Lovely Lysenko

Both of these images are of Trofim Denisovich Lysenko. The one on the left was printed as the frontispiece to a book dedicated to the subjects of vernalization and photoperiodism. The image on the right was published only a few pages later, alongside paintings and likenesses of the other great plant physiologists of whom it was a celebration. Written largely in English by European scientists, it was published in the U.S. in 1948, the same year that the Soviet Union officially outlawed genetics. While there is no doubt that it contains some criticism of Lysenko, on the whole the book (which remarkably you can read here) considers Lysenko’s contributions to agricultural science to be among the most valuable of recent years. He was no Bond villain.

Yet this is how most of us know of him, the bogeyman that scientists can whip out whenever political patrons get a little too close to their research interests. So hated is this figure, that otherwise friendly sounding persons, such as Steve Jones, admit to toasting the news of his death in 1976 with champagne. I’ve been thinking of writing this post for a while, but was finally prompted into doing it by Eric Michael Johnson’s latest blog post which uses the figure of Lysenko in a slightly different way, as an example of the kind of pseudo-science generated by a politically warped mind. While I recognise that the contemporaries Johnson has in view have been fairly open in their cynicism (or caught out), I think using the figure of Lysenko in this way is problematic, not least because of the assumptions upon which it is based. Here I wish to sketch out (and sketch mind, it’s only a blog post after all) what a different view of Lysenko might look like, one in which (while he still might not actually seem lovely) he is at least set in a proper context.

The first major problem with this popular view of Lysenko, is that it makes certain assumptions about the way science naturally develops. Specifically its international character. This is a point made by Nikolai Krementsov in what I think is easily the best account of the origins and early decades of the ‘Lysenko affair’.  It is, as Krementsov rightly points out, widely assumed that the normal developmental process of science is that of internationalization, one which is interrupted by wars or warped by the political machinations of ambitious individuals.  Challenging this assumption is a central concern of his book. “Although it has attracted insufficient attention from historians” he writes “the fate of international science during the interwar period challenges this simplistic idealization in two important ways. First, it highlights the role of patronage in mediating the influence of ‘external’ political factors on scientists’ international activities. Second, it suggests that different disciplines vary in their ‘susceptibility’ to external political influences.” His study of international scientific conferences (specifically genetics conferences) then demonstrates how internationalization is sought out and maintained. This, it goes without saying, is by no means simple. When compared to the bureaucratic nightmare that was Soviet Russia, the alleged political affiliations of his ‘scientific opponents’, or the staunch anti-eugenic sentiment that characterised Russia, Lysenko’s personal ambitions (and the scientific rationale supposedly leant to the regime by his name) diminish significantly as causal factors.

Secondly, and more problematically, in his own time Lysenko won respect for his scientific investigations and theories. Not all of them, I hasten to add, but he was certainly no scientific fruit-cake (though admittedly he got a little fruitier as time went on). Some historians, such as Nils Roll-Hansen and Diane B. Paul, have already noted the scientific credibility accrued by Lysenko. Typically this has been dealt with by imposing a distinction upon his theories; vernalization (the pre-treatment of seeds with freezing temperatures to accelerate their germination period) is admitted as scientifically sound, while the anti-Mendelian and neo-Lamarckian core of his ideas are emphasised and heavily criticised. I find this approach problematic not only because it creates a distinction that Lysenko would not have himself recognised, but mostly because Lamarck was by no means dead and buried by the mid twentieth century (those following developments in epigenetics may disagree over the extent to which he is currently being resurrected). Lysenko’s ideas surrounding the inheritance of acquired characteristics had, especially in Russia, a long and persistent history. My contention here is that a very great deal of the Lysenkoist debate could be had on recognisably rational terms, and was conceived as such by his contemporaries. Many geneticists in Russia, far from being executed, changed the rationale behind their investigations. Was the knowledge thereby produced ‘warped’? Mendelian genetics was certainly left behind, but to what extent was this alternative research programme a contribution to Russian biology? These are questions worth asking that might otherwise be ignored if we are too quick to turn Lysenko into a deranged ideologue.

None of this is to say that the purges carried out (primarily later in the 1950s) were not despicable. But these had little to do with ‘science gone wrong’ or ‘scientists gone political’. Science is always political and scientists, as Krementsov reminds us, are always, both in peace and war, torn between their science and their country.

I think that’s quite enough to be going on with, and I hope at least to have shown why the figure of Lysenko ought to be of such interest to historians of science concerned with the relationship between scientists and their patrons. I’d like to end with the recent conclusion of a far more entertaining writer than I; Mikulas Teich (who has himself been implicated in the Lysenko controversy).

“Oscar Wilde is reputed to have noted that truth is rarely pure and never simple. This is apparent when the so-called Lysenko-Affair is analyzed in depth as the perceptive author of the biographical memoir for Haldane, N. W. (“Bill”) Pirie observed: “British geneticists have a tradition of a polemical fervour surpassed only by that of Lysenko…When feelings are less heated, the whole episode will repay detailed analysis…” *

*I realise that using a quote within Teich’s quote is a bit naff, but I can’t go back and make him say it in his own words. It’s annoying when an author chooses to end a piece of writing with a quote from someone else rather than say it themselves. Also, an often overlooked work that has informed much of this post is a paper authored by Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin which can be found in their The Dialectical Biologist. It has received a pretty hard time in the historiographical discussion, either being ignored or sidelined as ideologically biased – but then, what isn’t?


3 thoughts on “Lovely Lysenko

  1. Pingback: The Scienceblogging Weekly (June 15th, 2012) | Prutic Networks

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