Biologists as Victims of Communism

(Trofim Denisovich Lysenko)

On my own weblog, Freespace, I’ve been urging readers to join me in helping the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. The Foundation needs another $23,000 in order to dedicate the monument in Washington D.C. this October. I thought I’d post a little here about one of the shocking atrocities that communism visited upon the world of biological science, in the person of Trofim Denisovich Lysenko.

Lysenko was, simply put, a quack–a modern “geneticist” who rejected the very concept of a gene, and defended a neo-Lamarckian theory that acquired characteristics could be inherited. This nonsense became official party doctrine in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, in what historian Robert Conquest calls “the most extraordinary of all the indications of the intellectual degeneracy of the Party mind which had followed on Stalin’s replacement of the intellectual section of the apparatus by his own creatures.” Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of The Thirties 321-22 (1968).

Lysenko’s assertions were indeed “extraordinary,” as revealed by the fascinating book The Rise And Fall of T.D. Lysenko</i> by Zhores A. Medvedev–a book which had to be smuggled out of the Soviet Union and published in the west in 1969. Lysenko claimed that feeding different birds hairy caterpillars would cause cuckoos to hatch from their eggs, and that exposing spring wheat to cold temperatures would turn it into winter wheat. “In nearly ever issue of the journal [Agrobiologiya],” wrote Medvedev,<blockquote>articles appeared in which were seriously reported transformations of wheat into rye and vice versa, barley into oats, peaches into vetch, vetch into lentils, cabbage into swedes, firs into pines, hazelnuts into hornbeams, alders into birches, sunflowers into strangleweed. All of these communications were utterly without proof, methodologically illiterate, and thoroughly unreliable. The authors had one leading thought–to please Lysenko. . ..</blockquote>

Id. at 171 (Anchor Books ed., 1971). Put in charge of Soviet genetics, Lysenko seriously hampered Soviet agriculture, and sent his scientific enemies to their deaths, including N.I. Vavilov, considered the greatest Soviet geneticist.

I. Lysenko Revives Lamarck (T.D. Lysenko, 1898-1976)

T.D. Lysenko claimed that acquired characteristics could be inherited, because the character of an organism was determined by its environment: “[A]ccording to Mendel-Morgan genetics,” he wrote,<blockquote>which unfortunately still continues to be taught by Mendelians in our higher institutions of learning, any seeds of self-pollinating plants within the limits of a single variety are alike with respect to their inheritance (genotype), regardless of the conditions of cultivation. The Mendelian-Morganists assert that the nature of the plant does not depend on agro-techniques. According to this pseudo-science, good agro-techniques cannot improve and bad cannot deteriorate the nature of the plant…. We deny that the quality of the breed (genotype) does not depend on the conditions of life. We maintain that on the seed plots of farms and selection stations it is necessary always to apply the best possible agro-technique, since that not only increases the yield of seed per unit of area, but, most important, it improves the breed of these seeds…. The means of feeding and the quality of the food play a colossal role in altering the heredity of plants and animals. Not in vain did Acad. M. F. Ivanov place at the head of one of his articles the saying of English stockbreeders: “The breed goes through the mouth.”</blockquote>

Lysenko trumpeted that his “theories” clashed with Mendelian genetics. “[W]hen they ask what part of Mendelism to keep,”</b> he wrote, “I always answer: almost nothing.” His theories, he said, made up the only biology that Communists could believe in. “Under the action of external environment which is unsuitable or little suitable for a given species,” Lysenko wrote, “particles of a different species for which the conditions are more suitable arise in the body of the plant. From these particles, rudiments (buds or seeds) are formed which develop into individuals of the other species.” Quoted in Medvedev, supra at 172. Accordingly, Lysenko not only claimed that environmental factors could change one type of animal into another, he also denied that individuals within the same species even compete for resources. <blockquote>All mankind belongs to one biological species. Hence, bourgeois science had to invent intraspecific struggle. In nature, they say, within each species there is a cruel struggle for food…. The stronger, better-adapted indivudals are the victors. The same, then, occurs among people:: the capitalists have millions, the workers live in poverty, because the capitalists supposedly are more intelligent and more able because of their heredity.

We Soviet people know well that the oppression of the workers, the dominance of the capitalist class…are all based on the laws of a rotting, moribund, bourgeois, capitalist society.

There is no intraspecific competition in nature. There is only competition between species: the wolf eats the hare; the hard does not eat another hare, it eats grass. Wheat does not hamper wheat…..</b></blockquote>

Quoted in id. at 107.

Lysenko held “seminars” complete with brass bands performing before his lectures. <blockquote>Seeing gray-haired scientists in the front rows of the audience, Lysenko explains with exultation: “Aha! You came to relearn?” I [Medvedev] remember little of the content of the lecture–only the assertion that a horse is alive only in interaction with the environment; without interaction it is no longer a horse but a cadaver of a horse; that when different birds are fed hairy caterpillers, cuckoos hatch from their eggs; that a new cell is not formed from a previously existing one, but near one; that the living body always wants to eat; etc., etc.</blockquote>

Id. at 131.

Other sciences were infected by Lysenkoism. Soviet physicists began declaring the theory of relativity, and the work of Bohr and Pauling to be reactionary and idealistic. Biologists repudiated the work of Pasteur, and a major prize was awarded to a Soviet biologist who claimed to have discovered spontaneous generation of single-celled creatures from soaked hay. Id. at 183. Soviet scientific journals were shut down. Soviet scientists opposing Lysenko were not allowed to speak at the 1958 International Congress of Genetics in Canada. “Since the time at which each paper was to be read appeared on the program, members of the Congress waited in silence until the time assigned for the undelivered papers expired.” Id. at 138. Biologists were dismissed from their posts, sent to prison, and worse; D.A. Sabinin, a famous plant physiologist, was fired from his teaching post, was hounded out of Moscow, and finally committed suicide. Id. at 127. Another geneticist was arrested because he visited his anti-Lysenkoite professor and brought him a bouquet of flowers. Id. Lysenko insisted that his experiments on the transformation of wheat were a major discovery, and commanded that Ukranian wheat farmers implement the process. When another scientist reported no significant improvement in wheat yields, Lysenko responded with a threat: “Konstantinov must give thought to the fact that when such erroneous data were swept away from the field of scientific activity, those who failed to understand the implications of such data, and insisted on retaining them, were also swept away.” Id. at 155. Soviet agriculture was not the only victim of the Lysenkoite madness; Chinese farmers were ordered to implement his theories, with diastrous results.

II. Why Did Stalin Put Lysenko in Power?

(Josef Stalin 1879-1953, right, pictured in 1938 with Soviet Prime Minister Vyacheslav Molotov 1890-1986 (left), and secret police chief Nikolai Yezhov 1895-1940 (right))

Lysenko’s claims are so utterly lunatic that some writers have had difficulty understanding how even Stalin could come to take Lysenko seriously, and they have accordingly depicted Lysenkoism as simply insanity. But what Stalin saw in Lysenko was a radical confirmation of communist teachings–in particular, the principles of dialectical materialism, which held that<blockquote>“the world is not to be comprehended as a complex of ready-made things, but as a complex of processes, in which the things apparently stable. . .go through an uninterrupted change of coming into and passing out of being, in which, despite all seeming accidents and of all temporary retrogressions, a progressive development asserts itself in the end. . .. “For” dialectical philosophy, “nothing is final, absolute, sacred. It reveals the transitory character of everything and in everything. Nothing can endure before it except the uninterrupted. . .endless ascendancy from higher to lower.”</blockquote>

Friedrich Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach (1927) quoted in V.I. Lenin, Marx, Engels, Marxism: A Collection of Articles 10 (International House, J. Fineberg, ed., 1935).

Particulate inheritance seemed inconsistent with this for three reasons: first, it envisioned a stable, intractable category of things in nature, which could not be altered by conscious attempts: the gene making a pea wrinkled could not be transformed by direct action. This ran counter to the political progressivism underlying the Marxist program, which sought to reject all such unchangeable categorization. What Louis Menand says of American Progressives is equally true of their Hegelian cousins: they sought to “put an end to the idea that. . .beyond the mundane business of making our way as best we can in a world shot through with contingency, there exists some order, invisible to us, whose logic we transgress at our peril.” Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club 439 (2002). I.I. Prezent, Lysenko’s partner in crime, put the point succinctly in a 1937 speech: “If hereditary changes occurred as portrayed by formalist geneticists, we should scarcely have had elephants descended from fossil forms. The whole point is that there can be metaphysical ideas about nature but there cannot be a metaphysical nature.”</b> (Quoted in Medvedev, supra at 31, emphasis added).

The notion that genetic inheritance is unavoidable, and beyond the reach of any conscious force, seemed to stand in the way of this. (And it still does, as the debate over sociobiology reveals.)

Second, and relatedly, Mendelian genetics holds that environmental factors contribute to an organism’s evolution only marginally. Communist ideology, however, held that changes in the social environment would cause fundamental changes in the citizen: indeed, that there was no such thing as an individual personality outside of the environment: “it regarded ‘human beings’ [not] abstractly. . .[but] as a ‘synthesis’ of ‘all social relationships’ (definite, concretely-historical)–and thus. . .it was a question of ‘changing’ [the world], that is. . .of ‘practical revolutionary activity.’” Lenin, supra at 9.

Third, modern genetics, and biology generally, recognizes no “progress” from “lower” to “higher” forms, but simply the propagation of forms more suited to reproduction and survival. Communist ideology, however, was strongly based on principles of historical inevitability–and Lysenko and other Soviet biologists strongly embraced the idea that Darwin had proven a law of historical improvement, something which no serious biologist would claim. (This leads to much confusion, I think, because Lysenko and others denounced their opponents for not being “Darwinists,” when in fact the reverse was true.)

The consistency of Lysenko’s biological claims with the Communist party line is revealed in this 1940 article: “The materialist theory of the evolution of living nature,” he wrote,<blockquote>involves recognition of the necessity of hereditary transmission of individual characteristics acquired by the organism under the conditions of its life; it is unthinkable without recognition of the inheritance of acquired characters…. The representatives of reactionary biological science–Neo-Darwinians, Weismannists, or–which is the same–Mendelist-Morganists, uphold the so-called chromosome theory of heredity. . .. According to this theory, characters acquired by vegetable and animal organisms cannot be handed down, are not inherited. . .. They therefore hold that qualitative variations in the heredity (nature) of living bodies are entirely independent of the environment, of the conditions of life. . ..

A sharp controversy, which has divided biologists into two irreconcilable camps, has thus flared up over the old question: is it possible for features and characteristics acquired by vegetable and animal organisms in the course of their life to be inherited? In other words, whether qualitative variations of the nature of vegetable and animal organisms depend on the conditions of life which act upon the living body, upon the organism.

The Michurin teaching, which is in essence materialist and dialectical, proves by facts that such dependence does exist. . .. We, the Michurinists, must squarely admit that we have hitherto proved unable to make the most of the splendid possibilities created in our country by the Party and the Government for the complete exposure of the Morganist metaphysics, which is in its entirety an importation from foreign reactionary biology hostile to us. . ..

All the so-called laws of Mendelism-Morganism are based entirely on the idea of chance…. [T]his “science” therefore denies the existence of necessary relationships in living nature and condemns practical workers to fruitless waiting. There is no effectiveness in such a science. With such a science it is impossible to plan, to work toward a definite goal; it rules out scientific foresight. </b></blockquote>

It is a serious misunderstanding to imagine that Lysenkoism was a fluke. He was, after all, hardly the only believer in his doctrines. Rather, Lysenko came to power because Stalin and others saw his pseudo-science as consistent with the Communist rejection of what Engels called “ready-made things. Indeed, genetics was branded as racism by many Soviets, and “in the U.S.S.R. studies on human genetics were virtually completely stopped. (The first book in Russian on human genetics was not published until 1964.)” Medvedev, supra at 82. As Marxist philosopher Robert M. Young puts it, Lysenkoism was based on the “controversy about whether or not Malthusian constraints could be overcome by revolutionary struggle. . .[and] the circumstances in which human will could or could not conquer ‘objective’ obstacles…. For all its odiousness, Stalinism had within it three congruent struggles which are central to the construction of socialism: the rejection of bourgeois economistic fatalism. . ., the rejection of biologistic fatalism, and the removal of the recalcitrant experts whose scientism retarded socialism.”

The passage from Engels I quoted above is quoted in chapter four of the official History of the Communist Party of The Soviet Union published in 1939. The History goes on to explain that<blockquote>contrary to metaphysics, dialectics. . .regard[s] the process of development as. . .a development in which the qualitative changes occur not gradually, but rapidly and abruptly, taking the form of a leap from one state to another. . .. The dialectical method therefore holds that the process of development should be understood not as movement in a circle, not as a simple repetition of what has already occurred, but as an onward and upward movement, as a transition from an old qualitative state to a new qualitative state, as a development form the simple to the complex, from the lower to the higher. . ..</blockquote>

Id. at 107.

The History then goes on to conclude with this chilling passage:<blockquote>[T]hen it is clear that every social system and every social movement in history must be evaluated not from the standpoint of “eternal justice. . .” but from the standpoint of the conditions which give rise to that system. . .. The slave system would be senseless, stupid, and unnatural under modern conditions. But under the conditions of a disintegrating primitive communal system, the slave system is quite understandable. . .. The demand for a bourgeois-democratic republic when tsardom and bourgeois society existed, as, let us say, in Russia in 1905, was a quite understandable, proper and revolutionary demand. . .. But now, under the conditions of the U.S.S.R., the demand for a bourgeois-democratic republic would be a meaningless and counter-revolutionary demand, for a bourgeois republic would be a retrograde step compared with the Soviet republic.</blockquote>

Id. at 110.

III. Sending Vavilov to The Pyre

(N.I. Vavilov, 1897-1943)

Lysenko referred to this chapter of the History in a confrontation with Nikolay Vavilov in 1939. Vavilov had challenged Lysenko’s claim that by changing the environment one could change spring wheat into winter wheat and vice versa. (Lysenko’s claim, by the way, was backed by a single plant which he claimed had produced a single seed of winter wheat. See Medevedev, supra at 26.) Vavilov was a world-famous scientist who had organized over 100 trips around the world collecting plants to improve Russian agriculture. He was made president of the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agriculture, and received many prestigious awards, including a membership in the British Royal Society.

Confronting Lysenko, Vavilov tried to explain in an almost panicked tone of astonishment that the gene was real, and that all the environmental factors in the world could not change one creature into another overnight. This, he said, was fundamental to the science–but Lysenko and his followers denounced non-Soviet geneticists as bourgeois and corrupted by capitalism. “[My] position is also that of contemporary world science, and was without doubt developed not by fascists, but by ordinary progressive toilers,” he protested at a 1939 conference. Id. at 59. “But,” a member of the audience shouted, “you proceed from the immutability of genes and the nature of plants!” Id. Vavilov pleaded that genetics wasn’t “conservative” as this audience member charged–that “[g]enetics is first of all a physiological science, and its basic problem is that of transforming organisms. That is what genetics is for. But in the course of investigations, it becomes clear that to alter hereditary nature is not that simple.” Id. But his pleas were ignored, and two months later he was brought before Lysenko and an unnamed ally to answer for his thoughtcrime. Medvedev provides some of the transcript of that meeting, which reveals the Orwellian horrors of doing science in Stalin’s and Lysenko’s Soviet Union:<blockquote>Vavilov:. . .You can imagine how difficult it is to guide graduate students, when all the time one is told that one does not share Lysenko’s views. History will indicate which one of us is right. . .. I am an overburdened man. . .. I should have explained this in greater detail. Of course species can originate on the periphery. If Trofim Denisovich would only listen calmly instead of shuffling pages–life goes on. . ..

Lysenko: You and I have talked calmly together in private; here it is different. This is the first time I have heard you say that species do originate. Apparently I misunderstood. But here [apparently pointing to a manuscript] it does say that evolution is oversimplification.

Vavilov: Evolution is an oversimplification of specific events. This is a fact you could verify.

Lysenko: I don’t question that evolution is fact. But is it true that evolution is an oversimplification, an unwinding? Is it true or not?

Vavilov: It’s an indisputable fact. . .. There is a law of reduction; often many animal groups had a history of the reduction of many organs toward a vestigal state. There is also a law of increase in complexity. . ..

Lysenko: I understood from what you wrote that you came to agree with your teacher, Bateson, that evolution must be viewed as a process of simplification. Yet in Chapter 4 of the history of the party it says evolution is increase in complexity. . ..

[Unknown Inquisitor]: Marxism is the only science. Darwinism is only a part; the real theory of knowledge of the world was given by Marx, Engels, and Lenin. And when I hear discussion about Darwinism without mention of Marxism, it may seem, on the one side, that all is right, but on the other, it’s a horse of a different color.

Vavilov: I studied Marx four or five times and am prepared to go on. . ..

Lysenko:. . . I was sincerely sorry for you. But, you see, your being insubordinate to me…I say now that some kind of measures must be taken. We cannot go on in this way. . .. We shall have to depend on others, take another line, a line of administrative subordination.</b></blockquote>

Quoted in Medvedev, supra at 63-64.

On August 6, 1940, Vavilov and a group of scientists were collecting plant samples in the Western Ukraine when a car full of agents of the secret police pulled up and arrested him. His companions found that he had even been forced to leave his suitcase behind. In it was a sample of wheat which turned out to be a newly discovered species. “Thus on the last day of service to his country. . .Vailov made his last botanical-geographic discovery.” Id. at 69. On July 9, 1941, the Soviet Supreme Court found him guilty of belonging to a rightist conspiracy, espionage, sabotage, and other charges, and was sentenced to death. He died in Saratov prison on January 26, 1943. He had given his own epitaph; during his 1939 plea he had told his jeering audience<blockquote>This is a complex matter. It is not to be solved by decree even of the Commissariat of Agriculture. We shall go to the pyre, we shall burn, but we shall not retreat from our convictions.</blockquote>

Id. at 59.

IV. Lessons of Lysenko

(Jacob Bronowski, 1908-1974)

What does the T.D. Lysenko teach us? Some have argued that it was the natural result of forcing science to conform to an ideology. Like creationists, the Soviet scientific establishment demanded that reality be made to conform to its philosophical predilections, and any contrary evidence was declared to be the consequence of corrupt philosophy. But the disaster of Lysenkoism teaches a deeper lesson: the vitality of freedom for the scientific enterprise. As philosopher of science Jacob Bronowski concluded, “Government is an apparatus which exercises power and which is bent on retaining it, and in the twentieth century more than ever before it spends its time in trying to perpetuate itself by justifying itself. This cast of mind and of method is flatly at odds with the integrity of science.” The Lysenko disaster, Bronowski wrote,<blockquote>shows how damaging the dependence on government favor is for the integrity of science…. [B]y being able to silence those who tried to argue with him, he destroyed the trust of other Russian intellectuals in their scientists…. The Russian example is a warning that scientists have to renounce the creeping patronage of governments if they want to preserve the integrity of knowledge as a means and an end which thoughtful citizens (including their own students) prize in them. In my view, there is now a duty laid on scientists to set an incorruptible standard for public morality. The public has begun to understand that the constant march from one discovery to the next is kept going not by luck and not even by cleverness, but by something in the method of science: an unrelenting independence in the search for truth that pays no attention to received opinion or expediency or political advantage….</blockquote>

J. Bronowski, The Disestablishment of Science, (1971) reprinted in A Sense of The Future</i> 241-44 (P. Ariotti and R. Bronowski, eds., 1977).

Independence is essential to the pursuit of knowledge. The attempt to force science to conform with a political or social ideology–whether it be the Stalinist party line demanding the infinite malleability of creatures, or creationists demanding that biology conform to religious predispositions–is a disaster practically as well as philosophically.

Please help honor the memories of those scientists who, like Nikolay Vavilov, went to the pyre. Please contribute to the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation today.

More on Lysenko:

A bibliography

The Skeptic’s Dictionary

Wikipedia entry

Who was Lysenko?

A webpage with some defenses of Lysenko