Human Folly & the Paradox of Human Intelligence

The Lysenko Years

The Bolshevik seizure of power led to a protracted period of social instability throughout what had so recently been the Russian Empire. It led to a period of political reshaping and social restructuring that was marked in almost equal proportion by hopes and fears, of confidence and uncertainty. In these difficult circumstances, largely isolated from the rest of the world, experimentation in many fields of activity was a virtual necessity. Unfortunately the results were often disastrous, and the feeling that the honour and reputation of the Revolution was at stake frequently compounded errors. In this sort of atmosphere, of course, blusterers and bullies come naturally to the fore.

During a trip to Russia in 1933 the prominent British geneticist S.C.Hartland managed to set up a meeting with his counterpart, Trofim Lysenko, the leading Soviet authority on evolution and heredity. Hartland, however, was not greatly impressed. As he later explained, it was not that Lysenko lacked ideas or enthusiasm, indeed he possessed a certain charisma and had a forceful way of presenting his case, but his ideas were so eccentric and so at odds with mainstream biology that Hartland found it virtually impossible to engage in any rational discussion on matters of supposed common interest. In fact he was astonished by the extent of Lysenko's ignorance of even the most elementary principles of plant physiology and genetics. He found it extraordinary that this figure, whose ideas could not have withstood a moment's examination by any serious biologist, had managed to get himself into a position of such authority.

But this meeting occurred early on in Lysenko's career; he went on to dominate Soviet biology for a further thirty years, during which time he managed to virtually destroy it. It was nothing less than tragic that this should have occurred during a period when, as a result of their programme of forced collectivisation, the agricultural situation throughout the Soviets was in a state of permanent crisis. At a time when it desperately needed competent leadership and technical expertise the whole field of agriculture research (and of Biology in general) was saddled with this ridiculous impostor. Hartland was not the only person to wonder how this mad situation had come to be.

Trofim Denisovitch Lysenko had graduated from the Kiev Agricultural Institute in 1925 with a doctorate in agricultural science. His ideas had been shaped by a certain Ivan Vladimirovich Michurin, who was a proponent of Lamarckism, an 18th century theory of evolution that had, by this time, been almost universally abandoned. Lamarck had believed that evolution operated through the capacity of an organism to pass on characteristics that it had acquired in its own lifetime. This was an idea that had interested, and even inspired, Darwin, but one which his theories finally discredited. The 'fortuitous' principles of Darwins theory of Natural Selection came to be accepted because they gave a far better explanation of the origin of species than the 'purposefulness' of Lamarcks theory of acquired characteristics.

But this general acceptance of Darwin's ideas did not, even as late as the 1920ies, appear to have extended to Kiev. Michurin was a convinced advocate of Lamarckism, and the not-very-bright Lysenko had thoroughly assimilated the theory. That biologists everywhere else had rejected it mattered little - after all no other country had so far adopted Communism, a political system that was clearly going to transform the world. So, from quite an early stage, and quite accidentally, Michurinism, as a homegrown scientific theory, came to be identified with the Revolution and Marxist-Leninism. Its basic notion, that beneficial conditions would inevitably improve the genetic stock, appeared to correspond with Marxist orthodoxy. The unfortunate corollary of this was that the genetic principles that were held by the rest of the world (Mendelism), were associated with 'bourgeois idealism' - a connexion that was to have disastrous consequences for many serious biologists in the USSR.

Unfortunately, and despite the unsoundness of his ideas, Lysenko scored an early success. In 1929 he proposed a method of 'vernalisation' to improve crops, involving the soaking and freezing of winter wheat before sowing. This was tried out on a small experimental plot and was moderately successful. Although Lysenko claimed this method as his own the technique had, in fact, been used for generations by peasants. In the desperate agricultural situation of the time he seemed to be offering a quick, sure-fire solution. The party bosses immediately and enthusiastically adopted Vernalisation, and Lysenko's career was launched. His rough and ready peasant approach, and his promise of simple solutions to complex problems, ensured his acceptance.

Once he had acquired strong political backing, Lysenko's colleagues tended to treat him with caution. Those who saw him as an impostor tended to keep their opinions to themselves; others found it expedient to pay lip service to his pseudo-scientific ideas. In this way his position was consolidated. Lysenko carried on with his half-baked 'experiments' in genetics, and continued to build his reputation within the communist party, where he now had a group of devoted followers. When in the mid-thirties the agricultural situation went from serous to quite desperate the party bureaucrats, anxious for a solution (and for someone to whom they could pass on responsibility), put Lysenko in charge of the Departments responsible for agricultural and biological research - with disastrous results.

The progress of Michurinism, with Lysenko at its head, mirrored that of Marxist-Leninism under Stalin. An atmosphere was created throughout this vital area of research where it became more than expedient to comply with Lysenko's weird, makeshift theories. Those who were rash enough to defend conventional genetics were increasingly portrayed as enemies of the Soviet people, and their laboratories closed down. Textbooks had begun to incorporate Lysenko's half-baked ideas into their pages. The Party Purges were also mirrored: those who spoke out against his programme, (and this came to include many of the more prominent biologists) were likely to find themselves banished to Siberia or sent to labour camps, never to be heard of again. Against this background it is understandable that many came to confess the error of their old beliefs. From 1936 on Soviet biologists of every rank lived under a shadow of fear, and this in spite of their undoubted loyalty to the regime.

There were strange consequences of this ideological conflation for the international communist movement; because once Lamarck-Michurinism had been officially adopted as Soviet policy it became part of the fabric of Soviet political dogma. This, in turn, meant that loyal communists throughout the world felt obliged to accept Lysenko's theories as scientific truth. Biologists who were sympathetic to communism were placed in a particularly awkward bind; some adopted the most incongruous forms of doublethink. In Russia itself it became increasingly dangerous to declare any belief in conventional, Mendelian, genetics.

Lysenko and his clique ruthlessly consolidated their position. Things came to a head at a conference in 1937, where N.I.Vavilov, who had been the most distinguished geneticist in Russia, courageously spoke out against their influence. Inevitably this act marked him out for the special attention of the N.K.V.D., the Soviet secret police. He was later arrested on a trumped-up charge of spying for Britain, summarily tried, and banished to a Siberian labour camp, where he died of starvation some two years later. Lysenko took up the various posts that had been left by his departure.

With their strong political backing (notably that of Stalin himself) Lysenko's supporters, managed entirely to take over the Soviet Academy of Sciences and this gave them unlimited opportunities to impose the Party line, their line, on all matters relating to biology. Leading figures in the field were systematically removed from their posts and replaced by those willing to accept Lysenkoism. Research was redirected along lines indicated by Lysenko - the fact that it constantly produced worthless results was overlooked or suppressed. By this time everyone knew the price of criticism. As a result most of those left in the field were as much concerned to prove the correctness of the party line as in any genuine research. Conformity had become a matter of survival. Any results that might in some way cast doubt on the correctness of the eternal truths of Michurin-Lamararckism were definitely to be avoided.

Lysenko himself went from strength to strength; he had honours heaped upon him. He was appointed Director of Genetics at the Academy of Sciences (with Stalin’s personal approval), and received two Stalin prizes and the Order of Lenin. Later he was made a Hero of the Soviet Union. From time to time the Academy sent grovelling letters to Stalin (which were always published in the official Soviet newspaper, Pravda), thanking him for his great assistance and inspiration in furthering Michurinism as 'the only correct and progressive tendency in all the branches of biological science' - these missives inevitably finishing up with the expression 'Glory to the great Stalin, leader of the people'. The corrupting connection between the Party and the biological sciences, which were now completely dominated by Lysenko, was epitomised in a lecture that he delivered in 1948. In this he savagely attacked those foreign scientists who perversely adhered to Mendelian genetics, describing them as 'reactionary and decadent, grovelling before western capitalism, the enemies of the Soviet peoples'. The conflict between his own and Western genetics was portrayed as 'an ideological class struggle between socialism and capitalism on the international scale'. He rounded off his denunciation by declaring that 'There is no room for compromise'. Pravda reported that 'With one impulse all those present rose from their seats and engaged in a stormy and prolonged ovation...'

It is impossible to imagine that Lysenko's cranky, incoherent ideas (which hardly amounted to a theory) could have survived for as long as they did in any circumstances other than those prevailing during Stalin's regime of terror. He was a creature of Stalin, his regime an extension of Stalin's own, and like his master he was a paranoid bully. When Stalin died Lysenko's position began to be exposed. Under Khruschev opposition to his rule was at last tolerated - but by this time the biological sciences in the Soviet Union were in a sorry state. Recovery was a slow, painful business. Even as late as 1964 a Lysenkoite could be elected to the Academy of Sciences. In the following year, however, Lysenko himself was dismissed from his post as Director of the Academy's Institute of Genetics. His methods, and the outcome of his pseudo-scientific 'researches', were at last subjected to scrutiny - with the result that he was found to have systematically manipulated data. His agricultural methods, which had been adopted throughout the Soviets for nearly two decades, were exposed as utterly futile, and were finally abandoned. Lysenko fell from favour, and there was eventually a complete official disavowal of his ideas and influence. He did, however, continue to haunt the Academy of Sciences for some years, an embarrassing reminder of the excesses of the past. He died in 1976.