Lysenkoism is a censorious name for a movement that demands either censure or faith in agrobiology, as Soviet agronomist Trofim Denisovich Lysenko (1898–1976) called his aggressive creation. He also named it Michurinism, in tribute to the plant breeder Ivan V. Michurin, who won fame with claims of improving fruit while scorning genetics. Obscurantist (mrakobes ), the word a geneticist flung at Lysenko in 1935, recurs even when scholars bend over backward to avoid censure. Lysenkoism defies efforts to disentangle claims of scientific knowledge from assertions of practical authority and from the use of state power to achieve progress.
The Rise of Lysenkoism
The movement emerged as Joseph Stalin's "revolution from above" (1928–1932) forced peasants into collective farms, where the dream of a leap to scientific agriculture suffered practical failure. Lysenko saved the dream with a string of recipes for quick solutions of long-standing problems. He was a poorly trained agronomist with great talent for snap judgments, grand claims, and celebrity. "Vernalization," his breakthrough to fame, began as a scheme to moisten and chill seeds for protection against drought and freezing, with tests on a few plots, crude theorizing about stages in plant development and about heredity, testimonials by some agricultural officials, a rush to mass use on collective farms, journalistic hype—and telltale silence on long-term results. Yet the movement thrived until the 1950s.
Farm bosses quietly discarded Lysenko's recipes, but he had new ones, with crude theorizing pitted against standard science to justify mass campaigns for rapid triumphs that could not otherwise be won. Lysenko argued that the Soviet Union could not afford to lose time conducting preliminary small-scale testing, but had to keep moving forward, applying theories to the masses while still working out the methods in the laboratory. His view of theory and practice fit in with Stalin's "great break," a leap from reasoned arguments over planning to furious drives toward blue-sky goals, most famously summed up in Stalin's 1931 speech to business managers: "We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must race through that distance in ten years. Either we do it, or they will crush us." In 1941 Nazi armies that had subdued Western Europe struck the Soviet Union, winning a victory that proved the wisdom of berserk modernization. Pragmatists who would dispute that logic must confront tyrannical pragmatism in a context of backwardness: willful drive combined with brush-off or jail (or death) for specialists offering reasoned warning. That is how farming by fiat gained the reassurance of science in Lysenkoism, until long-term self-defeat grew obvious to political bosses, who rehabilitated standard science and its specialists, posthumously in some cases.
By 1939 Lysenkoists ruled many institutes of biological science; universal rule was decreed in 1948, at a highly publicized conference where Lysenko announced that the Communist Party's Central Committee endorsed his speech. Stalin himself had edited the speech, but Lysenko was not allowed to boast of that. Long after, when the system fell apart and archives opened, a historian found Lysenko's draft with red lines and marginal notes by Stalin. Stalin deleted, with sarcasm, a claim that science, like ideology, is divided into bourgeois and proletarian camps. In 1950 he published that rule: science is not divided by class conflict. He ignored his own much-publicized urging of practical men to tolerate no caution from specialists, to "smash" what is "old and dying in science." Such zigzags between willfulness and restraint are blips on a Communist trajectory through faith in swift modernization and social justice to frustration and apostasy.
The highest leaders started to back away from Lysenkoism in the 1950s, when a recipe for tree planting failed Stalin's "Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature." Saplings in clusters did not thin themselves for the greater good of shelter belts, as Lysenko's "Soviet Darwinism" had predicted. Massive die-off occurred, a practical fiasco that was only hinted at in public, lest faith in authority be shaken. But biologists were allowed to revive their dispute with Lysenko's denial of competition within species. They could even hope for larger freedom implied by Stalin's startling decree of separation between science and ideology.
Stalin published that criticism of his own system in 1950, challenging specialists to make tests of free thought within their fields, though power remained centralized and violent. The hazards of such boldness within a despotic system kept most specialists quiet and still hinder historians' recognition that Communist bosses learned by bossing, with enormous waste and cruelty. Stalin's efforts to avert self-defeat by calling for criticism from below foreshadowed greater efforts of that sort by his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, and eventually by Mikhail Gorbachev, who pushed criticism of the old system to the limit in the 1980s. The death of Stalin in 1953 set his lieutenants into retreat from mass terror and worship of a "chief" (vozhd' ) as methods of rule and into easing of thought control, with growing confusion over such willful practicality as Lysenko boasted of. Khrushchev helped revive genetics, ordered farm specialists to tell him when he was wrong, and scolded those who criticized his campaign for planting maize all over the country. He had grown it at his dacha. He also rebuked ministers of agriculture for ignoring Lysenko's final recipes: training cows to increase butterfat and composting earth with fertilizer before spreading. "Harebrained scheming" was the laconic explanation that the Central Committee gave out in 1964 for the abrupt dismissal of Khrushchev. Genetics was fully reestablished in research and education, but an exposé of its repression was stifled. A meeting of experts demolished Lysenko's butter and earth schemes, ignoring his angry reminders of past testimonials by practical bosses. He was retired to one farm. Without power, his movement melted away.
Lysenkoism and Human Evolution
Issues of human heredity entered the furor over Lysenkoism in the late 1930s, when the ideological bureaucracy condemned any interest in the topic as racism, if not Nazism. Even medical genetics fell under the ban until the 1960s, when the field revived in defiance of Lysenko's dismissal of genes. The closest Lysenko himself ever came to issues of human heredity was to brush aside the whole topic: "Man, thanks to his mind, ceased long ago to be an animal." That statement was a caricature of the rule that the emergence of Homo sapiens marks a transition from biological to sociocultural evolution. Major issues in biology and historical sociology are entangled in that rule, as Soviet Marxists discovered in the 1920s. In the 1930s ideological bureaucrats stifled further thought about human evolution and about ideas of progress; lifeless scholasticism served a faith that was withering away.
In any case the common tendency of Marxists, East and West, has been to separate social from biological evolution. The human breed is declared equally gifted in all its races and classes, which need only a suitable environment to show the common potential. A contrary faith ascribes social ranking to inherited experience of rule and submission. But an upper-class master-race bias can also make use of arguments denying that acquired characters are inherited; one need only assume that genes determine place in the social hierarchy. Any way one turns it, ideology shapes beliefs and reasoning about winners and losers.
Genetics actually supports apologists of no nation, race, or class. Precise science favors a vague egalitarianism: individual differences in hereditary capacities are far greater than average group differences may prove to be. Lysenkoism had nothing to say on such issues; it simply ignored them. But ideas of progress drove its claim of practicality, its support by Soviet men of power, and their disillusion and return to faith in world science as worked out by autonomous specialists. The presumptive utility of such science, a major reason for its flourishing, involves a dogma of universality, a belief that claims of knowledge which win out in developed contexts are practically useful everywhere. That dogma is weakly challenged by talk of "ethnoscience" or "indigenous knowledge" as anthropologists try to be respectful in studying, say, rain dancing and belief in its influence on weather. The challenge by Lysenkoism was strong, for proponents seized on its boast of superseding the science of advanced countries.
See also Biology ; Eugenics ; Evolution ; Genetics ; Science, History of ; Social Darwinism ; Totalitarianism .
Hudson, P. S., and R. H. Richens. The New Genetics in the Soviet Union. Cambridge, U.K.: English School of Agriculture, 1946.
Joravsky, David. The Lysenko Affair. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970.
Lysenko, Trofim D. Agrobiology. Moscow: Foreign Language Publishing House, 1954.
Soyfer, Valery N. Lysenko and the Tragedy of Soviet Science. Translated by Leo Gruliow and Rebecca Gruliow. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1994.
Steele, Edward J., Robyn A. Lindley, and Robert V. Blanden. Lamarck's Signature: How Retrogenes Are Changing Darwin's Natural Selection Paradigm. Reading, Mass.: Perseus, 1998.
Jean-Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet de Lamarck was born in Picardy, France, on August 1, 1744. He received a Jesuit education at Amiens and briefly pursued a military career before turning to science. Lamarck's interests ranged widely from natural history to meteorology, and with the reorganization of the Jardin du Roi into the Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle in 1793, he was appointed to the professorship of invertebrates. Lamarck's central concern, reflecting his Enlightenment values, was to present a thoroughly naturalistic and developmental account of all aspects of the natural world. His developmental geology followed uniformitarian principles, and his deism rendered irrelevant the optimism of natural theology and dissolved the distinction between humans and other animals. Lamarck believed that "life" is a force imposed on the universe by the creator, but he rejected any idea of a plan for the development of species. His early interest in botanical classification led to his conversion to a transformationist position after 1800, allowing him to explain a wide range of biological phenomena in one coherent system. Lamarck died in relative obscurity on December 18, 1829. His most influential works were his Hydrogéologie (1802), Recherches sur l'organisation des corps vivants (1802), Philosophie zoologique (1809), and Histoire naturelle des animaux sans vertèbres (1815–1822).
Although Lamarck himself founded no school of thought, his ideas became a standard point of reference and controversy during the century that followed. His failure to develop a convincing theory of the transmutation of species—in an era increasingly favorable to biological mutability—can be traced to his inability to articulate a credible mechanism for such change. He rejected the idea of species extinction, and evolution through the natural selective pressures never occurred to him. Lamarck's own theory about the transmission of acquired traits from parents to offspring lacked empirical support, and he seems not to have appreciated the significance of biogeography or the fossil record offered by paleontology for developing a complete evolutionary account of life. His posthumous reputation suffered substantially from the campaign of Georges Cuvier (1769–1832) against the insufficiencies of his theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Nevertheless, Lamarck played a seminal role in broaching the basic idea of species change and in supporting it with a justification that rivaled natural selection in plausibility until the integration of Mendelian genetics with the theory of Charles Darwin (1809–1882) after 1900.
Neo-Lamarckism was a late-nineteenth-century movement with variants in France, Britain, and North America. Following the publication Darwin's Origin of Species (1859), naturalists who were skeptical of Darwin's insistence on natural selection drew upon Lamarck's theory to elaborate an evolutionary science of life driven by an alternate mechanism. In France his main ideas were preserved through the efforts of his colleague Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (1772–1844), and elaborated a generation later by biologists such as Alfred Giard (1846–1908). The neo-Lamarckian school in the United States was led by paleontologist Edward Cope (1840–1897) and other scientists who combined diligent fieldwork with a distinctive theistic metaphysic. Their journal The American Naturalist called for a new natural theology built upon perceived evidence of divine purpose in the environmental adaptation of organisms. In contrast, the French neo-Lamarckian school was secular in flavor, rejecting any intent of discovering divine purpose in nature, illustrating how neo-Lamarckism as a scientific theory was compatible with a wide variety of conflicting theological and metaphysical interpretations.
See also Darwin, Charles; Evolution; Neo-Darwinism
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peter m. j. hess
Chevalier de Lamarck (1844–1829) was a French naturalist and invertebrate zoologist. He is best known for a theory of evolution developed in his book, Philosophie zoologique, published in 1809. This theory, known today as lamarckism, is based on the so-called “inheritance of acquired traits,” meaning that characteristics that an organism may develop during its lifetime are heritable, and can be passed on to its progeny.
The anatomical, biochemical, and behavioral characteristics that an individual organism displays as its develops through life is known as its phenotype. The phenotype that an individual actually develops is somewhat conditional, based on two key factors: (1) the fixed genetic potential of the organism, that is, its genotype, and (2) the environmental conditions which an organism experiences as it grows. For example, an individual plant (which has a particular genotype) that is well supplied with nutrients, moisture, and light throughout its life will grow larger and will produce more seeds than if it did not experience such beneficial conditions. Today, the effects of environment on genotypic expression are known as phenotypic plasticity.
However, at the time of Lamarck and other biologists of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the mechanisms of inheritance were not known. Nor were they known to Lamarck’s great successors, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, independent discoverers of the theory of evolution by natural selection, first published in 1859. Scientists thought that the developmental contingencies of individual organisms (which they called “acquired traits”) could somehow become incorporated into the genetic make-up of individuals and so be passed along to offspring. By this means, they thought, evolution could occur. For example, if the ancestors of giraffes had to stretch vigorously to reach tree foliage high in the canopy, this act might have caused the individual animals to develop somewhat longer necks, and this acquired trait somehow have been inherited by their descendants. Eventually, this mechanism could have resulted in the appearance of the modern, extremely long-necked giraffe.
Modern biologists, however, have a good understanding of the biochemical nature of inheritance. They know that phenotypic plasticity is limited by the fixed genetic potential that exists in all individuals. Therefore, the idea of the inheritance of acquired traits is no longer influential in evolutionary science. Instead, biologists believe that evolution largely proceeds through the differential survival and reproduction of individuals whose genetic complement favors these characters in particular environments, compared with other, “less-fit” individuals of their population. If the phenotypic advantages of the “more-fit” individuals are due to genetically fixed traits, they will be passed on to their offspring. This results in genetic change at the population level, which is the definition of evolution. This is, essentially, the theory of evolution by natural selection, first proposed by Darwin and Wallace in 1859. Darwin believed that Lamarckian inheritance of acquired characters was a secondary contributor to evolution, but was mistaken.
Chevalier de Lamarck was a French naturalist and invertebrate zoologist who lived from 1844-1829. He is best known for a theory of evolution developed in his book, Philosophie zoologique, published in 1809. This theory, known today as Lamarckism, is based on the socalled "inheritance of acquired traits," meaning that characteristics that an organism may develop during its lifetime are heritable, and can be passed on to its progeny.
The anatomical, biochemical, and behavioral characteristics that an individual organism displays as its develops through life is known as its phenotype. However, the phenotype that an individual actually develops is somewhat conditional, and is based on two key factors: (1) the fixed genetic potential of the org anism (or its genotype; this refers to the specific qualities of its genetic material, or DNA [deoxyribonucleic acid]); and (2) the environmental conditions which an organism experiences as it grows. For example, an individual plant (with a particular, fixed genotype) that is well supplied with nutrients , moisture, and light throughout its life will grow larger and will produce more seeds than if that same plant did not experience such beneficial conditions. Conditional developmental possibilities as these are now known to be due to differing expressions of the genetic potenti al of the individual (biologists refer to the variable expression of the genome of an organism, as influenced by environmental conditions encountered during its development, as "phenotypic plasticity."
However, at the time of Lamarck and other biologists of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the mechanisms of inheritance were not known (this includes Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverers of the theory of evolution by natural selection , first published in 1859). These scientists thought that the developmental contingencies of individual organisms (which they called "acquired traits") were not initially fixed genetically, but that they could somehow become incorporated into the genetic make-up of individuals, and thereby be passed along to their offspring, so that evolution could occur. For example, if the ancestors of giraffes has to stretch vigorously to reach their food of tree foliage high in the canopy, this physical act might somehow have caused the individual animals to develop somewhat longer necks. This "acquired" trait somehow became fixed in the genetic complement of those individuals, to be passed on to their offspring, who then also had longer necks. Eventually, this presumed mechanism of evolution could have resulted in the appearance of the modern, extremely long-necked giraffe.
Modern biologists, however, have a good understanding of the biochemical nature of inheritance. They know that phenotypic plasticity is only a reflection of the variable, but strongly fixed genetic potential that exists in all individuals. Therefore, the idea of the inheritance of acquired traits is no longer influential in evolutionary s cience. Instead, biologists believe that evolution largely proceeds through the differential survival and reproduction of individuals whose genetic complement favors these characters in particular environments, compared with other, "less-fit" individuals of their population. If the phenotypic advantages of the "more-fit" individuals are due to genetically fixed traits, they will be passed on to their offspring. This results in genetic change at the population level, which is the definition of evolution. This is, essentially, the theory of evolution by natural selection, first proposed by Darwin and Wallace in 1859.