|Trofim Lysenko, in repose- seems harmless enough? |
Dogma and science have never made good bedfellows. In the West, science became stifled for over a thousand years by a Catholic church driven by religious dogma; a dogma enforced by violence. It was only with the coming of the Renascence and the Scientific Revolution that the West managed to escape the shackles of Catholic ideology. Martin Luther’s rebellion (see previous post) resulted in the birth of the Protestant church in northern Europe. Christian belief became splintered and the Pope’s hegemony and authority were no more. Effectively, the Catholic church’s secular power waned allowing the growth of new nonecclesiastical thought. Today, I would like to consider another form of dogma equally stultifying as its religious counterpart.
With the advent of communist controlled Russia following the Great War, almost everything was subsumed to Marxist-Leninist dictate. Anything not in accord with communist ideals was violently discarded.
At the inception of Russian communism, Russia was a peasant agrarian economy with 80% of the people working the land. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, the Czarist regime had made an effort toward peasant reform. The peasants had become emancipated, and in theory, they could buy their own land. In practice, few could afford to do so. In 1928 a massive shortfall in food distribution forced Stalin to requisition grain. The peasants were mightily unimpressed and resorted to hoarding. In return, the Soviet government introduced collectivisation of the farms. The farmers were seriously unimpressed and refused to work the land, burnt crops and were collectively, very naughty. Predictably this led to famine. At the height of the famine in 1932-33, 8 million people starved to death. Ideology prevented Stalin from appealing for help from the West. Instead, the Russian media released newsreels of happy smiling peasants amid abundant crops for Western consumption. In reality, the peasants consumed very little. As if to save the day, along trots Trofim Lysenko, a horticulturist not over-endowed with academic qualifications or brains. But he offered a fast, cheap and characteristically communist solution to the famine. Lysenko’s plan was to apply a form of Lamarckism (acquired characteristics) to increase grain production by a factor of three. He even stated that he could transmute weeds into food crops. Even the living God could only turn water into wine. I have dealt with Lamarckism elsewhere. Suffice it to say that by the beginning of the twentieth century the notion of ‘acquired characteristics’ was thoroughly discredited by the scientific community. In essence, Lamarck stated that a characteristic acquired by an organism could be passed on to their offspring. An example would be a bodybuilder passing on their muscled physique to their children without the children undergoing rigorous training. Stalin was no biologist but he was attracted to Lysenko’s methodology and theory for several reasons. Firstly, Larmarckism was very much in tune with Marxism. The ideal/idea that all are equal and improvement can be achieved by work is essentially communistic. Sensible folk know better; humans are not made equal, this is patently obvious. Secondly, Lysenko offered rapid and astounding results. In contrast, conventional geneticists offered slow and scientifically measured solutions backed up by lengthy trials.
Lysenko’s approach was known as acquired vernalisation. Vernalisation is a process whereby seeds are exposed to cold as a necessary requirement for germination. Although the Soviet regime credited Lysenko with the discovery of vernalisation, the process was well known to Russian peasants.
Ideologically sound Lysenko was showered with a sprinkling of accolades. In 1936 Stalin appointed Lysenko the head of the ‘Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences’; a member of the ‘Presidium of the Soviet Academy of Sciences’ in 1938 and the director of the ‘Academy’s Institute of Genetics in 1940’. Under such autocratic patronage, Lysenko prospered and persisted with his worthless and potentially catastrophic ‘research’. Encouraged and endorsed by Stalin, Lysenko continued with his outrageous, unsubstantiated and inflated agricultural claims. He contended that vernalisation could be acquired without prior exposure to cold as long as the parental seeds had been subject to cold. Furthermore, Lysenko stated that crops could be grown without artificial fertilisers. Lysenko did not conduct experiments according to the scientific method and only accepted ‘data’ in accord with his madcap theories.
Under Lysenko’s rule, scientifically proven and practical Mendelian genetics and geneticists were ruled counter to Marxist-Leninist ideology. It was concluded that Mendelian genetics was an ‘alien foreign bourgeois biology’. Lysenko’s predecessor, as the head of the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences, the eminent geneticist, Nikolai Vavilov, was promptly shipped off to prison where he succumbed to malnutrition in 1943. Three thousand mainstream biologists were sacked; some executed; some simply disappeared.
Under Lysenko’s, ‘watch’ grain production in the USSR actually declined. After the death of Stalin in 1953, Mendelian genetics underwent a slow rehabilitation, a few backslides aside. By the mid-1960s Mendelian genetics had quietly become mainstream in Soviet Russia. It had finally dawned upon the Soviet hierarchy that Lysenko was a crank and that his insane theories and methodologies did not work. The upshot, of course, was that numerous people died as a result of Lysenkoism due to famine. Valid biological research stagnated and it is thought that Lysenko was responsible for placing Russian genetic research ‘on hold’ for 30 years.
Dogma is rarely a good thing regardless of the field of endeavour but especially in science. To shackle the pursuit of knowledge to a fanatical and non-inclusive ideology is always going to end in tears. Human history is littered with such examples- go read and weep.