Lysenko: Ideology and the Corruption Of Science

LYSENKO: IDEOLOGY AND THE CORRUPTION OF SCIENCE
INTRODUCTION
Throughout history there have been many examples of psuedoscientists peddling crackpot theories. Examples include John Ernst Worrell Kelly who, in 1872, announced that he had found a new physical force and managed to talk investors into backing his scheme to produce technology that exploited ‘intermolecular vibrations of the aether’, and Harry Grindell Matthews, who claimed in 1921 to have build a ‘death ray’ (he never provided detailed explanations of how the device worked and neither the British, French or American governments were willing to fund his project for military purposes).
Such examples may bring to mind fairly harmless eccentrics or, at worse, fraudulent snake oil salesmen, deluding themselves (or, perhaps, cynically exploiting others’ naivety) into believing in some extraordinary breakthrough. Occasionally, though, a pseudoscientific belief can coincide with historical circumstances to produce something much more sinister. The best example of such an outcome may well be the case of Trofin Denisovich Lysenko.
EARLY YEARS
Lysenko was born in 1898, the son of a Ukranian peasant family. He grew up to become an agronomist and was unknown to the rest of the Soviet Union until 1927 when the newspaper ‘Pravda’ run a story about his radical ideas concerning crop management.
AN ABANDONED EVOLUTIONARY THEORY
By that time, most of the modern scientific world had embraced the new-Darwin synthesis, which saw evolution as being a process whereby genes that confer advantageous traits are more likely to survive through the generations than those that confer disadvantageous traits. For example, genes which code for brown fur would create a rabbit that is easily spotted by predators in snowy regions, so it’s not surprising that arctic animals tend to have white fur.
Lysenko’s radical new theories were not based on modern genetics but rather on a theory of evolution that predates Darwin’s. Lamarck’s theory posited that a species’ traits developed as a response to its environment. According to this theory, a person who did physical exercise would build up their muscles and have offspring with similarly muscular bodies. Lamarck’s theory had been disproved in a grisly experiment involving the severing of mice’s tails. According to Lamarckism, when tailless mice bred their offspring should have been born without tails, but this never happened. We know why from modern genetic theory- it’s because the mice passed on genes for growing tails.
Despite it being a long discredited theory, Lysenko believed it to be a more accurate explanation of evolutionary change than genetics. The reason why was because he thought Lamarckism- concerned as it was with struggle and radical change- was more compatible with Marxist theory. He was not the only one to think so. When, in 1935, Lysenko gave a speech that denounced traditional geneticists as anti-Marxist and compared them to peasants who resisted the Soviet government’s collectivisation strategies, Stalin responded with a standing ovation saying, “bravo, comrade Lysenko. Bravo”. The combination of endorsement from the most powerful man in Communist Russia, plus results of some dubious experiments, saw Lysenko admitted into the hierarchy of the Communist party of the Soviet Union, where he was made head of the Institute of Genetics and Plant Breeding.
DESPERATE TIMES LEADING TO IDEOLOGY-BASED PSUEDOSCIENCE
In attempting to leapfrog from an agrarian-based economy to an industrialised economy, the communist regime’s collectivist policies had lead to mismanagement and drastic shortages in food supply. Faced with famine, both people and government were desperate for solutions and Lysenko appeared to be somebody who was quick to provide practical answers. But he was so quick in producing possible solutions- everything from cold treatment of grain, the cluster planting of trees, to different fertiliser mixes- that scientists couldn’t determine whether a technique was useless or harmful before a new technique was adopted.
Moreover, there probably wasn’t that many qualified people around to refute whatever Lysenko prescribed. He used his position in the Communist hierarchy to denounce biologists as “fly lovers and people haters”, portraying his opponents as enemies of the State intent on the purposeful destruction of the Soviet economy. By 1940, thousands of geneticists had either lost their jobs, been imprisoned, or executed.
Meanwhile, Lysenko appeared to be everything that the Soviet system deemed inspirational. He came across, after all, as a peasant who developed solutions to practical problems by applying his own intelligence. The Soviet propaganda machine overstated his successes and suppressed his failures. The ideological orthodoxy that saw many fine geneticists fall victim to Stalin’s terrors spread to other sciences such as astronomy and chemistry. The Soviet Union did have some notable technological achievements. They put the first satellite into orbit, and the first man in space (Yuri Gagarin) was from Soviet Russia. But in general it’s fair to say that Communist countries lagged far behind Western countries in terms of technological innovation. There was nothing like Silicon Valley in Communist countries (particularly if we count domestic and not military technology). Given the story of Lysenko and the replacement of science with ideologically-driven pseudoscience, we can see why this might be so.
REFERENCES
The Rise And Fall Of Communism by Archie Brown
Wikipedia
Far Out: 101 Strange Tales From Science’s Outer Edge by Mark PilkingtonLYSENKO: IDEOLOGY AND THE CORRUPTION OF SCIENCE
INTRODUCTION
Throughout history there have been many examples of psuedoscientists peddling crackpot theories. Examples include John Ernst Worrell Kelly who, in 1872, announced that he had found a new physical force and managed to talk investors into backing his scheme to produce technology that exploited ‘intermolecular vibrations of the aether’, and Harry Grindell Matthews, who claimed in 1921 to have build a ‘death ray’ (he never provided detailed explanations of how the device worked and neither the British, French or American governments were willing to fund his project for military purposes).
Such examples may bring to mind fairly harmless eccentrics or, at worse, fraudulent snake oil salesmen, deluding themselves (or, perhaps, cynically exploiting others’ naivety) into believing in some extraordinary breakthrough. Occasionally, though, a pseudoscientific belief can coincide with historical circumstances to produce something much more sinister. The best example of such an outcome may well be the case of Trofin Denisovich Lysenko.
EARLY YEARS
Lysenko was born in 1898, the son of a Ukranian peasant family. He grew up to become an agronomist and was unknown to the rest of the Soviet Union until 1927 when the newspaper ‘Pravda’ run a story about his radical ideas concerning crop management.
AN ABANDONED EVOLUTIONARY THEORY
By that time, most of the modern scientific world had embraced the new-Darwin synthesis, which saw evolution as being a process whereby genes that confer advantageous traits are more likely to survive through the generations than those that confer disadvantageous traits. For example, genes which code for brown fur would create a rabbit that is easily spotted by predators in snowy regions, so it’s not surprising that arctic animals tend to have white fur.
Lysenko’s radical new theories were not based on modern genetics but rather on a theory of evolution that predates Darwin’s. Lamarck’s theory posited that a species’ traits developed as a response to its environment. According to this theory, a person who did physical exercise would build up their muscles and have offspring with similarly muscular bodies. Lamarck’s theory had been disproved in a grisly experiment involving the severing of mice’s tails. According to Lamarckism, when tailless mice bred their offspring should have been born without tails, but this never happened. We know why from modern genetic theory- it’s because the mice passed on genes for growing tails.
Despite it being a long discredited theory, Lysenko believed it to be a more accurate explanation of evolutionary change than genetics. The reason why was because he thought Lamarckism- concerned as it was with struggle and radical change- was more compatible with Marxist theory. He was not the only one to think so. When, in 1935, Lysenko gave a speech that denounced traditional geneticists as anti-Marxist and compared them to peasants who resisted the Soviet government’s collectivisation strategies, Stalin responded with a standing ovation saying, “bravo, comrade Lysenko. Bravo”. The combination of endorsement from the most powerful man in Communist Russia, plus results of some dubious experiments, saw Lysenko admitted into the hierarchy of the Communist party of the Soviet Union, where he was made head of the Institute of Genetics and Plant Breeding.
DESPERATE TIMES LEADING TO IDEOLOGY-BASED PSUEDOSCIENCE
In attempting to leapfrog from an agrarian-based economy to an industrialised economy, the communist regime’s collectivist policies had lead to mismanagement and drastic shortages in food supply. Faced with famine, both people and government were desperate for solutions and Lysenko appeared to be somebody who was quick to provide practical answers. But he was so quick in producing possible solutions- everything from cold treatment of grain, the cluster planting of trees, to different fertiliser mixes- that scientists couldn’t determine whether a technique was useless or harmful before a new technique was adopted.
Moreover, there probably wasn’t that many qualified people around to refute whatever Lysenko prescribed. He used his position in the Communist hierarchy to denounce biologists as “fly lovers and people haters”, portraying his opponents as enemies of the State intent on the purposeful destruction of the Soviet economy. By 1940, thousands of geneticists had either lost their jobs, been imprisoned, or executed.
Meanwhile, Lysenko appeared to be everything that the Soviet system deemed inspirational. He came across, after all, as a peasant who developed solutions to practical problems by applying his own intelligence. The Soviet propaganda machine overstated his successes and suppressed his failures. The ideological orthodoxy that saw many fine geneticists fall victim to Stalin’s terrors spread to other sciences such as astronomy and chemistry. The Soviet Union did have some notable technological achievements. They put the first satellite into orbit, and the first man in space (Yuri Gagarin) was from Soviet Russia. But in general it’s fair to say that Communist countries lagged far behind Western countries in terms of technological innovation. There was nothing like Silicon Valley in Communist countries (particularly if we count domestic and not military technology). Given the story of Lysenko and the replacement of science with ideologically-driven pseudoscience, we can see why this might be so.
REFERENCES
The Rise And Fall Of Communism by Archie Brown
Wikipedia
Far Out: 101 Strange Tales From Science’s Outer Edge by Mark Pilkington

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s