Science Philosophy and Practice: Lysenkoism: A Study in the Dangers of Political Intrusions into Science
Science Philosophy and Practice: Lysenkoism: A Study in the Dangers of Political Intrusions into Science
Lysenkoism was a pseudoscientific belief system associated with Soviet plant breeder Trofim Denisovich Lysenko (1898–1976). Lysenko rejected nearly a century of advances in genetics, the study of inherited characteristics in living things. His influence on science and agriculture in the Soviet Union in the 1930s through the early 1950s illustrates the disastrous consequences that may ensue when politics and ideology interfere with science. Lysenkoism became the Soviet government's official program and had major effects on government policies. It worsened food shortages in the Soviet Union, and real scientists were imprisoned for disagreeing with it. Some were killed.
Historical Background and Scientific Foundations
Ten years after Russia's 1917 revolution, which led to the formation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), a plant breeder named Trofim Denisovich Ly-senko observed that pea seeds germinated faster when maintained at low temperatures. Instead of reasoning that the plant's ability to respond flexibly to temperature variations was a natural characteristic—as further testing would have confirmed—Lysenko erroneously concluded that low temperatures forced seeds to alter their inherited characteristics.
Lysenko's erroneous conclusions were influenced by the teachings of Russian horticulturist I.V. Michurin (1855–1935), a holdover proponent of the Larmarckian theory of evolution by inheritance of acquired characteristics (the belief that species can evolve by individuals acquiring traits during their lifetime and then passing them on to offspring). Lamarckism had, at one time, been a legitimate scientific theory. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, French anatomist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829) attempted to explain such adaptations as the long necks of giraffes by arguing that a giraffe, by stretching its neck to get leaves on high tree branches, actually made its neck lengthen, and that this individual would pass a longer neck on to its offspring. Thus, according to Lamarck, the extremely long necks of modern giraffes were the result of generation after generation of giraffes stretching their necks to reach higher for food. The evidence for Lamarckian evolution was once thought convincing: Even English naturalist Charles Darwin (1809–1882), discoverer of the real source of adaptive evolution (natural selection of random variations in inherited characteristics), taught that Lamarck's mechanism contributed to evolution.
Unfortunately for Lysenko and Soviet science, Lamarck's theory of evolution by the inheritance of acquired characteristics was incorrect. By the beginning of the twentieth century, scientists had already discarded Lamarckian evolution in favor of Darwin's concept of natural selection. Today, we know that the inheritable aspects of traits are determined by long, ladder-like molecules of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) found in the nucleus of almost every cell. These molecules of inheritance are not influenced by the use, disuse, or even loss of body parts. Darwinian natural selection explains the long necks of giraffes as the result of the greater feeding success, over many generations, of giraffes who happened, thanks to random changes in DNA, to have longer necks. Giraffes who, by chance, had shorter necks or other unfavorable characteristics have not left any offspring.
Despite the fact that Lamarck's theory of evolution by inheritance of acquired characteristics had already been widely discarded as a scientific hypothesis in the early twentieth century, a remarkable set of circumstances gave Lysenko the opportunity to sweep aside more than a hundred years of scientific investigation and advocate his own schemes for enhancing agricultural production. When Lysenko promised greater crop yields to government officials, a Soviet Central Committee, desperate to increase food production after famine in the early 1930s, listened with an attentive ear. Lysenko claimed that the spirit of Marxist theory (on which the Soviet Union was based) 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 ideas was to “toughen” seeds by treating them with heat and high humidity to increase their ability to germinate under harsh conditions. The desire to plant winter instead of spring forms of wheat was heightened by the need to expand Russian wheat production into areas climatically colder than traditional growing areas. The Nazi invasion during the Second World War made it critical to plant in colder, previously fallow eastern regions as the USSR was deprived of its Ukrainian breadbasket by Hitler's onslaught.
Faced with famine, Soviet agricultural planners became unconcerned with long-term scientific studies, making them vulnerable to Lysenko's unfounded claims. They believed what they wanted to believe, and looked no further into the validity of Lysenko's claims.
Lysenko ruled virtually supreme in Soviet science for years, extending his influence beyond agriculture to other areas of science. In 1940, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin (1922–1953) 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 not based on Lysenko's ideas.
Although thousands of experiments carried out by geneticists all over the world failed to provide evidence for Lysenko's notions of transmutation of species—indeed, produced vast amounts of evidence against it—Lysenko's followers made increasingly grandiose claims regarding crop yields and the transformation of species. Not until 1953, following the death of Stalin, did the Soviet government publicity acknowledge that Soviet agriculture had failed to meet economic plan goals and thereby provide the food needed by the Soviet State.
The Lysenkoist episode reversed a longstanding tradition of Russian scientific progress. Despite the near-medieval conditions in which most of the population of Czarist Russia lived, the scientific achievements of pre-revolutionary Russia rivaled those of Europe and America. In fact, achievement in science had been one of the few avenues to wealth 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, revolutionary leaders Lenin and Trotsky fought, even in the midst of famine and civil war, to make resources available for scientific research.
In the political storms that ravaged the Soviet Union following the rise of Stalin, including mass executions of dissidents and engineered famines in the Ukraine that killed millions, Lysenko's idea that all organisms, given the proper conditions, have the capacity to be or do anything seemed to have certain attractive parallels with the social philosophies of Karl Marx (and the twentieth century French philosopher Henri Bergson), who promoted the idea that man was largely a product of his own will. Enamored for ideological reasons with Lysenko's pseudoscientific claims, Stalin took matters one step further by personally attacking modern genetics as “counter-revolutionary” or “bourgeois” science. (“Bourgeois” is a French word meaning upper- and middle-class; in Soviet jargon, it was equivalent to “enemy of the revolution.”) While the rest of the scientific community knew that evolution could not be understood without Mendelian genetics, Stalin used violence and political power to suppress scientific inquiry. Under Stalin, science was made to serve political ideology: Scientists were required to say the things that those in power wanted them to say, regardless of physical reality.
The victory of Stalin's 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 the 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 publicly as “saboteurs” continued their work in isolation from the outside world.
Information on genetics was eliminated from Soviet biology textbooks as Lysenko attempted to reduce his conflict with classical geneticists to politics. He stated that there existed two class-based biologies: “bourgeois” (bad) and “socialist, dialectical materialist” (good). The entire agricultural research infrastructure of the Soviet Union—a country where millions teetered on the edge of 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 to his success. It was known that Stalin clearly expressed his positive attitude toward the idea of the inheritance of acquired characteristics and his overall support of Lamarckism; in such an atmosphere, some of Lysenko's supporters even denied the existence of chromosomes (dark objects in cell nuclei containing heritable material; it was not known until the 1950s that this material is the molecule DNA). 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.”
Some scientists resisted. Soviet geneticist Nikolay Ivanovich Vavilov (1887–1943) tried to expose Lysenko's claims as pseudoscientific. As a result, Vavilov was arrested in August 1940 and later died in a prison camp. Throughout Lysenko's reign there were widespread arrests of geneticists, who were denounced as “agents of international fascism.” In fear for their lives, many Soviet scientists submitted. Some presented fraudulent data to support Lysenko, others destroyed evidence showing that he was wrong. Letters by scientists who had once advanced Mendelian genetics were made public in which they confessed the errors of their ways and extolled the wisdom of the Party.
Lysenko falsely predicted greater crop yields through hardening of seeds and a new system of crop rotation. His crop rotation method 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 ended and the research facilities destroyed because Lysenko opposed what he termed “inbreeding.”
When Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971) assumed the post of Soviet Premier following the death of Stalin in 1953, opposition to Lysenko began slowly to grow. Khrushchev eventually stated that under Lysenko “Soviet agricultural research spent over 30 years in darkness.” In 1964, Lysenko's doctrines were officially discredited, and intensive efforts were made toward reestablishing Mendelian genetics and bringing Soviet agriculture, biology, and genetics into conformity with Western nations.
Modern Cultural Connections
The ultimate rejection of Lysenkoism was a victory for empirical evidence: Lysenkoism simply did not work. The only results it produced were agricultural disasters.
Lysenkoism has entered our cultural heritage in several ways. In the early 2000s, some scholars of the English author George Orwell (1903–1950) argued that he was inspired to write his seminal novel 1984, about political control of people's perceptions of reality, after friends drew his attention to Lysenkoism. Today, the word “Lysenkoism” is often used when one person wishes to accuse another of distorting scientific facts to please political masters or further a non-scientific ideological agenda. For example, in the 1980s U.S. biologist Stephen Jay Gould (1941–2002) was accused of attacking the IQ theory of human intelligence for political reasons, and one of his fellow scientists accused him of “Neo-Lysenkoism.” (The analogy was weak: Gould never sought to silence those who disagreed with him and had no form of government power backing him up.) Proponents of “intelligent design” and other forms of creationism sometimes accuse Lysenko's old foes, evolutionary biologists, of Lysenkoism: “Lysenkoism is now rearing its ugly head in the US,” wrote Jonathan Wells in 2006, “as Darwinists use their government positions to destroy the careers of their critics.” Critics of creationism have also compared creationists to Lysenkoists.
In the early 2000s, a number of scientists accused the presidential administration of George W. Bush (1946–) of Lysenkoism because it used its authority to prevent government-employed scientists from sharing mainstream scientific views on global climate change, stem cell research, and other issues.
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The Editors of Scientific American. “Bush-League Lysenkoism.” Scientific American. May 2004. http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?chanID=sa006&colID=2&articleID=0001E02A-A14A-1084-983483414B7F0000 (accessed January 18, 2008).
K. Lee Lerner
"Science Philosophy and Practice: Lysenkoism: A Study in the Dangers of Political Intrusions into Science." Scientific Thought: In Context. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Nov. 2018 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.
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