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The Disastrous Effects of Lysenkoism on Soviet Agriculture

The Disastrous Effects of Lysenkoism on Soviet Agriculture


The disastrous effects of Lysenkoism, a term used to describe the impact of Trofim Denisovich Lysenko's (1898-1976) influence upon science and agriculture in the Soviet Union during the first half of the 20th century, darkly illustrates the disastrous intrusion of politics and ideology into the affairs of science. Beyond a mere rejection of nearly a century of advancements in genetics, Lysenkoism—at a minimum—made worse the famine and deprivations facing Soviet citizens. Moreover, Lysenkoism brought repression and persecution of scientists who dared oppose Lysenko's pseudoscientific doctrines.


Ten years after the 1917 Revolution in Russia, a plant-breeder in the struggling Soviet Union named Trofim Denisovich Lysenko observed that pea seeds germinated faster when maintained at low temperatures. Instead of concluding that the plant's ability to respond flexibly to temperature variations was a natural characteristic, Lysenko erroneously concluded that the low temperature forced its seeds to alter their species.

Lysenko's conclusions were based upon, and profoundly influenced by, the teachings of Russian horticulturist I.V. Michurin (1855-1935), who was a holdover proponent of the discredited Larmarckian theory of evolution by acquired characteristics (i.e., that organisms evolved through the acquisition of traits that they needed and used). In the nineteenth century, French anatomist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) attempted to explain such things as why giraffe had long necks. Lamarck had reasoned that a giraffe, by stretching its neck to get leaves, actually made its neck lengthen and that this longer neck was then somehow passed on to offspring. According to Lamarck, the long-necked giraffe resulted from generation after generation of giraffe stretching their necks to reach higher into trees for food.

Unfortunately for Lysenko—and even more so for Soviet science—Lamarck's theory of evolution by acquired characteristics was incorrect. Scientists now understand that individual traits are, for the most part, determined by an inherited code contained in the DNA of each cell and are not influenced in any meaningful way by use or disuse. Further, Darwinian natural selection more accurately explains the long necks of the giraffe as a physical adaptation that allowed exploitation of a readily available food supply that, in turn, resulted in enhanced reproductive success for "long necks."

Despite the fact that Lamarck's theory of evolution by acquired characteristics had been widely discarded as a scientific hypothesis, a remarkable set of circumstances allowed Lysenko the opportunity to sweep aside more than 100 years of scientific investigation to advocate a "politically correct" way to enhance agricultural production. When Lysenko promised greater crop yields, a Soviet Central Committee—desperate after the famine in the early 1930s—listened with an attentive ear. The very spirit of Marxist theory, Lysenko claimed, called for a theory of species formation which would entail "revolutionary leaps." Lysenko attacked Mendelian genetics and Darwinian evolution as a theory of "gradualism."

Lysenko constructed an elaborate hypothesis that came to be known as the theory of phasic development. One of Lysenko's more damaging ideas was to "toughen" seeds by treating them with heat and high humidity in an attempt to increase their ability to germinate under harsh conditions. The desire to plant winter instead of spring forms of wheat was brought about by the need to expand Russian wheat production into areas that were climatically colder than traditional growing areas. In particular, the Nazi invasion during the Second World War made critical the planting of previously fallow and colder eastern regions. For centuries, winter wheat was the principal Russian crop. Deprived of its Ukrainian breadbasket, the Soviet Union struggled to survive following Hitler's onslaught. Faced with famine—and subsequently a massive movement of farming away from the onslaught of an advancing Nazi army—Soviet agricultural planners and farmers became unconcerned with the high politics of agricultural science or long-term scientific studies.

Lysenko ruled virtually supreme in Soviet science, and his influence extended beyond agriculture to all areas of science. In 1940, Stalin appointed Lysenko Director of the Soviet Academy of Science's Institute of Genetics. In 1948 the Praesidium of the USSR Academy of Science passed a resolution virtually outlawing any biological work that was not based on Lysenko's ideas.

Although thousands of experiments carried out by geneticists all over the world had failed to provide evidence for—and actually produced mounds of evidence against—Lysenko's notions of transmutation of species, Lysenko's followers went on to make increasingly grandiose claims regarding yields and the transformation of species. Not until 1953, following the death of Stalin, did the government publicity acknowledge that Soviet agriculture had failed to meet economic plan goals and thereby provide the food needed by the Soviet State.


Despite the near medieval conditions in which the majority of the population of Czarist Russia lived, the achievements of pre-Revolutionary Russia in science rivaled those of Europe and America. In fact, achievement in science had been one of the few avenues to the aristocracy open to the non-nobility. The Revolution had sought to maintain this tradition, and win over the leaders of Russian science. From the earliest days Lenin and Trotsky, in particular, fought, even in the midst of famine and civil war, to make available considerable resources to scientific research.

In the political storms that ravaged the Soviet Union following the rise of Stalin, Lysenko's idea that all organisms, given the proper conditions, have the capacity to be or do anything had certain attractive parallels with the social philosophies of Karl Marx (and the twentieth-century French philosopher Henri Bergson) that promoted the idea that man was largely a product of his own will. Enamored with the political correctness and with the "scientific merit" of Lysenko's ideas, Stalin took matters one step further by personally attacking modern genetics as counter-revolutionary or bourgeois science. While the rest of the scientific world could not conceive of understanding evolution without genetics, Stalin's Soviet Union used its political power to suppress rational scientific inquiry. Under Stalin, science was made to serve political ideology.

The victory of the Stalin faction within the ruling party changed the previously nurturing relationship between the Soviet State and science. Important developments in science (including what we would term today as social sciences) were terminated by state terror. During the 1930s and 1940s, scientists were routinely executed, imprisoned, or exiled. Soviet science was largely carried forward in specially built labor camps, where scientists denounced as "saboteurs" continued their work in total isolation from the outside world.

Under Stalin and Lysenko, scientific truth became both incompatible and inappropriate to political truth. Information on genetics was eliminated from Soviet biology textbooks, and Lysenko attempted to reduce his conflict with classical geneticists to political contradictions. Lysenko stated that there existed two class-based biologies: "bourgeois" vs. "socialist, dialectical materialist." The entire agricultural research infrastructure of the Soviet Union—a country with millions whose lives teetered on starvation—was devoted to a disproved scientific hypothesis, and inventive methods were used to falsely "prove" that there was no famine and that crop yields were actually on the rise.

Soviet Central Committee support of Lysenko was critical. It was known that Stalin clearly expressed his positive attitude toward the idea of the inheritance of acquired characters and his overall support of Lamarckism. In such an atmosphere, some of Lysenko's supporters even denied the existence of chromosomes. Genes were denounced as "bourgeois constructs." Under Lysenko, Mendelian genetics was branded "decadent" and scientists who rejected Lamarckism in favor of natural selection became "enemies of the Soviet people."

Despite the stifling atmosphere created by Stalin's totalitarianism, some scientists resisted. Soviet geneticist Nikolay Ivanovich Vavilov (1887-1943) attempted to expose the pseudo-scientific concepts of Lysenko. As a result, Vavilov was arrested in August 1940 and he died in a prison camp. Throughout Lysenko's reign there were widespread arrests of geneticists who were uniformly denounced as "agents of international fascism." In literal fear of their lives, many Soviet scientists cowered. Some presented fraudulent data to support Lysenko, others destroyed evidence that showed he was utterly wrong. It was not uncommon to read the public letters of scientists who had once advanced Mendelian genetics in which they confessed the errors of their ways and extolled the wisdom of the Party.

Based on his misunderstanding of genetics, Lysenko developed methods that falsely predicted greater crop yields through a hardening of seeds and a new system of crop rotation. Lysenko's system of crop rotation eventually led to soil depletion that required years of replenishment with mineral fertilizers. Under Lysenko's direction, hybrid corn programs based on successful U.S. models were stopped—and the research facilities destroyed—because Lysenko philosophically opposed "inbreeding."

When Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971) assumed the post of Soviet Premier following the death of Stalin in 1953, opposition to Lysenko began to grow. Khrushchev eventually stated that under Lysenko, "Soviet agricultural research spent over 30 years in darkness." In 1964, Lysenko's doctrines were discredited, and intensive efforts made toward the reestablishing of Mendelian genetics and bringing Soviet agricultural, biological, and genetics research into conformity with Western nations.

Ultimately, the rejection of Lysenkoism was a victory for empirical evidence. Science also triumphed over Lysenkoism because there was a manifest rejection of incorporating Marxist rhetoric into the language and theoretical underpinning of genetics.


Further Reading


Graham, L. Science in Russia and the Soviet Union. Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Joravsky, D. The Lysenko Affair. Harvard University Press, 1970.

Lysenko, T.D. Soviet Biology: A Report to the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences. Birch Books, NY: International Publishers, 1948.

Lysenko, T.D. Agrobiology. Moscow: Foreign Language Press, 1954.

Soyfer, V. Lysenko and the Tragedy of Soviet Science. Rutgers University Press, 1994.

Periodical Articles

Darlington, C.D. "T.D. Lysenko." (Obituary) Nature 266 (1977): 287-88.

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