaming of others helped to conceal Lysenko’s pseudo-science. Even the scientifically well-established gene theory of heredity was denounced because it was seen as “bourgeois, reactionary, metaphysical and barren.” Stalin, who saw himself as a scientific genius, took Lysenko’s side and the majority of Soviet geneticists “disappeared”.
Lysenko’s power continued to grow, along with his fabrication of data. By appealing to the scientifically ignorant power structure Lysenko slowly rose from being an unknown in the early l930s to a position of such influence by l940 that he was able to have Vavilov, the president of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, arrested as a spy, convicted of agricultural sabotage and imprisoned in 1940, where he died a few years later. Vavilov’s scientific collaborators and friends were also arrested and many later perished in prison.
However, by 1948 Lysenko knew he was in trouble. Soviet genetics and agricultural science was now lagging far behind that in the United States. He realized that only the total suppression of all opposition by Stalin, himself, could keep him in power. So using skills honed over the previous decade, Lysenko was able to convince Stalin that all the remaining opposition had to go. Soon, hundreds of the best and most qualified Soviet biological scientists were dismissed or demoted on the basis of fabricated accusations of sabotage, or of supporting anti-Marxism.
With all opposition routed, Lysenko was promoted to president of the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences. With Stalin’s support he became virtually a dictator of genetics of the U.S.S.R., the undisputed authority with full control over agriculture and most of biology. The Lysenkoites immediately attempted to destroy all remaining traces of opposition. Classical genetics, one of the most important branches of the biological sciences, was declared a state menace. Textbooks were destroyed or rewritten; names and pictures were blackened out; all Western genetics literature was removed from the libraries. Science courses from secondary schools to medical colleges were required to teach Lysenkoism. The whole body of genetic knowledge that had been accumulated in thousands of experiments around the world in the course of half a century was discarded by simply stating that it came from rotting capitalist countries.
Lysenko’s rule became supreme. His portraits were hung in all scientific institutions; busts of him were sold in art stores; cities erected monuments to him; folk songs were even written about him. For the next several years (1948-1953) he was in total control. The full power of the Stalinist police state was employed to silence all opposition. When Stalin died in 1953, he was replaced by Khrushchev, also a supporter of Lysenko.
Finally, following several serious agricultural failures and a growing awareness that Khrushchev’s reckless economic policies had proved disastrous to the U.S.S.R., Khrushchev was removed from power in 1964. Shortly afterward Lysenko was finally exposed and publicly disgraced. A degree of sanity had finally returned to Russian genetics. But by now its agriculture was in a shambles.
Forces at Work
What were the forces operating that so dramatically shifted government support away from the widely accepted genetic and biological sciences of the time to the pseudo-science of Lysenko?
a. Destructive agricultural policies: For many years prior to Lysenko, Soviet agricultural policies had been based more on achieving maximum agricultural output at minimum financial cost, regardless of the environmental costs (soil erosion, salting up of the land). Thus the stage was set for agricultural disasters.
b. Control of media: Soviet political leadership determined which scientific trends would be supported by the press and which would be suppressed. When Lysenko received the endorsement of Stalin the mass media became his puppet. Up to 1964 the central press did not allow any serious articles criticizing Lysenkoism, although many such manuscripts were submitted. Instead, hundreds of articles in support of Lysenko and criticizing classical biology were published.
c. Isolationism: An important factor in the prolonged domination of Lysenkoism was the isolation of the U.S.S.R. from world science. By 1937 the attempt by any Soviet scientist for scientific interchange with foreign colleagues was looked on as a political crime and a cause for arrest. Peer review was discouraged as a plot by the powerful to enslave the peasant class. Academic inquiry was seen as an insult to the great Soviet people. This isolation of Soviet scientific hypotheses from external criticism contributed much to the flourishing of many false beliefs which rose to become dogmas.
d. Strong centralization: Rigid centralization in the U.S.S.R. permitted a single administrative structure to impose a mandatory curriculum in biology for all institutions of higher learning. Since all funds supporting scientific research came from one central source, disagreeing with this source could mean the end of one’s career. Thus, the capturing of key administrative posts by the Lysenkoites secured for them full control over virtually all biological and agricultural science, plus all educational facilities.
Lysenkoism: Parallels today
Over the last few decades, many parallels have appeared between the anti-global warming activists and the Lysenkoites in the former U.S.S.R. These anti-science activists have all rejected considerable scientific knowledge painstakingly gathered and, instead, have misrepresented and distorted the evidence. They have bypassed peer review science journals and gone directly to uninformed and/or ideologically biased public, politicians, legislators, government officials and other leaders who then decide what is “good science” and what isn’t. In 2004 the Bush White House received failing marks in science from 62 leading scientists for suppressing EPA studies and for misrepresenting the findings of the National Academy of Sciences and other experts on climate change.[ii]
Also, although our media is not directly government controlled as it was in the U.S.S.R., large conservative corporations are heavily invested in ownership. Plus, reporters are mostly scientifically illiterate and committed to presenting both sides equally. So silly superstition and serious science are often given the same weight. There are also deadlines to make; no time to do research. And many reporters don’t seem to care about the objective truth of the matter. “A story’s a story.” Pleasing readers and making money is more important than exercising scientific rigor.
False doctrines rising to prominence
As with Lysenkoism, any number of scientific disproved claims have risen to prominence in the U.S. For example, over 40% of Americans still reject the fact of our biological evolution in favor of Genesis creation myths. Another widely-held myth is that having a homosexual orientation (being erotically and/or romantically drawn to the same sex) is a free choice gays make—that they can become “straight” if they really wanted to. Still another wide-spread, but scientifically nonsensical belief, is that fertilized eggs and tiny, mindless, senseless, human embryos in Mississippi are actually Mississippians and thus should have the same right to life as you or I. Still other widely held beliefs that contain considerable scientific nonsense involve homeopathy, acupuncture, astrology, graphology, naturopathy, therapeutic touch and subliminal perception. Nor have visitations from outer space, or anything paranormal, or anything supernatural ever been scientifically documented. Yet, true believers abound, along with their testimonials, government conspiracy theories and/or messages from their god(s).
The memory of Lysenko lingers on as a remarkable and tragic episode in the history of modern science and as a warning of what could happen when science is perverted for political, religious and other ideological ends. Freedom of critical expression is a fragile flower that may be easily crushed by charlatans and demagogues unafraid of using the power of the state for their own religious, greedy, or political ends
[i]Much information on Lysenko in this article came from the book, The Rise and Fall of T.D. Lysenko, by Zhores A. Medvedev, 1969, Columbia University Press. Medvedev was in charge of the laboratory at the Institute of Medical Radiology in Russia and published nearly one hundred papers, mostly on the molecular aspects of development and aging. His manuscript on Lysenko was translated into English by Michael Lerner, Professor of Genetics at the University of California, Berkeley. Other references used included: The Lysenko Affair (1970) by D. Joravsky: Harvard University Press; Proletarian Science? The Case of Lysenko (1978), by D. Lecourt: Schocken; Lysenko and the Tragedy of Soviet Science(1994), by V. Soyfer: Rutgers University Press.
[ii]“Restoring Scientific Integrity in Policy Making,” <www.ucsusa.org>