The Lasting Lesson of Lysenko

Political skills are dangerous when they interfere with science—and they will!

Posted Jan 11, 2014

Wikimedia commons
Source: Wikimedia commons
Lysenko (extreme left) with Stalin (extreme right)

Trofim Denisovich Lysenko (1898-1976) had little scientific education, and was promoted thanks to a post-revolutionary program of positive discrimination in favor of peasants in the early days of the USSR. Set the task of acclimatizing beans in Azerbaijan, Lysenko got promising results, thanks to the mild winter of 1925-6. In 1927, a journalist on Pravda publicized Lysenko as “the barefoot professor” whose discoveries would save the peasants of Azerbaijan from starvation. Despite a total lack of scientific evidence, Lysenko went on to orchestrate a noisy press campaign in favor of his belief that plants could be “educated” to grow in adverse climates. According to him, plants were indivisible organisms, without separate hereditary or environmental influences. He attributed what amounted to free will to plants, which could not only select food, but also enter into “love marriages.”

In association with the Marxist ideologist, I. I. Prezent, Lysenko denounced Mendelian genetics as a “capitalist” and “clerical” conspiracy, and went on to deny the existence of the gene. Instead, he endorsed pre-scientific, photocopier heredity, proclaiming that “Lamarckian propositions, which recognize the active role of the conditions of the external environment in the formation of the living body and the inheritance of acquired characteristics … are indeed not faulty, but on the contrary perfectly correct and entirely scientific.”

According to Lysenko, there is no struggle for survival among members of the same species, but mutual co-operation for the common good, and he denounced natural selection as "Darwin’s greatest mistake." Lysenko put this into practice in trying to realize his claim that if planted in thick clusters, saplings would "sacrifice themselves for the benefit of the species," adding that "the death of individual saplings in the group occurs not because they are crowded, but for the express purpose of ensuring that in the future they will not be crowded." About a billion old roubles was wasted on trying to fulfill this futile fantasy in the USSR. He also claimed that plant hormones do not exist, and to have transformed wheat into rye, barley, oats and cornflowers—even the successful and permanent transformation of small white fowl into large black ones by blood transfusions was said to have been achieved!

Somewhat reminiscent of Bruno Bettelheim, Lysenko observed that “if you want a particular result you obtain it,” adding, “I need only people who will obtain what I require.” Indeed, like Bettelheim, Lysenko may well have owed his success—and even his survival—to his outstanding mentalistic skills. A recent account remarks that

although a mediocrity in scientific questions, Lysenko was highly talented in the art of leading an ideological fight and of surviving in the midst of Stalinist terror, unerringly divining the bosses’ wishes and anxieties. … Lysenko came to the fore thanks to his considerable natural talents. He fought for a position atop the pyramid of power and won it not by chance or by a whim of Stalin’s but by his skill in waging the kind of battle that was necessary. … He outfoxed even Stalin and was able to pull the wool over his eyes even when other Party leaders already had seen through Lysenko. Thanks to his courtier’s intuition and his shrewdness, thanks to his ability to divine Stalin’s secret designs, he always struck the right chord with “the great helmsman,” never arousing his irritation. (p. 30)

But as with Bettelheim, there was an iron fist inside the velvet glove of Lysenko’s psychotic savantism. Critics and associates who knew too much about him for his comfort were brutally dealt with. In 1934, N. M. Tulaikov, the only surviving witness of Lysenko’s appropriation of another scientist’s work, was denounced in Pravda, and then shot. Another victim was N. I. Vavilov, who had had responsibility for genetics under Lenin. A botanist of international reputation, Vavilov was one of the few non-Communists to become a member of the Central Executive Committee of the USSR. Under his leadership, a network of research institutes and experimental stations was built up, eventually employing more than 20,000 people, and doing much valuable genetic research. Vavilov had begun by endorsing Lysenko. However, following a vicious campaign of character-assassination, lies, and political intimidation, Vavilov’s powers were curtailed after 1936, and in 1940 he was arrested as a spy, sentenced to death, and died in prison three years later.

Lysenko’s stranglehold tightened further in 1948, when thousands of scientists were dismissed in a purge of those who had opposed him, and the teaching of Mendelian genetics or criticism of Lysenkoism became a crime. Lysenko received three Stalin Prizes, six Orders of Lenin, and The Order of the Red Banner. He was proclaimed a Hero of Socialist Labor, became a deputy and vice president of the Supreme Soviet and of the Central Committee of the Party. Monuments and statues were erected in his honor, and busts were on sale in shops. Khrushchev was a personal friend, and continued to patronize him as dictator of Soviet genetics after the fall of Stalin. Only in the 1960s was his work exposed as wholesale fraud sustained by violence, lies and intimidation.

Although Lysenko’s peasant origins might explain his astonishingly primitive, pre-scientific ideas about biology, the diametric model would uniquely suggest why, with such low levels of mechanistic cognitive ability, someone could manifest such highly developed mentalistic social and political skills. And like Bettelheim, Lysenko’s success in the mentalistic universe of politics, persuasion, and power was mirrored by its disastrous consequences in the mechanistic one of science, technology, and practical implementation. Indeed, the cases of both suggest the worrying implication that, in a modern, scientific and technological society, those who achieve political power and ideological influence may owe their success to mentalistic skills which vary inversely with their mechanistic abilities, making them poor judges of the very scientific, technological, and engineering expertise on which their civilization depends.

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