I wrote this post on February 27, 2005. Provocative? You decide….
I am happy, along with at least half of the blogosphere, that Billmon is back. One of his recent posts caught my eye, as it was comparing current treatment of science by the Bush Administration to the treatment of science by the Stalin Administration back in the early days of the USSR, notably Trofim Denisovich Lysenko. The US scientists today are very unhappy about this state of things and are pondering ways to fightback (hat tip: Chris Mooney)
I looked around the Internets to see what is there about Lysenko and I found a few websites, like this, this, this, and this. Note how the authors call this misuse of science “Marxist” while poor ole’ Karl is rolling in his grave – ah, how many times was his name attached to stuff he would have never signed on if he was alive enough to personally stage a protest.
One thing I just recently managed to find online is an English translation of Lysenko’s report to the Soviet Academy of the Agricultural Sciences“V.I.Lenin” on July 31st, 1948. I have a copy of it in Serbo-Croatian (80 pages long, small format, about 6″ x 4″). I bought it in a used-book store for something like 1 dinar many years ago. It is one of my prized historical posessions, so I brought it to the States with me.
The Report was published in Yugoslavia in January 1949 which is really strange. Tito went to Moscow in 1948 and told Stalin to shove it – he was not letting Yugoslavia get burried under the Soviet umbrella as Tito had his own designs on “his” country. From 1948 till about 1955 Yugoslavia was an economically isolated country. Stalin lined up his tanks along the Hungarian, Romanian and Bulgarian borders with Yugoslavia, but never actually attacked. When Krushchev finally decided to warm up to Tito again, it was too late, as Tito successfully wooed the West by then. The following several decades were times of happiness and prosperity as both sides in the cold war tried so hard to be nice to Yugoslavia, the geographic buffer-zone between Warsaw countries in the East and NATO countries in the West. It was also a time of prosperity because Tito’s “third way”, i.e., market-based socialism, actually worked very well for a while, a fact that neither of the big powers liked.
As soon as USSR crumbled, the USA did everything in its power to undermine the successful example of socialism, break down Yugoslavia into economically unviable pieces ripe for new economic colonialism by Germany & Co., foment wars, bomb the shit out of civilians, then come in as a savior with IMF-nonsensical-style of economic “recovery” that strangled all other ex-communist countries already. Attack on Iraq belongs to the same way of thinking: every successful example of a “third way” has to be eliminated so the US-style barbaric capitalism can move in and spread across the globe insearch of profit for the US gazzillionaires. The American attack on the Soviet Union in 1918. [errata: it was still called Russia at the time, but it was run by Bolshevicks – the country changed its name in 1922] belongs to the same category – the fear of success of a different economic model (though later discovered to be unfounded) was stronger than the lack of appetite of the general population for yet another war at the time the WWI barely ended.
Back to Lysenko. By 1949, Tito was throwing local Stalinists in jail, notably to the notorious Goli Otok (Bare Island) work prison (which, I hear,is going to be opened as a museum soon). Being pro-Soviet was considered high treason. Tito may have been a brilliant diplomat and a benevolent dictator, but he was a dictator nonetheless and dealt with internal political enemies as brutally as any dictator, while building a happy and prosperous country for the no-questions-asked segment of the population.
So why did Kultura, the state-run Zagreb-based publishing house, decide to print 10,000 copies (in Latinic script, as well as an unstated number inCyrillic script, probably printed somewhere in Belgrade) of Lysenko’s report and sell it for 7.5 dinars each? Was it considered non-political enough? Was it considered communist but not Stalinist? It was offically approved by the Government of Croatia. I wish someone could tell me how did this manage to go through.
I will quote some of the Report later, but first, let me set the stage. The world was in the early years of the Cold War. Just like Americans suspended all rational judgment due to McCarthyism and Red Scare, so Russians also suspended all rational judgment due to the threat of American Imperialism. Everything Russians did was called”Marxism/communism” in the States. Everything Americans did was called”Burgoise/capitalist” in Russia. In other words, each side was painting the other with the most slanderous words they could come up with, then worked hard to make those words even more slanderous (the way Frank Luntz operates today). Thus, everything Russian intellectuals, including scientists, did was described by them as being”materialist/dialectic” while the enemy thinkers were imputed with the slander of “idealist/spiritualist” adjectives. The strategy of theWesterners was to completely ignore the entire intellectual activity in the East as if it was non-existent.
It is interesting to read Lysenko’s Report for another reason. While pitting two opposing views against each other, he provides us, the modern readers, with an important insight. Thinking back at what was known by both Western and Soviet science at the time, we can now see that both were initially wrong, yet excited about their proposed paradigms. Both then went through a period of “hardening” of the absolute belief that they were right. Both then experienced, by forces from within, a re-evaluation and subsequent dismissal of what was wrong and dedication to get it right. After the end of Cold War, both sides are excited to learn from one another and fuse their insights into a bigger whole.
There seems to be an important lesson in this. Just because Lysenko was a Stalinist apparatchik does not mean he was 100% wrong, nor does it mean that his scientific opponents in the West at the time were 100% right. Apparently, Lysenko was a despicable person. Still, one does not need to be nice to be a good scientist. Lysenko’s initial work on vernalization was, actually, quite all right. It is later, when ideology took over, that he started fudging the data and, as a result, ended up starving the Russian population.
Vernalization is the effect of chilling the seeds in order to promote earlier or greater growth after planting. It works, to some extent, in some plants. The phenomenon is still found in botany textbooks. There is even ongoing research today, looking at molecular basis of vernalization. Yet, it is now understood that this is a minor phenomenon and that it is no panacea for food production on a grand scale. Yet at the time, this notion appeared realistic. There was nothing in the data at the time (that has come much later) that precluded the idea that this could be a major method for increasing food production. Optimism by scientists at the time was understandable.
I have in my hands right now Proceedings from a Symposium on Vernalization and Photoperiodism in Waltham, MA (home of Brandeis University) in 1948. The book has ads for Lysenko’s books, it sports a big photograph of Lysenko at the beginning together with the photos of some of the most notable other participants of the symposium (e.g, Garner and Allard – discoverers of photoperiodism), and almost every article mentions, cites and glorifies Lysenko. This was in the USA in 1948! Most participants were American (and West German). How come they did not laugh at him? Because his scientific misdeeds were uncovered much later. Does this also explain why Kultura published Lysenko in 1949 in Yugoslavia?
Lysenko’s ideological stance was ignored by Western scientists as long as they thought that his science was good, and that was for quite some time. It is interesting to see how the authors of articles on vernalization are complete unknowns to me today, while a number of the authors on photoperiodism were not just alive, but still quite active in 1960, when they attended (e.g., Erwin Buning, Karl Hamner, F.W.Went) the legendary Cold Spring Harbor Symposium on Biological Clocks (I wrote about it here). Vernalization fell by the wayside. Photoperiodism marched on. The two fields completely separated. Interestingly, the site of the symposium, the Brandeis University, is currently one of the biggest centers for study of biological clocks.
But in 1948 it was completely plausible that the two phenomena were closely related and Lysenko’s own theory of “developmental stages” that tied the two together was consistent with the available data at the time. Light and temperature were considered to be two environmetal parameters that could affect the rate of development of plants – a reasonable conjecture. Yet, even these Proceedings had a reprint of two Bunning’s papers from 1940 and 1946 that cite his paper from 1928 that shows that daylength (photoperiod) does not act (just) as an environmental source of energy, but as a cue for entrainment of a timing mechanism – the biological clock. Yet this notion took some time to take hold and to get properly understood by the broader scientific community. We should not judge the scientists of old for not knowing everything we know now. Many smart theories were proposed that were subsequently shown to be wrong – but that did not make them any less smart.
Anyway, let me now go through some bits and pieces from the booklet and add my commentary. I will go first through the first “science” part. Then, I’ll quote the very end of Lysenko’s speech that has, in Serbo-Croatian version, little parenthetic notes about audience response. The whole story is less black-and-white and thus much more interesting than what you may expect.
Lysenko’s strategy throughout the report is to quote, often at length, from Western sources including Weissman, Morgan and Muller. Those quotes would invoke a big yawn from any biology freshman today. Duh, that is sooooo waaay basic. Of course the germ cells and somatic cells are separate!
But Lysenko then, after each quote, adds a quip that it is such an outrageous and obvious idealist/burgois Morganist/Mullerian lie that Soviet/Michurinist researchers have debunked with mountains of data. Thus the only argument he uses is argument from authority – it is so because I said so, and if you do not see that this is an obvious lie than you are uninformed or stupid and you better keep quiet because Stalin is on my side.
The other strategy he used was to immediately follow the long and relatively reasonable quote with a shorter quote from the same source, usually a short over-optimistic quip, sometimes (but not always) taken out of context. Let’s look at some of the examples. Here, Lysenko asserts that Darwin got some stuff right and some stuff wrong. The effects of “use and disuse”, an essentialy Lamarckist notion that crept back into the later editions of the Origin, are what Lysenko thinks is good about Darwin. The notion of competition for limited resources is what Lysenko thinks is wrong:
Many are still apt to slur over Darwin’s error in transferring into his teaching Malthus’s preposterous reactionary ideas on population. The true scientist cannot and must not overlook the erroneous aspects of Darwin’s teaching.
Biologists should always ponder these words of Engels: “The entire Darwinian teaching on the struggle for existence merely transfers from society to the realm of living nature Hobbes’s teaching on bellum omnium contra omnes and the bourgeois economic teaching on competition, along with Malthus’s population theory. After this trick (the absolute justification for which I deny, particularly in regard to Malthus’s theory) has been performed, the same theories are transferred back from organic nature to history and the claim is then made that it has been proved that they have the force of eternal laws of human society. The childishness of this procedure is obvious, and it is not worth while wasting words on it. But if I were to dwell on this at greater length, I should have started out by showing that they are poor economists first, and only then that they are poor naturalists and philosophers.”
Next, he bashes Weissmann:
WEISMANNISM followed by Mendelism-Morganism, which made its appearance at the beginning of this century, was primarily directed against the materialist foundations of Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Weismann named his conception Neo-Darwinism, but, in fact, it was a complete denial of the materialist aspects of Darwinism. It insinuated idealism and metaphysics into biology.
The materialist theory of the evolution of living nature 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. Weismann, however, set out to refute this materialist proposition. In his Lectures on Evolutionary Theory, asserts that “not only is there no proof of such a form of heredity, but it is inconceivable theoretically “. Referring to earlier statements of his in a similar vein, he declares that ” thus war was declared against Lamarck’s principle of the direct effect of use and disuse and, indeed, that marked the beginning of the struggle which is going on to this day, the struggle between the Neo-Lamarckians and the Neo-Darwinians, as the contending parties are called”.
Weismann, as we see, speaks of having declared war against Lamarck’s principle; but it is easy enough to see that he declared war against that without which there is no materialist theory of evolution, that under the guise of “Neo-Darwinism” he declared war against the materialist foundations of Darwinism.
Weismann denied the inheritability of acquired characters and elaborated the idea of a special hereditary substance to be sought for in the nucleus. “The sought for bearer of heredity “, he stated, “is contained in the chromosome material.” The chromosomes, he said, contain units, each of which “determines a definite part of the organism in its appearance and final form”.
Weismann asserts that there are “two great categories of living material: the hereditary substance, or idioplasm, and the ‘nutrient substance’, or trophoplasm”. And he goes on to declare that the bearers of the hereditary substance, “the chromosomes, represent a separate world, as it were”, a world independent of the organism and its conditions of life.
In Weismann’s opinion the living body is but a nutritive soil for the hereditary substance, which is immortal and never generated again.
Thus, he asserts, ” the germ-plasm is never generated again; it only grows and multiplies continually, handed down from generation to generation…. Looked at only from the point of view of propagation, the germ-cells are the most important element in the individual specimen, for they alone preserve the species, whereas the body is reduced practically to the status of mere breeding ground for the germ-cells, the place in which they form and, under favourable conditions, feed, multiply, and ripen”.
The living body and its cells, according to Weismann, are but the container and nutritive medium of the hereditary substance; they themselves can never produce the latter, they “can never bring forth germ-cells”.
Weismann thus endows the mythical hereditary substance with the property of continued existence; it is a substance which does not itself develop and at the same time determines the development of the mortal body.
Further: “… the hereditary substance of the germ-cell, prior to the reduction division, potentially contains all the elements of the body “. And although Weismann does state that “in the germ-plasm there is no determinant of a’ hooked nose’ just as there is no determinant of the wing of a butterfly with all its parts and particles”, he goes on to emphasise that, nevertheless, the germ-plasm “… contains a certain number of determinants which successively determine the development of an entire group of cells in all its stages, leading to the formation of the nose in such a mode as to result in a hooked nose, exactly in the same way as the wing of a butterfly, with all its little veins, cells, form of scales, and pigment deposits, comes into being by the successive action of multitudinous determinants upon the course of the proliferation of the cells”.
Hence, according to Weismann, the hereditary substance produces no new forms, does not develop with the development of the individual, and is not subject to any dependent changes.
An immortal hereditary substance, independent of the qualitative features attending the development of the living body, directing the mortal body, but not produced by the latter–that is Weismann’s frankly idealistic, essentially mystical conception, which he disguised as “Neo-Darwinism”.
Whoah! “living body is but a nutritive soil for the hereditary substance, which is immortal” sounds like Dawkins’ “lumbering robots”. The “mythical hereditary substance” must be DNA. What Lysenko is attacking here is strict and naive genocentrism which actually IS idealistic, and has been abandoned by most biologists over the last 25 years or so, but not in 1948 yet. In 1948 the Darwinian Synthesis was just starting to harden. The real genocentrism of Williams (1966) and Dawkins was still to come!
Pretend that you do not know who said this, when and where it was said, and what was proposed instead:
The Mendelist-Morganist theory does not include in the scientific concept “living body” the conditions of the body’s life. To the Morganists, environment is only the background–indispensable, they admit–for the manifestation and operation of the various characteristics of the living body, in accordance with its heredity. They therefore hold that qualitative variations in the heredity (nature) of living bodies are entirely independent of the environment, of the conditions of life.
Wouldn’t Lewontin agree with this statement? Odling-Smee and Feldman? I know I would. Epigenetics, parental effects, reaction norm, niche-construction and learning are parts of a modern evolutionary theory that does not see environment as “only the background”. In 1948, and for his own purposes, Lysenko attacked exactly the same aspects of neo-Darwinism that modern Western biologists started attacking in late 1970s – the aspects that are just plain wrong. Lysenko replaced them with his ideas that turned out to be also wrong. We are nowadays replacing them with ideas that we hope will stand the test of time.
The true ideological content of Morgan’s genetics has been well revealed (to the discomfiture of our geneticists) by the physicist Erwin Schroedinger. In his book, What Is Life? The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell, he draws some philosophical conclusions from Weismann’s chromosome theory, of which he speaks very approvingly. Here is his main conclusion: “…the personal self equals the omni-present, all-comprehending, eternal self.” Schroedinger regards this conclusion as “the closest a biologist can get to proving God and immortality at one stroke”.
Hey, if you speak to the Soviet academy, you want to mention somewhere that your enemies believe in God and immortality. That is just a good strategy. It does not matter what Schroedinger really meant with this. It does not really matter that the whole discussion has nothing to do with the existence or non-existence of God. It does not matter that the Soviets were likely right on this one matter…. You use this weapon anyway in order to win millions of rubles for your research program. Nobody said that Lysenko was stupid, just evil.
Here’s another example:
MENDELISM-MORGANISM endows the postulated mythical “hereditary substance” with an indefinite character of variation. Mutations, i.e., changes of the ” hereditary substance “, are supposed to have no definite
tendency. This assertion of the Morganists is logically connected with the underlying basis of Mendelism-Morganism–the principle that the hereditary substance is independent of the living body and its conditions of life.
The Morganist-Mendelists, who proclaim that hereditary alterations, or “mutations ” as they are called, are “indefinite”, presume that such alterations cannot as a matter of principle be predicted. We have here a peculiar conception of unknowability; its name is idealism in biology.
Here, Lysenko laments the way Western scientists ignore the Soviet scientists
This formalistic, autonomistic theory of a “liberating cause ” in which the role of external conditions is reduced to the realisation of an autonomous process, has long been demolished by the advance of progressive science; it has been exposed by materialism as unscientific, as in essence idealistic.
Schmalhausen and others among our home-grown followers of imported Morganism claim that what they are asserting Darwin said before them. In proclaiming the “indefiniteness of variation “, they invoke Darwin’s statements on the subject. Darwin indeed spoke of “indefinite variation”. But that was due to the limitations of selection practice in his days. Darwin was aware of that himself and wrote that there were at that time no means of explaining the causes or nature of variation in organic beings. That, he said, was an obscure matter.
The Mendelist-Morganists cling to everything that is obsolete and wrong in Darwin’s teaching, at the same time discarding its living materialist core.
In our Socialist country, the teaching of the great transformer of nature, I. V. Michurin, has created a fundamentally new basis for directing the variability of living organisms.
Michurin himself and his followers have obtained and are obtaining directed hereditary changes in vegetable organisms literally in immense quantities. Yet Schmalhausen still asserts that:
“The appearance of individual mutations is by all indications a case of chance phenomena. We can neither predict nor deliberately induce this or that mutation. So far it has been found impossible to establish any reasonable connection between the quality of mutation and definite changes in the factors of the environment.”
On the basis of the Morganist conception of mutations, Schmalhausen has formulated the theory of so-called ” stabilising selection ” –a theory profoundly wrong ideologically and having a disarming effect upon practical activity. According to Schmalhausen, the formation of breeds and strains proceeds–presumably inevitably–in a receding curve: the formation of breeds and strains, stormy at the dawn of civilisation, increasingly expends its ” reserve of mutations ” and gradually recedes. ” Both the formation of breeds of domestic animals and the formation of strains of cultivated plants”, writes Schmalhausen, “proceeded with such exceptional speed mainly, apparently, because of the previously accumulated reserve of variability. Further strictly directed selection is slower….”
Schmalhausen’s assertion and his entire conception of “stabilising selection” follow the Morgan line.
As we know, Michurin, in the course of his lifetime, produced more than three hundred new strains of plants. Many of them were produced without sexual hybridisation, and all of them were the result of strictly directed selection, including systematic training. It is an insult to progressive science to assert–in face of these facts and subsequent achievements of followers of Michurin’s teaching–that strictly directed selection must progressively recede.
Schmalhausen obviously finds that Michurin’s facts do not fit in with his theory of “stabilizing selection”. In his book, Factors of Evolution, he gets out of the difficulty by making no mention of these works of Michurin or of the very existence of Michurin as a scientist. Schmalhausen has written a bulky volume on factors of evolution without ever once mentioning–not even in his bibliography-either K. A. Timiryazev or I. V. Michurin. Yet Timiryazev bequeathed to Soviet science a remarkable theoretical work bearing practically the same title: Factors of Organic Evolution. As for Michurin and the Michurinists, they have put the factors of evolution to work for agriculture, revealed new factors and given us a deeper understanding of the old ones.
Schmalhausen has “forgotten” the Soviet advanced scientists, the founders of Soviet biological science. But at the same time he quotes profusely and repeatedly statements of big and small foreign and home-grown representatives of Morgan’s metaphysics and leaders of reactionary biology. That is the style of Academician Schmalhausen, who calls himself a “Darwinist”. Yet at a meeting of the Faculty of Biology at the University of Moscow his book was recommended as a masterpiece in the creative development of Darwinism. The book has been given a high rating by the deans of the Faculties of Biology at the Universities of Moscow and Leningrad; it has been praised by I. Polyakov, Professor of Darwinism at the University of Kharkov, by the Pro-Rector of the University of Leningrad, Y. Polyansky, by the member of our Academy, B. Zavadovsky, and by other Morganists who sometimes pose as orthodox Darwinists.
Importantly for the time and place, Lysenko makes a point that science has to be practical:
Weismannism-Morganism has never been, nor can it be, a science conducive to the systematic production of new forms of plants and animals.
It is significant that abroad, in the United States for example, which is the home of Morganism and where it is so highly extolled as a theory, this teaching, because of its inadequacy, has no room in practical farming. Morganism as a theory is being developed per se, while practical farmers go their own way.
Weismannism-Morganism does not reveal the real laws of living nature; on the contrary, since it is a thoroughly idealistic teaching, it creates an absolutely false idea about natural laws.
For instance, the Weismannist conception that the hereditary characteristics of an organism are independent of environmental conditions has led scientists to affirm that the property of heredity (i.e., the specific nature of an organism) is subject only to chance. All the so-called laws of Mendelism-Morganism are based entirely on the idea of chance.
Here are a few examples.
“Gene” mutations, according to the theory of Mendelism-Morganism, appear fortuitously. Chromosome mutations are also fortuitous. Due to this, the direction of the process of mutation is also fortuitous. Proceeding from these invented fortuities, the Morganists base their experiments too on a fortuitous choice of substances that might act as mutation factors, believing that they are thereby acting on their postulated hereditary substance, which is just a figment of their imagination, and hoping to obtain fortuitously what may by chance prove to be of use.
According to Morganism, the separation of the so-called maternal and paternal chromosomes at reduction division is also a matter of pure chance. Fertilisation, according to Morganism, does not occur selectively, but by the chance meeting of germ cells. Hence the splitting of characters in the hybrid progeny is also a matter of chance, etc.
According to this sort of “science” the development of an organism does not proceed on the basis of the selectivity of conditions of life from the environment, but again on the basis of the assimilation of substances fortuitously entering from without.
On the whole, living nature appears to the Morganists as a medley of fortuitous, isolated phenomena, without any necessary connections and subject to no laws. Chance reigns supreme.
And again, more succinctly:
A science which fails to give practical workers a clear perspective, the power of finding their bearings and confidence that they can achieve practical aims does not deserve to be called science.
Here is the end of the closing statement (my translation of audience reactions is in brackets):
Comrades, our session is drawing to its close. This session has vividly demonstrated the strength and potency of the Michurian teaching. Many hundreds of representatives of biological and agricultural science have taken part in it.
They have come here from all parts of our vast country. They have taken a lively interest in the discussion on the situation in biological science and, convinced in the course of many years of practical activity that the Michurin teaching is right, are ardently supporting this trend in biological science.
The present session has demonstrated the complete triumph of the Michurin trend over Morganism-Mendelism.[applause]
It is truly a historic landmark in the development of biological science.[applause]
I think I shall not be wrong if I say that this session has been a great occasion for all workers in the sciences of biology and agriculture.[applause]
The Party and the Government are showing paternal concern for the strengthening and development of the Michurin trend in our science, for the removal of all obstacles to its further progress. This imposes upon us the duty to work still more extensively and profoundly to arm the State farms and collective farms with an advanced scientific theory. That is what the Soviet people expect of us.
We must effectively place science, theory, at the service of the people, so that crop yields and the productivity of stock-breeding may increase at a still more rapid pace, that labour on State farms and collective farms may be more efficient.
I call upon all Academicians, scientific workers, agronomists, and animal breeders to bend all their efforts and work in close unity with the foremost men and women in socialist farming to achieve these great and noble aims.[applause]
Progressive biological science owes it to the geniuses of mankind, Lenin and Stalin, that the teaching of I. V. Michurin has been added to the treasure-house of our knowledge, has become part of the gold fund of our science. [applause]
Long live the Michurin teaching, which shows how to transform living nature for the benefit of the Soviet people![applause]
Long live the Party of Lenin and Stalin, which discovered Michurin for the world [applause] and created all the conditions for the progress of advanced materialist biology in our country.[applause]
Glory to the great friend and protagonist of science, our leader and teacher [koriffey], Comrade Stalin! [Everyone rises and applauds for a long time]
So, in 1948, US science was genocentric and Soviet science was Lamarckist. Who is to say which one of the two is “worse”? They are both wrong. They were both consistent with the information available at the time. They were both consistent with the reigning ideologies of the societies in which they thrived for a while. Who are we to judge them with 20/20 hindsight?
Both approaches collapsed. Lysenko’s “practical application” resulted in a big famine. As a result, he was marginalized and deposed. US genocentrism resulted in a growing dissonance between the theory and the data – a classical example of Kuhnian tension within the old paradigm waiting for a scientific revolution. The dismemberment of genocentrism did not happen as a revolution, though. While the reaction may have started with paleontologists, it is the geneticists themselves who gradually moved away from genocentrism as they were looking at their own data every day.
Western emphasis on competition is likely the result of Darwin and Co. living in early capitalist, thus competitive societies. But also, Darwin, Wallace, Bates and other pioneers of evolutionary theory all got their ideas while visiting the tropics where competition between enormous numbers of organisms for very limited space is obvious.
For Russians living in a feudal/communitarian society cooperation was the obvious substance that makes the society survive from day to day. Also, they were living in the steppes, tundras and taigas where space is wide-open and animals few and far apart. Competition just does not readily come to mind. It is not surprising that the two parts of the globe stressed different aspects of evolutionary theory. Yet today, both sides are more than excited about cross-fertilization of ideas. Genes have already won in the USSR by 1970s and competition is becoming an important part of their thinking. At the same time, study of cooperation is becoming a very popular endeavor in the West.
What Lysenko did was attack bad science in the West and replace it with his own bad science. The word “bad” here is only from our present perspective, as both sides’ theories were consistent with the data available at the time. Yes, his personality was atrocious, his political power deadly, his personal scientific practice illegitimate, but he was no dummy and he correctly identified what was wrong with the contemporary biology of the West. We should give him at least partial credit for smarts, long after he died in his lonely home in Siberia.
I enjoyed your nuanced take on Lysenko and how the contending ideologies of the Cold War hardened scientific positions on both sides.
My father was a geneticist and I grew up with “Lysenkoism” being a dirty word. Partly, this was due to the scientific conflict you describe. My father was a genocentrist, which is why it took this layman years to realize that something else was up in modern biology (he died before the new consensus emerged). But his anger at Lysenko was also personal. He idolized the Russian geneticist Nikolay Timofeeff-Ressovsky, who worked in Berlin during the thirties and through WWII. After the war, Timofeeyeff was sent to the Gulag for having worked in Germany. (Solzhenitsyn writes of meeting him there, where he ran a physics seminar for prisoners.) What kept him there long enough to wreck his health and his eyesight was the enmity of Lysenko and his supporters.
Curious whether you’ve read much about this fascinating figure, a great scientist who was variously viewed as a hero and as a Nazi collaborator, and as a human being, was probably somewhere in between, like so many of us. A lot of info at http://www.jinr.dubna.su/drrr/Timofeeff/auto/index_e.html
The crosscurrents that flow both ways between science and society have always fascinated me. That’s one of the things I like about your blog, how you pick up on that.
Thank you for that link. I have heard of Timofeeff, but now will have the opportunity to learn more about him.
Thank you for bringing this to your new site, I did not see it before. An excellent job of illuminting this figure, my laymans view of Lysenko was that he was a crackpot that knew who wrote the paycheque. Well done.
Thanks for this post, which I had missed the first time around. I did not know much about Lysenko aside from seeing his name thrown around as a derogatory term.
Rampant Nationalism had nothing to do with it? And there was no Serbian aggression? And the NATO bombings of Serbia was the reason your old country broke up, and NOT the reason why the Serbian atrocities in Kosova stopped and why “only” thousands ended up in mass graves?
Was Srebrenića the fault of the US or Germany?
Was the ratio of war crimes something along the lines of 10:2:1 (Serbs, Croatians, Bosniaks) or did the US commit most of them?
We seem to be in possession of very different information about the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the ensuing wars.
If your sources are of a better quality than mine then I am fully prepared to learn from them — so, are they?
Apparently you are in a possesion of wrong information, probably acquired from the US media, which was, at the time, bought by Rudder-Finn PR company, which was paid to do its PR job by the government of Croatia and by Albanian terorist groups like KLA.
Yes, nationalists on all sides were part of the problem, but the way democratic opposition removed Milosevic in 2000 could have happened, even more easily, in 1991 and there would have been no break-up of Yugoslavia and no wars, except that the West did not want it that way and decided to support various nationalist leaders in the region instead.
thanx for the review. well-done.
Just glanced at some of your postings – we’re thinking in one direction. Waddington & Gould are my favourites too. Would you give here some links with modern scientific anti-Dawkins arguments?
PZ has written some excellent ones over time. I am planning on re-posting some of mine in the future as well.
Wow! Great stuff, Bora. Not sure why I didn’t have this site bookmarked, but it’s bookmarked now.
Thanks, Ed. Your recent fisking on Vox Day on Lysenko and Stalinist science is amazingly thorough and a delight to read.
A comment on the US being genocentric vs. Soviet Lamarckism. My memory of this story isn’t very good, but apparently Georgii Gause (a prominent Soviet biologist) had some trouble with the Stalinist/Lysenkoist establishment. He bought into the Lamarckist elements of of Lysenkoism, but also thought that there was a “hereditary substance” (contra-Lysenko). I don’t see any reason why Lamarckism (in Lamarck’s sense) would necessarily have a problem with the existence of a “hereditary substance”.
My impression was that the Lamarckist elements of Lysenkoism were promoted due to wishful thinking, but the denials of “hereditary substance” were due to some bizarre interpretations of Marxist ideology that held that “hereditary substances” were basically the capitalists of the cell, exploiting the working class organelles.
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