Lysenko: Pathological Science

By | March 22, 2012

Charles Rulon

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).

Concluding thoughts

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,” <>

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *