Trofim Lysenko: Ideology, Power, and the Destruction of Science
"There were absolutely no roots to it. I mean, no material roots, no experiments, absolutely nothing. Nothing but ideology. ... Explaining it all on the basis of Stalin is not enough. Because it had started before Stalin. The attack on the genetic approach, based on ideology, you see, was already present in 1925 and '26. In fact -- well, this whole trend of Western socialism goes back very largely to Rousseau. To the idea that man is good and society is bad. And therefore if you introduce the idea that what defines man as a species, and different men as individuals, is very largely biological rather than social, that goes against the creed."
-- Jacques Monod
"After examining [Lysenko's] arguments I have no doubt that we cannot, as many have been inclined to do, describe him simply as a scientific crank, or simply as a wrong-headed yokel. His mind does not seem to work in either of these ways. ... No, I cannot believe ... that the reward of Lysenko's triumphant career is the advance of scientific knowledge; nor that it is the prosperity of poor peasants. The reward he is so eagerly grasping is Power, power for himself, power to threaten, power to torture, power to kill."
-- R.A. Fisher
Trofim Denisovich Lysenko (1889-1976) was a Ukrainian born agronomist, a peasant with little education who would likely have toiled in obscurity all his life had he been born in a different place or time. At the age of twenty-nine, while working at a small experiment station in Azerbaijan in 1927, he managed to attract the attention of a Pravda reporter with claims that he had "solved the problem of fertilizing the fields without fertilizers and minerals."
As told by David Joravsky in The Lysenko Affair, the reporter "confessed that he stared at Lysenko's notebook with ignorant awe. He did not understand the 'scientific laws' by which the barefoot scientists had quickly solved his problem, without trial and error." ("Barefoot" is a peculiarly Russian term to connote peasantry.) Nevertheless, this complete incomprehension didn't stop him from reporting breathlessly in the pages of Pravda that this brilliant young man had proved that a winter crop of peas could be grown in Azerbaijan, "turning the barren fields of the Transcaucasus green in winter, so that cattle will not perish from poor feeding, and the peasant Turk will live through the winter without trembling for tomorrow."
When attempted in subsequent winters, the crops of peas failed. Unsurprisingly, this was not reported in the pages of Pravda (nor were Lysenko's subsequent failures in future years). When Lysenko's career took off in the early 1930s, the forced collectivization of Soviet agriculture had precipitated terrible famines and general economic crisis. The Soviet government was flailing about for a miracle to pull them out of the hole they'd dug and allow them to meet the unrealistic demands of Stalin's agricultural plans; Lysenko was ready and willing to tell them what they wanted to hear.
Thenceforth, Lysenko regularly made "scientific breakthroughs" based on no controlled experiments and often falsified evidence. These were duly publicized by a Soviet press enamored of his peasant origins and willingness to castigate Soviet biologists for failing to do anything about the famines. One such extravagant claim was for a "new" technique he called "vernalization" (yarovizatsiya), which he proclaimed would triple or quadruple wheat yields. This "new" technique consisted mostly of using humidity and low temperatures to make wheat grow in spring -- a technique which had already been known for nearly 80 years and was in fact quite useless.
Lysenko's road to dominance of Soviet agricultural science was not without minor bumps. His main opponent was the botanist Nikolai Vavilov, whose student Konstantinov carried out a five-year study from 1931-35 which found that Lysenko's vernalization had no statistical effect on crop yields. (This may have had something to do with Lysenko's opposition to the use of statistics.) As reported by Zhores Medvedev in The Rise and Fall of T.D. Lysenko, Lysenko responded with a barely concealed threat: "Konstantinov must give thought to the fact that when such erroneous data were swept away from the field of scientific activity, those who failed to understand the implications of such data, and insisted on retaining them, were also swept away." The study's results were subsequently marginalized and ignored, and Lysenko was named president of the Academy of Agricultural Sciences in 1938.
Over the next ten years, Lysenko's dominance became impossible for serious Soviet biologists to ignore, as he found himself increasingly at loggerheads with them both over his disdain for pure theoretical work and his scientifically ludicrous doctrines. His opponents gradually found themselves receiving less and less funding for their research, and many of them were sent to the gulags, or otherwise "disappeared," with Lysenko's followers taking their places. Lysenko's arch detractor Nikolai Vavilov, who had been treading thin ice for many years, was arrested in 1940 and died in prison three years later.
Descent Into Madness
Meanwhile, Lysenko and his followers continued to make increasingly fantastic claims. According to Medvedev (p. 171):
In nearly ever issue of the journal [Agrobiologiya], articles appeared in which were seriously reported transformations of wheat into rye and vice versa, barley into oats, peaches into vetch, vetch into lentils, cabbage into swedes, firs into pines, hazelnuts into hornbeams, alders into birches, sunflowers into strangleweed. All of these communications were utterly without proof, methodologically illiterate, and thoroughly unreliable. The authors had one leading thought -- to please Lysenko.
Lysenko's doctrines were an unholy merger of Lamarckism with Stalinism: the infinite malleability of man was mirrored by the infinite malleability of plants. (Lysenko claimed that if you grew plants incrementally further and further North each year, they would gradually adapt to the climate to the point where you could grow anything in the Arctic.) Biology was turned into a political play, with revolution occurring within the cells of the body. Competition for resources was replaced with the notion that plants of the same species do not compete but rather help each other to survive.
The reality of chromosomes and genes was denied altogether, these being derided as "bourgeois constructs." Stalin himself argued for a distinction between "proletarian" and "bourgeois" science, extending Marxist class-struggle doctrine into biological science. Lysenko's false empirical claims mirrored the Stalinist bureaucracy's trumped-up economic claims. His persecution of scientists merged with Stalin's paranoid persecution of political opponents.
Finally in 1948, with Stalin's backing, Lysenko felt confident enough to play his endgame. During a conference of the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences in August 1948, Lysenko laid a trap for his remaining scientific opponents. His agents encouraged the remaining honest Soviet biologists to speak in favour of neo-Darwinian genetics. Then on the final day of the conference, Lysenko made an address which he announced had been approved by Stalin himself. Mendelian genetics was declared "reactionary", and it's practitioners declared to be "scholastics and metaphysicians."
From that day forward, the official biology of the Soviet union was to be Lysenko's. Talk of chromosomes and genes was ipso facto treasonous, and most of Lysenko's few remaining public opponents were hauled off to the gulags or executed. Lysenko reigned unchallenged as scientific dictator for many years.
Unfortunately, the worst of Lysenko's influence was yet to come. In Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine, Jasper Becker traces the influence of Lysenko's insane agricultural doctrines to Maoist China. In the late 1950s, Chinese farmers were commanded by Mao to follow several Lysenkoist doctrines imported from the USSR -- with predictably disastrous results.
Contrary to basic Darwinian logic and empirical evidence, Lysenkoist doctrine held that plants of the same species don't compete for resources. Becker reports that farmers were ordered to quadruple the number of seeds they planted per acre in 1958, then in 1959 were ordered to double that number again. Naturally, the Malthusian competition induced by this meant that fewer seedlings survived after the initial germination phase; combined with the Lysenkoist ban on the use of chemical fertilizers, this resulted in China's worst crop years ever.
Prevailing Lysenkoist doctrine also held that the root structures of plants would grow deeper in relation to how deeply the land was plowed, so farmers were ordered to plow 4-5 feet deep. Becker reports the example of Liaoning province in 1958, where 5 million people were forced to spend more than a month deep-plowing 3 million hectares of land, to no benefit whatsoever. At the other extreme, following the advice of Lysenkoist Vasily Williams, Mao ordered farmers to leave at least one-third of their land fallow.
The end result, of course, was the greatest preventable famine the world has ever seen.
A Tragic Lesson
The Lysenko affair acts as a tragic reductio ad absurdum of the blurring of political ideology with science, and an extreme reminder of the importance of scientific institutions that promote free inquiry. We are all prone to wishful thinking concerning our pet theories. Without the freedom to challenge even the most popular doctrines, the vision of the true believers replaces conjecture and refutation and errors can be amplified into disasters.