Lysenkoism (Russian: Лысе́нковщина), or Lysenko-Michurinism was the centralized political control exercised over genetics and agriculture by Trofim Lysenko and his followers. Lysenko was the director of the Soviet Union's Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences. Lysenkoism began in the late 1920s and formally ended in 1964.
Lysenkoism was built on theories of the heritability of acquired characteristics that Lysenko named "Michurinism". These theories depart from accepted evolutionary theory and Mendelian inheritance.
Lysenkoism is used metaphorically to describe the manipulation or distortion of the scientific process as a way to reach a predetermined conclusion as dictated by an ideological bias, often related to social or political objectives.
In 1928, Trofim Lysenko, a previously unknown agronomist, claimed to have developed an agricultural technique, termed vernalization, which tripled or quadrupled crop yield by exposing wheat seed to high humidity and low temperature. While cold and moisture exposure are a normal part of the life cycle of fall-seeded winter cereals, the vernalization technique claimed to increase yields by increasing the intensity of exposure, in some cases planting soaked seeds directly into the snow cover of frozen fields. In reality, the technique was neither new (it had been known since 1854, and was extensively studied during the previous twenty years), nor did it produce the yields he promised, although some increase in production did occur.
When Lysenko began his fieldwork in the Soviet Union of the 1930s, the agriculture of the Soviet Union was in a massive crisis due to rapid changes in switching from an agrarian-based economy towards an industrial economy and the liquidation of the kulaks, leading to mismanagement of collective farms. The resulting famine provoked the people and the government alike to search for any possible solution to the critical lack of food. Lysenko's vernalization practices yielded marginally greater food production on the farms, and he was quickly accepted as the hero of Soviet agriculture.
Many agronomists were educated before the revolution, and even many of those educated afterwards did not agree with the forced collectivization policies. 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, commonly known as fruit flies. Drosophilid flies made experimental verification of genetics theories, such as Mendelian ratios and heritability, much easier.
Isaak Izrailevich Prezent, a main Lysenko theorist, presented Lysenko in Soviet mass-media as a genius who had developed a new, revolutionary agricultural technique. In this period, Soviet propaganda often focused on inspirational stories of peasants who, through their own canny ability and intelligence, came up with solutions to practical problems. Lysenko's widespread popularity provided him a platform to denounce theoretical genetics and to promote his own agricultural practices. He was, in turn, supported by the Soviet propaganda machine, which overstated his successes and omitted mention of his failures. This was accompanied by fake experimental data supporting Lysenkoism from scientists seeking favor and the destruction of counter-evidence to Lysenko's theories. Instead of performing controlled experiments, Lysenko claimed that vernalization increased wheat yields by 15%, solely based upon questionnaires taken of farmers.
Lysenko's political success was due in part to his striking differences from most biologists at the time. He was from a peasant family, and an enthusiastic advocate of the Soviet Union and Leninism. During a period which saw a series of man-made agricultural disasters, he was also extremely fast in responding to problems, although not with real solutions. Whenever the Party announced plans to plant a new crop or cultivate a new area, Lysenko had immediate 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 unusual fertilizer mixes — that academic biologists did not have time to demonstrate that one technique was valueless or harmful before a new one was adopted. The Party-controlled newspapers 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 hierarchy of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and was put in charge of agricultural affairs. He 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. Furthermore, he denied the distinction between theoretical and applied biology.
Following the disastrous collectivization efforts of the late 1920s, one of USSR's greatest agricultural problems during the 1930s was that many peasants were thoroughly unhappy with the collectivization. Lysenko's "new" methods were seen as a way to make peasants feel positively involved in an "agricultural revolution". The party officials believed that peasants planting grain was a step in the right direction and 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, and so were seen as politically less useful than the charlatanism of Lysenko.
Lysenko did not apply actual science. He was a proponent of the ideas of Ivan Vladimirovich Michurin, a well-known and well-liked Soviet horticulturist, 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. With this came, most importantly, the implication that acquired characteristics of an organism — for example, the state of being leafless as a result of having been plucked — could be inherited by that organism's descendants. This is why Lysenko claimed vernalization would give greater productivity than it did; he believed the ability of his vernalized seeds to flower faster and produce more wheat would be passed on to the next generation of wheat seeds, thus causing vernalization to further amplify the process.
Support from Joseph Stalin gave Lysenko even more momentum and popularity. In 1935, Lysenko compared his opponents in biology to the peasants who still resisted the Soviet government's collectivization strategy, saying that by opposing his theories the traditional geneticists were setting themselves against Marxism. Stalin was in the audience when this speech was made, and he was the first one to stand and applaud, calling out "Bravo, Comrade Lysenko. Bravo." This event emboldened Lysenko and gave him and his ally Prezent free rein to slander the geneticists who still spoke out against him. Many of Lysenkoism's opponents, such as his former mentor Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov, were imprisoned or even executed because of Lysenko's and Prezent's denunciations.
On August 7, 1948, the V.I. Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences announced that from that point on Lysenkoism would be taught as "the only correct theory". Soviet scientists were forced to denounce any work that contradicted Lysenko's research. Criticism of Lysenko was denounced as "bourgeois" or "fascist", and analogous "non-bourgeois" theories also flourished in other fields in the Soviet academy at this time (see Japhetic theory; socialist realism). Interestingly, perhaps the only opponents of Lysenkoism during Stalin's lifetime to escape liquidation came from the small community of Soviet nuclear physicists: as Tony Judt has observed, "Stalin left his nuclear physicists alone... [He] may well have been mad but he was not stupid."
Application outside of agriculture
It is often suggested that Lysenko's success came solely from the desire in the USSR to assert that heredity had only a limited role in human development; that future generations, living under socialism, would be purged of their "bourgeois" or "fascist" instincts. But Lysenko himself never purported that his views could be applied to human biology; they were relegated strictly to agriculture. He indeed attacked certain reductionist views of heredity, like eugenics, but only as bourgeois influences on science. Many scholarly works on Lysenkoism agree that it was not based on human genetics.
Lysenkoism in other countries
Many other countries of the Eastern Bloc accepted Lysenkoism as the official "new biology" as well; however the acceptance of Lysenkoism was not uniform in communist countries. In Poland, all geneticists except for Wacław Gajewski followed Lysenkoism. Even though Gajewski was not allowed contacts with students, he was allowed to continue his scientific work at the Warsaw botanical garden. Lysenkoism was then rapidly rejected starting from 1956 and modern genetics research departments were formed, including the first department of genetics headed by Wacław Gajewski, which was started at the Warsaw University in 1958.
Czechoslovakia adopted Lysenkoism in 1949. Jaroslav Kříženecký (1896–1964) was one of the prominent Czechoslovak geneticists opposing Lysenkoism, and when he criticized Lysenkoism in his lectures, he was dismissed from the Agricultural University in 1949 for "serving the established capitalistic system, considering himself superior to the working class, and being hostile to the democratic order of the people", and imprisoned in 1958. In 1963, he was appointed head of the newly established Gregor Mendel department in the Moravian Museum in Brno, the city in which Gregor Mendel pursued his early experiments on inheritance and formulated the laws of Mendelian inheritance.
In the GDR, although Lysenkoism was taught at some of the universities, it had very little impact on science due to the actions of a few scientists (for example, the geneticist and fierce critic of Lysenkoism, Hans Stubbe) and an open border to West Berlin research institutions. Nonetheless, Lysenkoist theories were found in schoolbooks until the dismissal of Nikita Khrushchev in 1964.
Lysenkoism dominated Chinese science from 1948 until 1956, when, during a genetics symposium opponents of Lysenkoism were permitted to freely criticize it and argue for Mendelian genetics. In the proceedings from the symposium, Tan Jiazhen is quoted as saying "Since [the] USSR started to criticize Lysenko, we have dared to criticize him too". For a while, both schools were permitted to coexist, although the influence of the Lysenkoists remained large for several years.
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From 1934 to 1940, under Lysenko's admonitions and with Stalin's approval, many geneticists were executed (including Isaak Agol, Solomon Levit, Grigorii Levitskii, Georgii Karpechenko and Georgii Nadson) or sent to labor camps. The famous Soviet geneticist Nikolai Vavilov was arrested in 1940 and died in prison in 1943. Hermann Joseph Muller (and his teachings about genetics) was criticized as a bourgeois, capitalist, imperialist, and promoting fascism so he left the USSR, to return to the USA via Republican Spain.
In 1948, genetics was officially declared "a bourgeois pseudoscience"; all geneticists were fired from their jobs (some were also arrested), and all genetic research was discontinued. Nikita Khrushchev, who claimed to be an expert in agricultural science, also valued Lysenko as a great scientist, and the taboo on genetics continued (but all geneticists were released or rehabilitated posthumously). The ban was only waived in the mid-1960s.
Thus, Lysenkoism caused serious, long-term harm to Soviet knowledge of biology. It represented a serious failure of the early Soviet leadership to find real solutions to agricultural problems, throwing their support behind a charlatan at the expense of many human lives.
Almost alone among Western scientists, John Desmond Bernal, Professor of Physics at Birkbeck College, University of London, and a Fellow of the Royal Society, made an aggressive public defense of Lysenko and some years later gave an obituary of ‘Stalin as a Scientist.’ However, despite Bernal's endorsement, other members of Britain's scientific community retreated from open support of the Soviet Union, and may have been one of the chief reasons for a retreat from Marxism in that country.
The word 'Neo-Lysenkoism' has occasionally been invoked by hereditarian researchers as a rhetorical term in the debates over race and intelligence and sociobiology to describe scientists minimizing the role of genes in shaping human behavior, such as Leon Kamin, Richard Lewontin, Stephen Jay Gould and Barry Mehler.
- Great Leap Forward
- Japhetic theory
- Pavlovian session
- Politicization of science
- Roy Medvedev
- Suppressed research in the Soviet Union
- Deutsche Physik
- List of topics characterized as pseudoscience
- , .
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