Trofim Lysenko, Soviet Ideology, and Pseudo-Science

New scientific theories that fundamentally alter our view of specific research areas usually do the following; 1) they explain most or all of the data relating to the specific area of inquiry, 2) they explain data anomalies that previous theories could not explain, and 3) they have significantly increased predictive value for future research directions; predictive value that the previous theories lacked. Sometimes called “paradigm shifts”, these changes in scientific theory often completely replace and discredit older theories, showing them to be based on false assumptions. One of the most prominent of these changes was replacing the origin of species as “immutable and uniquely created by God” (Creationism), with Darwin’s theory of the natural selection of pre-existing variations among individuals leading to gradual change(s) and eventual speciation. The experimental support for, and the predictive ability of the later theory has entirely replaced Creationism in scientific research. Many other scientific theories have such overwhelming support that their being fundamentally changed appears very unlikely. For example, the idea that DNA is not the main cellular information storage molecule is very unlikely. The experimental evidence for DNA functioning in genetic information storage is overwhelming.

Changes in scientific theories occur for many different reasons, ideally from careful data analysis combined with rational and creative thought. However irrational biases based religious, philosophical, ideological ideas, or even wishful thinking have often had powerful effects on science, slowing scientific progress, ruining scientific careers, and sometimes even resulting in the deaths of talented scientists. One of the most important and yet least known examples of ideological bias shaping twentieth century science happened in the early years of the Soviet Union. With the support Joseph Stalin, a fanatical agronomist named Trofim Lysenko rose to power in Soviet science and campaigned against the “bourgeois pseudo-science” of genetics based on the theories of the “reactionaries” Darwin and Mendel. Lysenko instead promoted science and agriculture based on the Lamarckian idea of organisms passing on characteristics acquired from the environment to their offspring. As a result Soviet research in agriculture, genetics, economics, and many other areas became pseudo-science with numerous “peer-reviewed” fraudulent scientific papers claiming absurd results. Additionally, Lysenko sought to destroy his scientific competition and had many of the best scientists in the USSR accused of “reactionary Mendelian” genetics, and subsequently imprisoned or executed.

Trofim Lysenko was born of a peasant family from the Ukraine in 1898. He attended the Kiev Agricultural Institute and was trained as an agronomist. In 1927 he studied the effects of low temperatures on crop plant growth and development, and claimed that this treatment (called “vernalization”) increased crop yields and became an inherited trait in the treated plants. He also claimed that this technique allowed a winter crop peas to be grown in Azerbaijan, “turning the barren fields of the Transcasucasus green in winter, so that cattle will not perish from poor feeding” Subsequent attempts to repeat winter pea crops all failed. He was also credited for having discovered a method to fertilize fields without using fertilizers or minerals. Importantly, many of these claims came at a time when the USSR was suffering from drought and famine. Although the Soviet botanist Nikolai Vavilov carried out a five-year study showing that verbalization did not increase crop yields, the study was ignored. Lysenko responded by falsifying his results and reporting non-existent increases in crop yields. Lysenko also stated that statistics, which Vavilov had used in the study, were of no value in science.

Although it might seem obvious that Lysenko’s claims were absurd and no amount of faking data would ever actually increase agricultural yields, Lysenko’s reputation grew in the USSR. Marxist-Leninism stated that all organisms, including humans, are the result of environmental conditions and can quickly be changed by a different environment. Lysenko’s Lamarckian view of heredity and his supposedly valid scientific studies fit with communist ideology and also scientifically proved it true (although with faked data). Additionally, Lysenko who was from a peasant family, was also a proletarian “barefoot scientist” and “genius from the people” and in many ways supposedly typified the “new Soviet man” Last the Soviet government had set completely unrealistic goals for agricultural yields that could not be met. Lysenko was willing to lie, falsify data, and tell the Soviet government what it wanted to hear.
Lysenko’s power grew. In 1938 Lysenko was named president of the Academy of Agricultural Sciences and wielded enormous power in Soviet science. He received the highest Soviet award (the Order of Lenin) seven times and was named a “Hero of Socialist labor” As his power grew Lysenko and his followers made increasingly fantastic claims; scientific papers were published claiming that firs could be transformed into pines, cabbages into rutabagas, and alders into birches. All accomplished through the careful application of Lysenko’s agricultural science.

Lysenko also increasingly attacked other scientists based on the supposed ideology of their science. Although he had no actual evidence for his claims, he stated that, “Mendelian genetics was rubbish and lies” and genes and chromosomes did not exist, but were “bourgeois constructs” Soviet science became “proletarian” while western science was “bourgeois” Scientific discussions of chromosomes and genes became treasonous. Initially, scientists who disagreed with Lysenko’s ideas received less funding. Later some disappeared, where sent to prison camps, or where were executed. Nikolai Vavilov was arrested in 1940 and died in prison of malnutrition three years later. This was an ironic end for a successful scientist whose goal from childhood had been to end world hunger by making better food crops. By destroying his rivals, Lysenko became the scientific dictator of the Soviet Union for many years.
Not surprisingly, Lysenko’s ideas had terrible results. Science and scientific teaching were distorted for decades in the Soviet Union, especially biology and medicine. The application of his ideas to agriculture significantly lowered crop yields for decades.

For example, Lysenko believed that the deeper a field was plowed, the deeper the plant’s roots would grow, increasing the crop yield. As a result farmers were ordered to plow fields five feet deep. This involved enormous effort and had no effect on crop yields. In China where Lysenkoism was applied, farmers were ordered to leave one-third of the land fallow. The result was a terrible famine. Lysenko was eventually discredited in the early 1960’s. He died in 1976 with his reputation and scientific publications completely discredited. Andrie Sakharov summarized Lysenko’s career with: “He is responsible for the shameful backwardness of Soviet biology and of genetics in particular, for the dissemination of pseudo-scientific views, for adventurism, for the degradation of learning, and for the defamation, firing, arrest, even death, of many genuine scientists”.

The power Lysenko had on Soviet science is more than a bizarre story from country that ceased to exist over twenty years ago. It shows the extent to which science can be distorted and even destroyed by bias and political ideology. Prior to the Russian revolution Russia had produced many great scientists, such as Pavlov, Mechnikov, and Mendeleev. Mechnikov received the 1908 Noble Prize for the discovery of the cellular response to infection. Following the revolution Soviet science continued to produce leading researchers in genetic and biology. In 1927 the Soviet scientist Nikolai Koltsov proposed that inherited characteristics are stored on double-stranded giant molecules that replicated in a semi-conservative fashion using each strand as a template. Essentially he predicted the structure and behavior of DNA twenty-five years before Watson and Crick. With the fusion of science and Marxist-Leninism under Lysenko much of Soviet science became meaningless pseudo-science.

Looking at this it’s easy to see the dangers of mixing science and ideology. It’s also easy to call Lysenko a deluded fool. Unfortunately, at least in the US, there are many still pressing for science to conform to ideology. For example, Congressman Lamar Smith of Texas recently proposed a bill stating that any research done with federal funds must receive governmental approval or the research will be taken from the researchers and disposed of by Congress as it sees fit. In my own home state of Louisiana there is are individuals who are trying to place Creationist textbooks in science education classes which state “as scientific fact” that dinosaurs and humans have live together and the Earth is 5,000 years old. One wonders if Lysenko would approve.

4 Comments

  1. On the same day I read this, NPR just hours ago ran a story on plants engineered to express heritable epigenetic traits – essentially running their “drought stress” program full time – to breed strains of crops resistant to environmental variability in only about three generations, creating crops suited to a more energetic and unpredictable climate.

    And then I run into this article discussing “vernalization” and experience a particularly surreal moment.

  2. Here’s an example of one of our great leaders, who byt the way deals with science issues and funding:http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/07/bill-nye-paul-broun-science-space-technology_n_1947125.html

  3. Thanks for researching this Rodney. Along the same lines and during the same time period were the Soviets’ alter ego down in the Rhineland, Nazis tinkering with many things genetic in quest of ideological fulfillment. It would be interesting if there was a close comparison with Lysenko down in Deutschland.

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