Trofim Denisovich Lysenko (1898-1976) was a pseudoscientist who became director of Soviet biology under Joseph Stalin. His career serves as a cautionary tale of how bad science and political ideology can become enmeshed to produce disastrous outcomes.
Lysenko’s theories about agriculture were derived from Jean Baptiste Lamarck’s now discredited theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Lamarck (1744-1829), whose evolutionary hypotheses predated Darwin and contradict the concept of natural selection, believed environment to be a leading factor in the determination of an organism’s characteristics, e.g. giraffes have long necks as a result of their constant straining to reach high branches. His doctrines were picked up by Ivan Michurin (1855-1935) and Austrian socialist, Paul Kammerer (1880-1926), who claimed to have conducted scientific experiments proving the theory. These experiments were later found to have been faked.
Michurin, Kammerer and Lysenko all disputed Gregor Mendel’s theory of how hereditary characteristics are passed from parent organisms to their offspring. The role of chromosomes and genes was left out of the equation.
Lysenko, a poorly educated Ukrainian peasant, was working at a small experiment station in Azerbaijan when he attracted the attention of a naive Pravda reporter. Unquestioningly accepting Lysenko’s claims that he had developed a technique known as vernalization, dramatically increasing crop yield by exposing wheat seed to high humidity and low temperature, the reporter thought he had sniffed out a scoop. He filled the pages of Pravda with his sensational account of a brilliant young man who had grown a winter crop of peas in Azerbaijan, “turning the barren fields of the Transcaucasus green in winter, so that cattle will not perish from poor feeding, and the peasant Turk will live through the winter without trembling for tomorrow.” Of course, the pages of Pravda did not reveal the failure of the pea crops in subsequent winters and the reporter later admitted he had not understood the science involved.
At this time, Stalin was attempting to solve the crisis of agricultural distribution by enforcing collectivisation, whereby individual peasant farms were consolidated into collective ones to increase the food supply. Lysenko was telling him exactly what he wanted to hear. Plants could be forced to adapt just as people could be forced to adapt. Lysenko’s “scientific breakthroughs” were not subjected to controlled experiments and he was lauded by a Soviet press enamoured of his peasant origins. In 1940, the internationally acclaimed geneticist Nikolai Vavilov, Lysenko’s most prominent opponent, was arrested. He died three years later in prison.
In August 1948, Lysenko came to prominence at a conference of the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences. The few remaining scrupulous Soviet biologists had been encouraged to speak out in favour of neo-Darwinian genetics. Lysenko waited until the final day of the conference before laying into them and delivering an impassioned speech which he announced had been approved by the Central Committee of the Communist Party and Stalin himself. Unveiling his “revolution in agriculture”, he denounced Mendelian principles as “reactionary and decadent” and labeled Darwinian biologists “enemies of the Soviet people”.
Lysenko was admitted into the hierarchy of the Communist Party and was put in charge of agricultural affairs. In effect, he now reigned as de facto scientific dictator of the USSR. He undermined his adversaries by responding very quickly to problems and announcing new agricultural prescriptions before they could be properly subjected to scientific peer review. Indeed, if his opponents failed to grovel and publicly confess the error of their ways, they were despatched to the Gulag camps. Genetic research was discontinued and officially declared “a bourgeois pseudoscience”. Its proponents were accused of treason. Some of these people disappeared without trace. Lysenko’s persecution of scientific opponents ran parallel with Stalin’s persecution of political ones.
Lysenko’s monopoly of Soviet biology continued for several decades. The ban on genetic research was only waived in the mid-1960s. The damage it inflicted is incalculable. The “politically correct” agricultural dogma may have been in tune with communist ideology but it drastically reduced Soviet crop production, causing famine and other deprivations for Soviet citizens. It prevented the Soviet Union benefiting from the agricultural advances of modern genetics and led to the repression and persecution of Soviet scientists.
The madness had not been confined to the Soviet Union. Lysenkoism had become accepted as the “new biology” in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Japan. In the late 1950s, Chairman Mao had directed Chinese farmers to follow Lysenkoist doctrines, with predictably disastrous results.
This was a flagrant example of science being manipulated and hijacked to support a political ideology. At a time when theories like anthropogenic global warming and creationism are becoming disturbingly popular, it should serve as a lesson to us all.