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Trofim Denisovich Lysenko

Trofim Denisovich Lysenko

A biologist and agronomist, Trofim Denisovich Lysenko (1898-1976) was director of the Institute of Genetics in the Academy of Sciences in the Soviet Union under the regime of Joseph Stalin. To the public he was portrayed as a heroic example of the self­educated peasant. Although the theories he espoused were based largely on misunderstand­ings of genetics and scientific principles, the exer­cise of political influence and power enabled Lysenko to hold sway over biological research in the Soviet Union for decades. Lysenko’s genetic theories rejected the theories of Gregor Mendel; they were the result of blending a superficial understanding of the theories of Jean Baptistede Lamarck with specific selections from Charles Darwin’s theories that would support Lysenko’s latest interpretations of inheritance.

Born near Poltava in the Ukraine, the son of a poor Russian farmer, Lysenko’s first employment was as a gardener. In 1921, he studied at the Uman School of Horticulture. Shortly thereafter, he was chosen for the Belaya Tserkov Selection Station, and in 1925 he received a doctorate at the Kiev Agricultural Institute. Lysenko was highly interested in the theories of Ivan Vladimirovich Michurin, who taught that the environment is directly respon­sible for the development of hybrids that are very different from their parents. By controlling the environment, a breeder can select the type of hybrid to be developed. Individuals are highly plastic and not limited to the genetics of their parents. The results are then under the authority of the breeder. Although Michurin claimed many successful results, no one else seemed able to replicate his outcomes.

While working at an agricultural experimental station in Azerbaijan in 1927, Lysenko came up with the idea that fields could be fertilized by plant­ing a winter crop of field peas. The field peas would then provide livestock with forage through the win­ter. Lysenko claimed that the use of chemical fertil­izer did little to improve crop yield. Chemical fertilizers were successful the first year, but failed in succeeding years in areas of poor soil fertility.

This was the beginning of a career that would last until 1964. Each of Lysenko’s failures would be rapidly followed by a new stunning success by the “peasant genius,” as reported in the Soviet press.

In the Soviet Union, the long winters required that seeds survive long cold periods. Lysenko claimed that cooling the seeds before planting increased their strength and therefore the yield of the next crop. Lysenko selected spring wheat with a short “stage of vernalization” (exposure to cold) and a long “light stage,” which he then crossed with wheat of a longer stage of vernalization and a short light stage. This led to increased yields and new varieties of grain. Largely as a result of the adulatory reports of this experiment by the Soviet press, Lysenko became editor in 1935 of his own agricultural journal, called Vernalization. His fail­ures were not reported but led rather to new claims of success. His only real success, however, was his popularity among Soviet farmers, who were unen- thusiastic about Soviet agriculture in the early 1930s. While most of his experiments ultimately hurt the Soviet farmer, because he was one of their own, his popularity remained intact. This served the needs of the Soviet government.

Lysenko was most noted for his criticism of the genetic theories of Mendel, Morgan, and Weisman, which he saw as antiscientific, decadent, and meta­physical. Lysenko set out to save science founded upon dialectical materialism from religious dogma­tism masquerading as empirical science. His claim was that these genetic theories made the same errors as those of Thomas Malthus, who was exposed by both Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels for using deductive logic instead of empirical science.

Lysenko made the following argument: Intraspecies competition would only weaken the species in its adaptation to a changing environment. Morgan-Mendel genetics would be too slow to allow any species to survive in the real world; fixity of species was the core of the metaphysical superstition of the Morgan-Mendel school. Darwin proved that species do adapt to their environment and, in the process, species evolve into new species. Morgan-Mendel’s ilk destroyed the insights of Darwin. According to them, genes and chromo­somes that were fixed and passed on from genera­tion to generation could not change fast enough to prevent extinction. This is why genetic theory would be metaphysical and not scientific. It created a dilemma that could only be avoided by introduc­ing mutations or genes that would randomly make mistakes in the next generation. Furthermore, they said that most mutations were lethal, making all life on this planet impossible. Their only solution was divine intervention. Thus Morgan-Mendel genetics introduced religious dogmatism as a replacement for honest science. Lysenko claimed to merge Marx and Darwin; in fact he was closer to Lamarck than either Marx or Darwin.

By 1927, the Soviet Union had survived the First World War, revolution, civil war, invasion by 18 powerful nations, an economy in ruins, famine, isolation, and a desperate need for solutions. Simple remedies for complex problems were more attractive than more complicated solutions. The Soviet Union emerged from chaos with a political structure that was both rigid and bureaucratic. The Communist Party’s tight control over all aspects of society led to fear of innovative ideas out of step with party directives among the top party leadership. The scientific community was particularly controlled in an inflexible and mechan­ical way. Science was defined as part of a larger global class struggle. There were two kinds of sci­ence: bourgeois capitalist science and revolution­ary proletarian science guided by dialectical materialism.

The Communist Party used hero worship as a way to gain support for its policies. Lysenko, being a peasant himself, was a hero figure. When Russian farmers were resisting forced collectivization, both Stalin and the resisting peasants loved Lysenko. Lysenko was the son of a poor farmer who used commonsense arguments. His lack of understand­ing of genetics proved to most farmers that he had more connection to the land than most professors who had been “corrupted by Western ideas.” With this support, he could make the case for genetics as part of an imperialist conspiracy to destroy true science.

Lysenko used anti-intellectual values and the support of a coercive government to secure his tight control over agricultural science and biology for many years. By early in the Cold War, his con­trol was complete. The resolution in 1948 of the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences of the USSR made any disagreement with Lysenko’s find­ings illegal. Textbooks at all levels of education did not even mention Mendel’s genetics. As a result, many serious biologists were exiled, tortured, imprisoned, murdered by the government, or com­mitted suicide. With Stalin’s death in 1953, there was a slight thaw in Soviet biology, and in 1956, more criticism of Lysenko’s theories became pos­sible. Nikita Khrushchev offered some protection. However, Lysenko resigned as president of the Academy of Agricultural Sciences in 1954, and in 1956 his resignation as president of the All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences was announced. In 1965 he was removed as director of the Institute of Genetics, and Lysenko was officially blamed for much of the failure of farms in the Soviet Union. Trofim Lysenko died in 1976.

Michael Joseph Francisconi

See also Darwin, Charles; DNA; Evolution, Organic;

Lamarck, Jean-Baptiste de; Materialism

Further Readings

Carroll, S. B. (2006). The making of the fittest: DNA and the ultimate forensic record of evolution. New York: Norton.

Joravsky, D. (1986). The Lysenko affair. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lecourt, D. (1977). Proletarian science? The case of Lysenko (B. Brewster, Trans.). Atlantic City, NJ: Humanities Press.

Lewontin, R., & Levins, R. (1976). The problem of Lysenkoism. In H. Rose & S. Rose (Eds.), The radicalisation of science: Ideology of/in the natural sciences (pp. 32-64). London: Macmillan.

Medvedev, Z. A. (1969). The rise and fall of T. D. Lysenko. New York: Columbia University Press.

Roll-Hansen, N. (2004). The Lysenko effect: The politics of science. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books.

Safonov, V. (1951). Land in bloom (J. Fineberg, Trans.). Moscow, USSR: Foreign Languages Publishing.

Soyfer, V. N., Gruliow, L., & Gruliow, R. (1994). Lysenko and the tragedy of Soviet science. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

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