Soviet Genetics and Lysenkoism
I've always found it curious that growing up in the United States, I'd heard so little about Soviet science. Certainly the Soviets conducted science in a totally different way than that of Americans, but what was behind the difference? The inclusion of Marxism in USSR science led to dialectical materialism, a philosophy which discounts mysticism and spirits while explaining nature through an organisation of lesser components comprising a whole. This philosophy, itself akin to communism, fit in nicely with the communist system and was a convenient way to justify advancement in the sciences. In the field of Soviet genetics, a specific brand of dialectical materialism had dismal results and led to the deaths of some of the world's most promising scientists, but how?
It all started with the Ukrainian born Trofim Lysenko. Born in 1898, Lysenko grew to become a budding agronomist, first studying at the Kiev Agricultural Institute and eventually conducting research at an agricultural experiment station in Azerbaijan. He studied the vernalization (cold treatment) of wheat in order to enhance yields and bring agriculture to otherwise unarable land. Drawing from the work of Ivan V. Michuran (1855-1935), Lysenko gradually built his reputation as an agronomist working to stave off impending famines. Michuran emphasized the role of the environment in the fate and heredity of organisms, features that Lysenko would later adopt and exaggerate. The theory pioneered by Lysenko, coined as Lysenkoism, had several fundamental pillars:
At the time (1920-30's) agriculture in the USSR was in a state of disrepair. Already lacking quality arable land, and being subjected to extreme winters and droughts, the USSR struggled immensely to maintain sufficient wheat output and suffered devastating famines. Lysenko came to the rescue with vernalization, which he employed on winter wheat varieties in order to prevent the destruction of wheat crops by extreme cold. His experiments were often devoid of controls, adequate sample size, and statistical analyses. Ultimately this research appeared to be providing higher yields, but the application of vernalization, in reality, seemed to have minimal effects. This was thought to be, in large part, due to the unpopular collectivization of Soviet agriculture. Many disgruntled peasants preferred to conduct sabotage on their crops in order to preserve their property rights. The losses attributed to agricultural sabotage masked the potential effects that Lysenko's vernalization was also wrecking on crops. It is thought that his vernalization methods were mostly unsuccessful in practicality, because seeds sown in winter, (to be vernalized) were failing due to rot and poor climate. The Communist Party favored Lysenko's Marxist theory nonetheless, and he won the favor of Joseph Stalin. By 1940, Lysenko became the director of the USSR National Academy Institute of Genetics, and soon after, criticism of his theory was outlawed. At the same time some Soviet geneticists were skeptical of Lysenkoism and spoke out resulting in their ultimate demise.
One such example is that of Nikolai Vavilov, a prominent Soviet scientist with great potential. Vavilov was interested in understanding the origin of crop species, he even described crop mimicry in weeds (Vavilovian mimicry), one of which is gold-of-pleasure's mimicry of flax seed. Vavilov was unfortunate in having expressed views opposed to Lysenkoism; he was arrested and died in prison of starvation in 1943. Sadly, Vavilov was only one of many to be sentenced during Stalin's brutal purge of "traitorous" scientists.
Lysenko came to embody the perfect Soviet scientist, and he went on to proliferate a range of pseudoscience and outlandish claims. He once claimed to have discovered a method of fertilizing fields without the use of fertilizers, and even that he could force wheat to produce rye seeds. The death of Stalin in 1953 hailed a new era, one in which criticism was gradually accepted and overtime Lysenko's power diminished. The Soviets cut their losses, admitted the blemish that was Lysenkoism and eventually shifted their focus to adopting American agricultural techniques and Mendelism. Lysenko continued his research, but much of the attention was drawn away from it. Lysenko died in 1976, and by that time he had published over three hundred papers. Admittedly, not all of Lysenko's work was bogus, but his theory of heredity through environment had long been known to be baseless (especially in Western genetics).
What lessons are to be learned from Lysenko? Firstly, experiments should be unbiased, include controls, rigorous statistics, and allow for negative results. Secondly, Lysenkoism is a prime example of the utmost importance of separation of science from idealism and politics.
Graham, L., (1987). Science, philosophy, and human behavior in the Soviet Union. New York: Columbia University Press.
Levins, R., & Lewontin, R. (1985). The Problem of Lysenkoism. The Dialectical Biologist.
Lysenko, T. D. (1946). Heredity and its Variability.
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