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Lysenko Case


The debate on the relative influence of heredity and environment took a distinctive form in the Soviet Union in the turbulent years between the 1920s and the 1960s. There was among many committed communists a sense that the socialist revolution should transform everything, including the foundations of knowledge. There was intense debate about what constituted a Marxist approach to every discipline, including biology.

Lysenko's Practice and Theory

Into this context came Trofim Denisovich Lysenko (1898–1976), a young agronomist from the Ukraine, who emerged into the limelight in 1927 in connection with an experiment in the winter planting of peas to precede the cotton crop in the Transcaucasus. The results he achieved in a remote station in Azerbaijan were sensationalized in the national Communist Party newspaper Pravda. The article projected an image of him as a sullen, barefoot scientist close to his peasant roots. Lysenko subsequently became famous for vernalization, an agricultural technique that allowed winter crops to be obtained from summer planting by soaking and chilling the germinated seed for a determinate period of time. Lysenko then began to advance a theory to explain his technique. The underlying theme was the plasticity of the life cycle. Lysenko came to believe that the crucial factor in determining the length of the vegetation period in a plant was not its genetic constitution, but its interaction with its environment. By the mid-1930s he rejected the existence of genes and held that heredity was based on the interaction between the organism and its environment, through the internalization of external conditions. He recognized no distinction between genotype and phenotype.

Lysenko's theory was an intuitive rationalization of agronomic practice and a reflection of the ideological environment surrounding it rather than a response to a problem formulated in the scientific community and pursued according to rigorous scientific methods. Lysenko seemed to achieve results at a time when there was a great demand for immediate solutions and a growing impatience with the protracted and complicated methods employed by established scientists. This brought a sympathetic predisposition to whatever theoretical views Lysenko chose to express, no matter how vague or unsubstantiated.

Even Lysenko's practical achievements were extremely difficult to assess. His methods were lacking in rigor. His habit was to report only successes. His results were based on extremely small samples, inaccurate records, and the almost total absence of control groups. An early mistake in calculation, which caused comment among other specialists, made him extremely negative regarding the use of mathematics in science.

But Lysenko was the man of the hour, one who had come from humble origins under the revolution and who directed all his energies into the great tasks of socialist construction. He was pictured as the model scientist for the new era, and was credited with conscientiously bringing a massive increase in grain yield to the Soviet state, while geneticists idly speculated on eye color in fruit flies.

Genetics on the Defensive

Catching the ideological demagoguery that was beginning to flourish among a certain section of the young intelligentsia, some denounced the science of genetics as reactionary, bourgeois, idealist, and formalist, and contrary to the Marxist philosophy of dialectical materialism. Its stress on the relative stability of the gene was supposedly a denial of dialectical development as well as an assault on materialism. Its emphasis on internality was thought to be a rejection of the interconnectedness of every aspect of nature. Its notion of the randomness and indirectness of mutation was held to undercut both the determinism of natural processes and human abilities to shape nature in a purposeful way.

The new biology, with its emphasis on the inheritance of acquired characteristics and the consequent alterability of organisms through directed environmental change, was well suited to the extreme voluntarism that accompanied the accelerated efforts to industrialize and collectivize. The idea that the same sort of willfulness could be applied to nature itself was appealing to the mentality of those who believed that Soviet man could transform the world. Lysenko's voluntarist approach to experimental results and to the transformation of agriculture was the counterpart of Joseph Stalin's voluntarist approach to social processes, undoubtedly a factor in Stalin's enthusiastic support of Lysenko during this period.

Other political leaders and scientific administrators were not so easily swayed. Geneticists defended their work and had very influential support. There was strong resistance within the Academy of Sciences. The debate reached a climactic point at a special session of the Lenin Academy of the Agricultural Sciences in 1936, devoted to a discussion of the two trends in Soviet biology. The official goal was to achieve a reconciliation of the two schools, some kind of accommodation for genetics within the framework of Lysenko's agrobiology. The outcome was the opposite. The open confrontation of the two trends resulted in drawing the lines more sharply than ever and in highlighting the irreconcilability of the two contrasting approaches.

The sharpest speech in the defense of genetics came from the American geneticist Hermann J. Muller, a foreign member of the Academy of Sciences, who had come to work in the Soviet Union out of a belief in the possibilities of science under socialism. Muller was also inclined to philosophical reflection on science and had definite views as to the place of genetics within the framework of a dialectical materialist philosophy of science. He turned the charge of idealism against the Lysenkoites and accused them of hiding behind the screen of a falsely interpreted dialectical materialism.

The growing ascendancy of Lysenko coincided with the purges that reached into virtually every Soviet institution from 1936 to 1939. The campaign against geneticists became more and more vicious and slanderous. Scientific and philosophical arguments gave way to political ones. The pursuit of genetics was branded as racism and fascism. Geneticists were named and accused of sabotage, espionage, and terrorism. Many were arrested. Of these some were shot, while others died in prison. Still others were witch-hunted, lost their jobs, and were forced into other areas of work. Institutes were closed down. Journals ceased to publish. Books were removed from library shelves. Texts were revised. Names became unmentionable. The 7th International Congress of Genetics, which was scheduled to be held in Moscow in August 1937, was cancelled. When the congress did take place in Edinburgh in 1939, no Soviet scientists were present, not even the internationally respected geneticist N. I. Vavilov, who had been elected its president.

By 1938 Lysenko had been elected to the Academy of Science and replaced Vavilov as president of the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences. In 1940 Vavilov was arrested and Lysenko replaced him as director of the Institute of Genetics of the Academy of Sciences. In 1941 Vavilov stood trial and was found guilty of sabotage in agriculture. After several months of incarceration, Vavilov's death sentence was commuted, but he died in prison in 1943 of malnutrition. Although some of the more outspoken and defiant survived, many gave way under the pressure, engaged in abasing self-criticism, and acknowledged the superior wisdom of Lysenko. The degree of demoralization was overwhelming.


Lysenkoism reached its peak in 1948 with official Communist Party endorsement. But almost immediately after Stalin's death in 1953 it went into decline. Vavilov, for instance, was posthumously rehabilitated in 1955. However Lysenkoism continued to be a force in Maoist China, where a promotional congress was held in 1956. The case was thus a protracted episode in the history of science under Communism, and has been the subject of many commentaries.

These analyze the scientific, political and philosophical issues in quite divergent ways. Soyfer and others represent it as a story of personal opportunism and political terror, as a cautionary tale against the dangers of ideological distortion of science. This position tends to see philosophy and politics as alien impositions upon science. Joravsky, Graham and Lecourt put more emphasis on the complexity of the philosophical issues, although with varying degrees of hostility or sympathy with Marxism. Medvedev's account is of historical significance as a critique coming from someone within the world of Soviet science. Some searching and sophisticated explorations of the issues have come from within Marxism, most notably by Lewontin, Levins, and Young. This position is marked by an insistence that science is inextricatably tied to philosophy and politics, even to ideology, opening up a more nuanced investigation of the varying modes of interaction and a more complex critique of Lysenkoism.


SEE ALSO Communism; Russian Perspectives.


Graham, Loren. (1973). Science and Philosophy in the Soviet Union. London: Allen Lane.

Huxley, Julian. (1949). Heredity, East and West: Lysenko and World Science. New York: H. Schuman.

Joravsky, David. (1970). The Lysenko Affair. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Reprint, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Lecourt, Dominique. (1977). Proletarian Science: The Case of Lysenko, trans. Ben Brewster. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press. Introduction by Louis Althusser.

Levins, Richard, and Richard Lewontin. (1985). The Dialectical Biologist. Boston: Harvard.

Lysenko, Trofim Denisovich. (1946). Heredity and Its Variability, trans. Theodosium Dobzhansky. New York: King's Crown Press.

Lysenko, Trofim Denisovich. (1948). The Science of Biology Today. New York: International Publishers. The Presidential address at the V.I. Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences, July 31, 1948.

Manevich, Eleanor D. (1990). Such Were the Times: A Personal View of the Lysenko Era in the USSR. Northampton, MA: Pittenbruach Press. Foreword by Eric Ashby.

Medvedev, Zhores A. (1969). The Rise and Fall of T. D. Lysenko, trans. Il Michael Lerner, with Lucy G. Lawrence. New York: Columbia University Press.

Roll-Hansen, Nils. (2004). The Lysenko Effect: The Politics of Science. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Sheehan, Helena. (1993). Marxism and the Philosophy of Science: A Critical History. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.

Soyfer, Valerii. (1994). Lysenko and the Tragedy of Soviet Science, trans. Leo Gruliow, and Rebecca Gruliow. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Young, Robert. (1978). "Getting Started on Lysenkoism." Radical Science Journal 6/7: 81–105.

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