Lysenkoism

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Lysenkoism, named for Russian botanist Trofim Lysenko, was a political doctrine in Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union that mandated that all biological research conducted in the USSR conform to a modified Lamarckian evolutionary theory. The underlying appeal was that it promised a biology based on a plastic view of life that was consistent with the plastic view of human nature insisted upon by Marxist-Leninist dogma.

Lysenko was, though a thorough crank, a political favorite of Stalin who promised great advances in the Soviets' agricultural system by breeding plants based on characteristics acquired from drastic alterations of their environments. Despite the political success of Lysenko's hypotheses, the actual implementation was a failure, wrecking Soviet biology research and risking and even causing famine on several occasions.

At the core of Lysenkoism was rejection of the work of Gregor Mendel and denunciation of the concept of genes as "idealist" (one of Stalin's favorite snarl words for ideas he found unacceptable). Though DNA had not been discovered at the time of Lysenko's rise in the 1930s, much productive work -- starting with understanding of how to breed "pure" (i.e. predictable) strains of plants and animals in order to provide proper experimental controls in breeding work -- had been done since the discovery of Mendel's work. Lamarckism (the idea that offspring inherit traits their parents acquired in their lifetimes) provided a more politically correct view in the eyes of Stalin, who felt (as had many Lamarckian holdouts) that Darwinian/Mendelian biology rendered life unacceptably deterministic.[1]

The Lysenkoists employed Stalinist terror in their struggle with Darwinian biologists for bureaucratic and academic positions. Anti-Lysenkoists faced the threat of public denunciation, loss of Communist Party membership, loss of employment position and arrest by the secret police. Between Lysenko's grip on power and the "disappearances" of numerous of his opponents, it would be years until the Soviet biology program would recover.[2] Similar political strong-arm tactics also hobbled the Soviet nuclear physics program, requiring Soviet scientists to follow only theories that had the Communist Party's blessing. This forced them to steal working designs from the United States, including the decisive Teller-Ulam hydrogen bomb design.

Like much of Stalin's legacy, Lysenkoism fell out of favor in the mid-late '50s and early '60s, as Nikita Khrushchev "de-Stalinized" the Soviet Union. Lysenko himself was stripped of his power as head of the Soviet agricultural academy in 1956 after a couple of years of intense criticism by the Party, and he slipped into obscurity afterwards. However, Lysenkoism would retain some influence well into the '60s.

In modern parlance, conservative writers in the United States (particularly those advocating racist thinking, either covertly or overtly) have sometimes used the term "neo-Lysenkoism" as a snarl word to attack those who do not support their "biological" views of race.[3]

External links

References

  • Gardner, Martin. Fads and Fallacies, Dover Publications, 1957, ISBN 0486203948.
  • Gardner, Martin. Science: Good, Bad, and Bogus, Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1981, ISBN 0879755733.

Footnotes

  1. Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, the last big-name supporter of Lamarckism, the Austrian biologist Paul Kammerer, had taken a post at the University of Moscow in 1925 on the strength of his work with certain types of toads. When the results were proven faked a year later, Kammerer refused to take the blame, but shot himself after donating his notes and library to his employers. Kammerer's case would later become a famous example of scientific fraud.
  2. David Joransky. 1970. The Lysenko Affair. Chicago University Press. pp. 120-121.
  3. v-weiss.de/lysenkoism.html
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