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Lysenkoism

Lysenkoism refers to an episode in Russian science featuring a non-scientific peasant plant-breeder named Trofim Denisovich LysenkoTrofim Denisovich Lysenko [1898-1976]. Lysenko was the leading proponent of Michurianism during the Lenin/Stalin years. I. V. Michurin, in turn, was a proponent of Lamarckism. Lamarck was an 18th century French scientist who argued for a theory of evolution long before Darwin. Lamarck's theory, however, has been rejected by evolutionary scientists because it is not nearly as powerful an explanation of evolution as natural selection.

According to Lamarck, evolution occurs because organisms can inherit traits which have been acquired by their ancestors. For example, giraffes find themselves in a changing environment in which they can only survive by eating leaves high up on trees. So, they stretch their necks to reach the leaves and this stretching and the desire to stretch gets passed on to later generations. As a result, a species of animal which originally had short necks evolved into a species with long necks.

Natural selection explains the long necks of the giraffes as a result of the workings of nature which allowed the species to feed off of the leaves which grow high on trees rather than graze as short-legged, short necked animals are prone to do. There was no purposive behavior which was a response to the environment which was then passed on to later generations. There was simply an environment which included trees with leaves up high and that was a favorable food source to long-legged, long-necked animals such as the giraffe. In fact, according to natural selection, if that were the only food source available, only animals with long- necks, or animals which can climb or fly, would survive. All others would become extinct. There is no plan here, divine or otherwise, according to natural selection. Furthermore, there is nothing special signified by the fact that a species has survived. Survival of the fittest means only that those who have survived were fit to survive. It doesn't mean that those who survive are superior to those species which don't. They've survived because they were fit to adapt to their environment, e.g., they had long necks when there was a good supply of food readily available high up in the trees and there were no other catastrophic disadvantages to their height. For example, if a species got so tall that it became impossible to mate, it would become extinct. Or, if the only food source on high happened to have a substance in it which rendered giraffes sterile, there would be no more giraffes, no matter how hard they tried to will themselves potent.

Lamarckism is favored by those who see will as the primary driving force of life, e.g., the 20th century French philosopher Henri Bergson. Evolution is hated by many of those who believe a god created everything and everything has a purpose: the fundamentalist teleologists of the world. One might think that Marxists would prefer Darwin's theory of evolution with its mechanical, materialistic, deterministic, non-purposive concept of natural selection. Lamarckism looks like it might be preferred by free market advocates with their emphasis on will, effort, hard work and choice. But then Russia and the Soviet Union weren't really Marxists. They turned the dictatorship of the proletariat into the dictatorship of the professional dictator (Lenin, then Stalin). And even with the death of Stalin, the dictatorship of the communist party leaders who controlled everything, including the economy, took over.

In any case, Michurin's views on evolution found favor with the party leadership in the Soviet Union. When the rest of the scientific world were pursuing the ideas of Mendel and developing the new science of genetics, Russia led the way in the effort to prevent the new science from being developed in the Soviet Union. Thus, while the rest of the scientific world could not conceive of understanding evolution without genetics, the Soviet Union used its political power to make sure that none of their scientists would advocate a genetic role in evolution.

It was due to Lysenko's efforts that many real scientists, those who were geneticists or who rejected Lamarckism in favor of natural selection, were sent to the gulags or simply disappeared from the USSR. Lysenko rose to dominance at a 1948 conference in Russia where he delivered a passionate address denouncing Mendelian thought as "reactionary and decadent" and declared such thinkers to be "enemies of the Soviet people" (Gardner 1957). He also announced that his speech had been approved by the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Scientists either groveled, writing public letters confessing the errors of their way and the righteousness of the wisdom of the Party, or they were dismissed. Some were sent to labor camps. Some were never heard from again.

Under Lysenko's guidance, science was guided not by the most likely theories, backed by appropriately controlled experiments, but by the desired ideology. Science was practiced in the service of the State, or more precisely, in the service of ideology. The results were predictable: the steady deterioration of Soviet biology. Lysenko's methods were not condemned by the Soviet scientific community until 1965, more than a decade after Stalin's death.

Could something similar happen in the U.S.? Well, some might argue that it already has. First, there is the creationist movement which has tried, and at times been successful, in banning the teaching of evolution in public schools. With Duane Gish leading the way, who knows what would happen if Pat Robertson became President of the United States and Jerry Falwell his secretary of education. Then, of course, there are several well-known and well-financed scientists in America who also seem to be doing science in the name of ideology: not the ideology of fundamentalist Christianity but the ideology of racial superiority. Lysenko was opposed to the use of statistics, but had he been clever enough to see how useful statistics can be in the service of ideology, he might have changed his mind. Had he seen what J. Philippe Rushton, Arthur Jensen, Richard Lynn, Richard Herrnstein or Charles Murray have done with statistical data to support their ideology of racial superiority, Lysenko might have created a department of Supreme Soviet Statistics and proven with the magic of numbers the superiority of Lamarckism to natural selection and genetics.


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reader comments

further reading

books and articles

Gardner, Martin. "Lysenkoism," ch. 12 in Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (New York: Dover Books, 1957).

Levins, Richard  and Richard Lewontin. "Lysenkoism," in The Dialectical Biologist (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1985).

Medvedev, Zhores A. (1969). The Rise and Fall of T. D. Lysenko. Columbia University Press.

websites

Extract from Marxism and the Philosophy of Science: A Critical History by Helena Sheehan

Evolution, Biology and Psychology from a Marxist Point of View by Robert M. Young

The Present Danger To Science and Society by Frederick Seitz

Skeptic Magazine Interview With Robert Sternberg on The Bell Curve

news stories & blogs

The New Lamarckism (The Sins of the Fathers, Part 2 by Sharon Begley of Newsweek) & PZ Myers's response: Sharon Begley, how could you? (She "misses the whole point." What she describes is "not Lamarckism." "It's also annoying to see all the vague handwaving about discrediting a "Darwinian model" — what Darwinian model? These discoveries are about mechanisms of genetic inheritance, and Darwin didn't have a valid mechanism in the first place. In that sense, the only real heresy that counted was Mendel's.")

Last updated 19-Dec-2013

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