|Thursday January 7th AD 2010|
Trofim Lysenko (1898–1976) gave his name to the practice of science to serve an ideological purpose rather than to determine the truth about natural phenomena. At a time when people in the Soviet Union were starving, Lysenko's crackpot agricultural theories were glorified by the State because they coincided with the doctrines of Marxism. For well over a decade orthodox scientists who disagreed with Lyseklo were persecuted--their works were not published, they were forced into other lines of research, some were sent to the gulags, and others just, well, disappeared. Although today Lysenko is nothing more than a bad memory, his story is important in that it demonstrates the way in which government can manipulate scientists to legitimize ideological aspirations and political plans. Unfortunately, at least in spirit, Lysenko, is still alive and well in government, academia and the mass media.
Trofim Denisovich Lysenko
Modern genetics is based on the work of Gregor Mendel (1822-1884), a Catholic priest, abbot of an Augustinian monastery, with a university education in the sciences--hardly a model for Marxist emulation. Mendel's research on thousands of pea plants led him to theorize that plants had paired dominant and recessive characteristics--tall and short, for example. If a plant were tall it could be so by virtue of a pair of tall characteristics or by having a pair of short and tall. Only if the short characteristics were paired would the plant be short. By proper selection of breeding stock it was possible to produce plants possessing the recessive characteristic that would breed true amongst their own kind. Around 1900 Mendel's work was rediscovered and formed the basis for the modern theory of genetics--ultimately that genetic information was carried on chromosomes that could be seen under electron magnification. But to the political theorists of the Soviet Empire, Mendelian genetics seemed to be idealistic conceptions, almost spiritual in nature, and utterly incompatible with dialectic materialism.
A rival theory theory to Mendel's had been developed by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744 –1829), holding that new strains could be developed on the basis of characteristics they acquired. He postulated, for example, that giraffes that had to eat leaves from tall trees developed longer necks over time--and passed this acquired characteristic on to their descendants. Today this is known to be incorrect for there is no mechanism for the reproductive cells to receive information from the other (somatic) cells of the body--a mechanism necessary if the trait is to be passed on. The saying goes that "you might inherit a wooden head, but you cannot inherit a wooden leg"!
Lamarck's theory was picked up by Ivan Vladimirovich Michurin (1855–1935) at the University of Moscow. Michurin was a Lamarkian who had done some otherwise useful work in hybridization. Michurin was joined in 1925 by the Austrian socialist, Paul Kammerer, who claimed to have proved Lamarck's theory with a series of scientific experiments. Kammerer's "success" got him a chair at the University of Moscow, but shortly after his appointment it became clear that Kammerer's experiments had been faked. Fraud tends to be common in the ideological sciences like evolution, global warming, the alar and atrazine ban, the DDT scam, and so forth, Kammerer tried unsuccessfully to blame an assistant, and committed suicide to escape disgrace. Nonetheless, the Soviet Regime held Kammerer in respect, making a movie about him, and blaming capitalist reactionaries for the false evidence.
During the 1930s Soviet farmers had been forced to collectivize, a move consistent with Marxist theory, and quite damaging to agricultural production. With little incentive to produce, coupled with the harsh conditions of the region, farm output dropped dramatically. The Soviets responded by starving the Ukrainian farmers, confiscating their grain to feed the rest of the country. On the basis of rather wild claims to produce crop strains suited to the harsh climate of the Soviet Union, Trofim Denisovich Lysenko (1898-1976), following in the footsteps of Lamarck, Michurin, and Kammerer, became the director of the Soviet Academy of Science’s Institute of Genetics Soviet Academy of Science’s in 1940.
Lysenko worked diligently to maintain their Lamarckian genetics of mutation by means of acquired characteristics. Lysenko, a peasant farmer with little formal scientific education, was highly esteemed by Stalin regime, which celebrated him as one of the “barefoot scientists” of the revolution. During the 1930’s, even before Lysenko was appointed Director of the Institute of Genetics, scientists who held the Mendelian gene based mutation theory began to disappear:
In 1933 or thereabouts, the geneticists Chetverikoff, Ferry and Ephroimson were all, on separate occasions banished to Siberia, and Levitsky to a lobor camp in the European Arctic … in 1936, the Communist geneticist Agol was done away with, following rumors that he had been convicted of ’Menshevik idealism’ in genetics … it is impossible to learn the real causes of the deaths of such distinguished geneticists as Karpechenko, Koltzoff, Serebrovsky, and Levitsky….
N.I. Vavilov, the most distinguished geneticist in Russia--internationally famous and respected--was relieved of his many posts and accused of being a British spy. He died in 1942 in a Siberian labor camp, although it was not until several years later that biologist outside Russia were able to learn what happened to him.
~ Martin Gardner, Fads & Fallacies in the Name of Science (Dover: Mineola NY, 1957), p. 144-145 quoting Nobel Prize winner H.J. Muller
Lysenko and Stalin’s regime spared no effort to “butter one another’s bread.” Lysenko replaced Vavilov in 1940, and did not tire of praising Lenin, Stalin, and the Central Committee of the Communist Party as wise leaders, great scholars , and paragons of science, having “raised the Michurinist tendency in biology to the position of the only correct and progressive tendency in all the branches of biological science…. Long live the forward looking biological Michurinist science! Glory to the great Stalin, leader of the people and coryphaeus of forward looking science!” (Gardner, p.146, quoting Pravda, 10 August 1948.) “… the wise leader and teacher of the Soviet people, the greatest scholar of our epoch, Comrade Stalin…. (Gardner, p.145).
Not to be out done by their minion, the regime twice conferred upon Lysenko the Stalin Prize, and once the Order of Lenin, making him also a Hero of the Soviet Union. He was for a time a vice president of the Supreme Soviet. Governments, it seems, can always get meaningless prizes for those who lead the masses in toeing the line of ideological science. Alfred Nobel must be rotating in his grave!
But for all of this mutual admiration and glory, the theories of Lysenko proved to be disastrously wrong. To begin with, it seems that Lysenko had no theory in the scientific sense. There was no trace of the Scientific Method in his work. He had made no hypotheses, conducted no empirical, controlled, experiments to confirm his claims, no statistical analysis of results, and published no data or methodology that could be checked by independent researchers.
What Lysenko was doing was “try it and see if it works.” His idea was that by exposing a plant to harsh conditions, he could “shatter” its heredity--somewhat as a revolution “shatters” a society--making it highly susceptible to change. Lysenko, following Lamarck, held that through this process, which he called “vernalization,” the surviving plants would pass their new heredity on to future generations. His departure from the Scientific Method cut years off the time required to bring a new strain to productivity--this pleased the Regime immensely, and put the real scientific establishment (or what was left of it) at a serious disadvantage. Lysenko mocked real science with its careful method as “reactionary idealism, groveling before the slave masters of bourgeois western capitalism” (my collection of adjectives mentioned by Gardner).
Lysenko was successful some of the time, but for reasons that he did not understand. The plant that survives exposure to harsh conditions may well be the one that was hereditarily best suited for survival. That is called “getting lucky.” But the survival had nothing to do with “vernalization”-- it just happened to be a hardier plant. But if the hardiness was carried on a recessive gene there was a four to one chance that it would not “breed true” when fertilized by another plant. And, even if it did, the hardiness might be “bred out” in a few generations. There was no theory of dominant and recessive genes in Lysenko’s thinking, and consequently no attempt to keep the strain pure--and certainly no attempt to use pure strains as would be necessary in a controlled experiment. Nonetheless, it took until a year after Nikita Khrushchev’s dismissal from office in 1964 for the Academy of Sciences to remove Lysenko from the Institute of Genetics. His influence is said to have persisted in Communist China for some years.
Yet, one has to ask why the Marxist government would tolerate a system that failed far often than it succeeded to remain for over thirty years. Gregor Mendel was a Catholic priest, and the Nazis had made use of the genetic theory in a perverse explanation of their claim to be a “super race.” But the real answer to the question seems to lie more in the nature of Marxism itself. The dialectical materialism of Hegel and Marx is based on the idea that a new reality is formed when antithetical elements collide (thesis + antithesis → synthesis). The changing of an organism or a people through a violent collision with an external agent would seem to bear out the reality of the Marxian dialectic, and bear it out without any “idealistic” constructs like natures, souls, or genes.
As we have seen with “cultural Marxism” in the west, the general strategy of Marxists is to destroy the culture they are intent on remaking. Destroy religion, philosophy, music, and art; destroy the morals of the society, destroy its science, its economy, and even the means to feed itself, and that society will be a plum, ripe for picking. Fortunately for us, at least for the moment, Marxism has not fully succeeded in “shattering” our society, and the folly of Lysenkoism in the Soviet Union bought us some time. Now if
only we can resist a similar folly in our own Republic!
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