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Lysenkoism was a campaign against genetics and geneticists which happened in the Soviet Union from the middle of the 1930s to the middle of the 1960s, centered around the figure of Trofim Denisovich Lysenko. In a broader context, Lysenkoism is often invoked to imply the overt subversion of science by political forces.
When Lysenko began his fieldwork in the Soviet Union of the 1930s, agriculture of the Soviet Union was in a massive crisis due to the massive collectivization movement. Collectivization attempts had been incredibly violent, involving the deportation and eventual deaths in camps of hundreds of thousands of peasants, and was followed by a famine in Ukraine which killed millions.
At the same time, there were few agricultural specialists who were willing to work committedly towards the success of the new and troubled collectivized farms. Many agronomists were educated before the revolution, and even many of those educated afterwards did not agree with the collectivization policies and the damage they were doing. 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, fruit flies with very simplistic genetic structures which allowed for easy studying of Mendelian ratios and inheritability. Only much later would this research have obvious application to the problem of agriculture, and during the 1920s and 1930s it was easy for a radical like Lysenko to castigate these theoretical biologists for spending their time bent over trays of fruit flies while famine raged on around them.
In 1928, previously unknown agronomist Trofim Lysenko "invented" a new agricultural technique, vernalization (using humidity and low temperatures to make wheat grow in spring). He promised to triple or quadruple yields using his technique. In reality, the technique was neither new (it was known since 1854, and was extensively studied during the previous twenty years) nor useful.
Soviet mass-media presented him as a genius who developed a new, revolutionary technique. At the time, Soviet propaganda had a tendency to focus upon stories of peasants who, through their own canny ability and intelligence, came up with solutions to practical problems. Lysenko milked the attention for what it was worth, denouncing geneticists and promoting his own ideas of how agriculture works. He was, in turn, supported by the Soviet propaganda machine, which overstated his successes and omitted mention of his failures. Instead of making controlled experiments, Lysenko relied upon questionnaires from farmers, using them to "prove" that vernalization increases wheat yields by 15%.
Lysenko's political success was in part because of his striking differences from most biologists at the time, being both from a peasant family as well as an enthusiastic advocate of the Soviet Union and Marxism. He was also extremely fast in responding to problems, although not with real solutions. Whenever the Party would announce plans to plant a new crop or cultivate a new area, Lysenko would come up with immediate and 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 odd and unusual fertilizer mixes—that academic biologists could not keep up and did not have time to demonstrate that one technique was valueless or harmful before a new one was adopted. The Party-controlled newspapers inevitably 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 Communist Party hierarchy and put in charge of agricultural affairs. Lysenko 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. He furthermore denied the distinction between theoretical and applied biology.
Additionally, during the 1930s the greatest agricultural problem in the USSR was the fact that many peasants were thoroughly unhappy with the Soviet collectivization policies. Lysenko's "new" methods provided a way in which the peasant could feel positively involved in an "agricultural revolution," and as far as party officials were concerned, a peasant planting grain—for whatever reason—was a step in the correct direction (and certainly 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 with their work, and so were seen as being politically less useful than the charlatanism of Lysenko.
Lysenko's actual "science" was nonexistent. He was a proponent of the ideas of Ivan 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. It is often asserted that Lysenko's success came from the desire in the Soviet Union to assert that heredity had no role in human development, that even the most lowly peasant could rise up to great success. This is not accurate: Lysenko never purported that his views could be applied to human biology; they were relegated strictly to agriculture. He indeed attacked reductionist views of heredity like eugenics, but only as bourgeois influences on science. All major scholarly works on Lysenkoism agree it was not based on human genetics at all. It is also a persistent myth about Lysenkoism that its success was wholly ideological—that is, that it followed from either Marxist or left-wing philosophies. In reality, as historians such as Loren Graham , David Joravsky , and others have argued, the success of Lysenkoism was more related to internal Soviet political maneuverings at the time than anything else. Despite the large amounts of evidence for these more complicating interpretations, among non-historians "Lysenkoism" is often crudely construed to be a version of "left-wing science" where rejection of certain ideas about human determinism led dogmatic Marxists to accept a science which was politically aligned with their Party ideologies. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that rival views were rejected because they were supposed to be "bourgeois" or "fascist", and analogous "non-bourgeois" theories also flourished in other fields within the Soviet academy at this time (see Japhetic theory; socialist realism).
Between 1934 and 1940, under Lysenko's admonitions and with Stalin's blessings, many geneticists were executed (including Agol, Levit, and Nadson) or sent to labor camps. The most well-known Soviet geneticist, Nikolai Vavilov, was arrested in 1940 and died in prison in 1943. Genetics was stigmatized as a "fascist science" and "bourgeois science," in a political stigmatizing similar to the Nazi denouncements of quantum physics and Einstein's theory of relativity as "Jewish science". Some geneticists, however, survived and continued to work in genetics, dangerous as it was.
In 1948, genetics was officially declared "a bourgeois pseudoscience"; all geneticists were fired from work (some were also arrested), and all genetic research was discontinued. Nikita Khrushchev also valued Lysenko as a great scientist, and the taboo on genetics continued (but all geneticists were released or rehabilitated posthumously). Only in the middle of the 1960s was it waived. As a consequence, Lysenkoism caused serious, long-term harm to Soviet biology. It represented a serious failure of the early Soviet leadership to admit failure even in the face of utter agricultural disaster and to allow their system to be hijacked by a mere charlatan—at the expense of many human lives. Lysenkoism also spread to China, where it continued long after it was eventually denounced by the Soviets.
The term survives as a metaphor for other beliefs challenged by empirical evidence but preferred for ideological reasons. Carl Sagan compared American creationists to supporters of Lysenko, and similar claims have been raised about the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program .
When interpreting sources about Lysenkoism, it is important to distinguish between those produced in the Soviet era (1917-1991) and those produced in the post-Soviet era, as the latter have been based on a rigorous understanding of the politics behind Lysenkoism (and have been seen as rather crude interpretations in hindsight). A particular exception to this is David Joravsky's The Lysenko Affair, a work whose accuracy has more or less persisted in the face of documents only released in the post-Soviet period.
- Ronald Fisher, "What Sort of Man is Lysenko?" Listener, 40 (1948): 874-875 — contemporary commentary by a British evolutionary biologist (pdf format)
- Martin Gardner, "Lysenkoism" in Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (New York: Dover Books, 1957).
- Loren Graham, "Stalinist Ideology and the Lysenko Affair," in Science in Russia and the Soviet Union (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
- Loren Graham, What Have We Learned About Science and Technology from the Russian Experience? (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1998).
- David Joravsky, The Lysenko Affair (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970).
- Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin, "Lysenkoism," in The Dialectical Biologist (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1985).
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