Lysenkoism

lysenko

Lysenkoism [li-seng-koh-iz-uhm] 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. 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 Lysenko and his followers, which began in the late 1920s and formally ended in 1964.

In 1928, Trofim Lysenko, a previously unknown plant scientist, 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. Drosphilid flies made experimental verification of genetics theories, such as Mendelian ratios and heritability, much easier.

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.

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, who he claimed were trying to purposely disable the Soviet economy and cause it to fail.

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. From 1934 to 1940, under Lysenko’s admonitions and with Stalin’s approval, many geneticists were executed or sent to labor camps. 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).

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 British historian Tony Judt has observed, ‘Stalin left his nuclear physicists alone… [He] may well have been mad but he was not stupid.’

In 1948, genetics was officially declared ‘a bourgeois pseudoscience’; all geneticists were fired from their jobs (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 knowledge of biology. It represented a serious failure of the early Soviet leadership to find real solutions to agricultural problems, throwing their support behind a charlatan at the expense of many human lives.

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