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Lysenkoism

Lysenko speaking at the Kremlin in 1935. Behind him are (left to right) Stanislav Kosior, Anastas Mikoyan, Andrei Andreev and Joseph Stalin.

Lysenkoism is used colloquially to describe the manipulation or distortion of the scientific process as a way to reach a predetermined conclusion as dictated by an ideological bias, often related to social or political objectives[1].

Formally, Lysenkoism, or Lysenko-Michurinism, also denotes the biological inheritance principle which Trofim Lysenko subscribed to and which derive from theories of the heritability of acquired characteristics[2], a body of biological inheritance theory which departs from Mendelism and that Lysenko named "Michurinism".

The word is derived from a set of political and social campaigns in science and agriculture by the director of the Soviet Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Trofim Denisovich Lysenko and his followers, which began in the late 1920s and formally ended in 1964.

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[edit] In agriculture

In 1928, Trofim Lysenko, a previously unknown agronomist, claimed to have developed an agricultural technique, termed vernalization, which tripled or quadrupled crop yield by exposing wheat seed to high humidity and low temperature. While cold and moisture exposure are a normal part of the life cycle of fall-seeded winter cereals, the vernalization technique claimed to enhance yields by increasing the intensity of exposure, in some cases planting soaked seeds directly into the snow cover of frozen fields. In reality, the technique was neither new (it had been known since 1854, and was extensively studied during the previous twenty years), nor did it produce the yields he promised.

When Lysenko began his fieldwork in the Soviet Union of the 1930s, the agriculture of the Soviet Union was in a massive crisis due to the forced collectivization movement.

Many agronomists were educated before the revolution, and even many of those educated afterwards did not agree with the collectivization policies. Furthermore, among biologists of the day, the most popular topic was not agriculture at all, but the new genetics that was emerging out of studies of Drosophila melanogaster, commonly known as fruit flies. Drosophilidae fruit flies made experimental verification of genetics theories, such as Mendelian ratios and heritability, much easier. Only much later would this research have obvious application to the problem of agriculture, so during the 1920s and 1930s it was easy for a radical like Lysenko to castigate these theoretical biologists for spending their time bent over trays of fruit flies while famine raged on around them.

Isaak Izrailevich Prezent, a main Lysenko theorist, presented Lysenko in Soviet mass-media as a genius who had developed a new, revolutionary agricultural technique. In this period, Soviet propaganda often focused on inspirational stories of peasants who, through their own canny ability and intelligence, came up with solutions to practical problems. Lysenko's widespread popularity provided him a platform to denounce theoretical genetics and to promote his own agricultural practices. He was, in turn, supported by the Soviet propaganda machine, which overstated his successes and omitted mention of his failures. Instead of performing controlled experiments, Lysenko claimed that vernalization increased wheat yields by 15%, solely based upon questionnaires taken of farmers.

[edit] Rise

Lysenko's political success was due in part to his striking differences from most biologists at the time. He was from a peasant family, and an enthusiastic advocate of the Soviet Union and Leninism. During a period which saw a series of man-made agricultural disasters, he was also extremely fast in responding to problems, although not with real solutions. Whenever the Party announced plans to plant a new crop or cultivate a new area, Lysenko had immediate practical suggestions on how to proceed.

So quickly did he develop his prescriptions - from the cold treatment of grain, to the plucking of leaves from cotton plants, to the cluster planting of trees, to unusual fertilizer mixes - that academic biologists did not have time to demonstrate that one technique was valueless or harmful before a new one was adopted. The Party-controlled newspapers applauded Lysenko's "practical" efforts and questioned the motives of his critics. Lysenko's "revolution in agriculture" had a powerful propaganda advantage over the academics, who urged the patience and observation required for science.

Lysenko was admitted into the hierarchy of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and was put in charge of agricultural affairs. He used his position to denounce biologists as "fly-lovers and people haters," and to decry the "wreckers" in biology, whom he claimed were trying to purposely disable the Soviet economy and cause it to fail. Furthermore, he denied the distinction between theoretical and applied biology.

Following the disastrous collectivization efforts of the late 1920s, one of USSR's greatest agricultural problems during the 1930s was that many peasants were thoroughly unhappy with the collectivization. Lysenko's 'new' methods were seen as a way to make peasants feel positively involved in an 'agricultural revolution'. The party officials believed that peasants planting grain — for whatever reason — was a step in the right direction and a step away from the days when peasants would destroy grain to keep it from the Soviet government. Academic geneticists could not hope to provide such simple and immediately tangible results, and so were seen as politically less useful than the charlatanism of Lysenko.

Lysenko did not apply actual science. He was a proponent of the ideas of Ivan Vladimirovich Michurin, and practiced a form of Lamarckism, insisting on the change in species among plants through hybridization and grafting, as well as a variety of other non-genetic techniques. With this came, most importantly, the implication that acquired characteristics of an organism — for example, the state of being leafless as a result of having been plucked — could be inherited by that organism's descendants.

It is often suggested that Lysenko's success came solely from the desire in the USSR to assert that heredity had only a limited role in human development; that future generations, living under socialism, would be purged of their 'bourgeois' or 'fascist' instincts. But Lysenko himself never purported that his views could be applied to human biology; they were relegated strictly to agriculture. He indeed attacked certain reductionist views of heredity, like eugenics, but only as bourgeois influences on science. Many scholarly works on Lysenkoism agree that it was not based on human genetics. Stalin, however, wanted to believe that Lysenkoism did apply to human genetics.

Lysenkoism's success was also not wholly ideological — it did not follow just from Marxist or Leninist philosophies that supposedly rejected certain ideas about human determinism on ideological grounds. Historians, such as Loren Graham (of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), David Joravsky (formerly at Northwestern University) have argued that the success was more due to Soviet political maneuvers at the time than to an attempt to replace the basic tenets of science.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that rival views were rejected because they were seen as 'bourgeois' or 'fascist', and analogous 'non-bourgeois' theories also flourished in other fields in the Soviet academy at this time (see Japhetic theory; socialist realism). Interestingly, perhaps the only opponents of Lysenkoism during Stalin's lifetime to escape liquidation came from the small community of Soviet nuclear physicists. But as Tony Judt has observed, "Stalin left his nuclear physicists alone... [He] may well have been mad but he was not stupid."[3]

[edit] Repercussions

From 1934 to 1940, under Lysenko's admonitions and with Stalin's approval, many geneticists were executed (including Isaak Agol, Solomon Levit, Grigorii Levitskii, Georgii Karpechenko and Georgii Nadson) or sent to labor camps. The famous Soviet geneticist Nikolai Vavilov was arrested in 1940 and died in prison in 1943.[4]

Genetics was stigmatized as a 'bourgeois science' or 'fascist science' (because fascists — particularly the Nazis in Germany — embraced genetics and attempted to use it to justify their theories on eugenics and the master race, which culminated in Action T4).

Despite the ban, some Soviet scientists continued to work in genetics, dangerous as it was[citation needed].

In 1948, genetics was officially declared "a bourgeois pseudoscience"[5]; all geneticists were fired from work (some were also arrested), and all genetic research was discontinued. Nikita Khrushchev, who claimed to be an expert in agricultural science, also valued Lysenko as a great scientist, and the taboo on genetics continued (but all geneticists were released or rehabilitated posthumously). The ban was only waived in the mid 1960s.

Thus, Lysenkoism caused serious, long-term harm to Soviet biology. It represented a serious failure of the early Soviet leadership to find real solutions to agricultural problems, throwing their support for a charlatan — at the expense of many human lives. Lysenkoism also spread to China, where it continued long after it was eventually denounced by the Soviets[citation needed].

Almost alone among Western scientists, John Desmond Bernal, Professor of Physics at Birkbeck College, University of London and a Fellowship, made an aggressive public defense of Lysenko and some years later gave an obituary of ‘Stalin as a Scientist.’ However, despite Bernal's endorsement, other members of Britain's scientific community retreated from open support of the Soviet Union, and may have been one of the chief reasons for a retreat from Marxism in that country[citation needed].

[edit] "Neo-Lysenkoism"

The word 'Neo-Lysenkoism' has occasionally been invoked as a derogatory term in the debates over race and intelligence and sociobiology against scientists minimizing the role of genes in shaping human behavior, such as Leon Kamin, Richard Lewontin, Stephen Jay Gould and Barry Mehler.[6][7]

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  1. ^ See the following references: [1], [2], [3].
  2. ^ [4]
  3. ^ Judt, Tony. Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), p. 174n.
  4. ^ Cohen, Barry Mandel. "Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov: the explorer and plant collector" Economic Botany, 45 (1991): 38-46.
  5. ^ Gardner, Martin (1957). Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. New York: Dover Books. http://books.google.no/books?id=TwP3SGAUsnkC&lpg=PP1&ots=xeNW4pRTU7&dq=gardner%20fads%20and%20fallacies&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q=&f=false. 
  6. ^ Pearson, Roger. "Activist Lysenkoism: The Case of Barry Mehler." In Race, Intelligence and Bias in Academe (Washington: Scott-Townsend Publishers, 1997).
  7. ^ Davis, Bernard. "Neo-Lysenkoism, IQ, and the press." The Public Interest, 74 (1983): 41-59.
  • Denis Buican, L'Γ©ternel retour de Lyssenko, Paris, Copernic, 1978.
  • Ronald Fisher, "What Sort of Man is Lysenko?" Listener, 40 (1948): 874–875 — contemporary commentary by a British evolutionary biologist (pdf format)
  • Loren Graham, Science, Philosophy, and Human Behavior in the Soviet Union (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987). ISBN 023106442X.
  • Loren Graham, "Stalinist Ideology and the Lysenko Affair," in Science in Russia and the Soviet Union (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
  • Loren Graham, What Have We Learned About Science and Technology from the Russian Experience? (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1998).
  • Loren Graham, Science and the Soviet Social Order (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002). ISBN 0674794206.
  • Julian Huxley, Soviet Genetics and World Science (Chatto & Windus, 1949).
  • David Joravsky, The Lysenko Affair (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970).
  • Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin, "Lysenkoism," in The Dialectical Biologist (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1985).
  • Richard Lewontin, "The apportionment of human diversity." Evolutionary Biology, 6 (1972): 381-398
  • Roger Pearson, "Activist Lysenkoism: The Case of Barry Mehler." In Race, Intelligence and Bias in Academe (Washington: Scott-Townsend Publishers, 1997).
  • Valery N. Soyfer, Lysenko and the Tragedy of Soviet Science (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1994).
  • Gary Werskey, The Visible College: The Collective Biography of British Scientific Socialists During the 1930s (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1978). ISBN 0713908262.

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