[permaculture] Lysenko and Lysenkoism

Lawrence London lfljvenaura at gmail.com
Wed Dec 12 12:09:26 EST 2018

"Lysenkoism (Russian: Лысе́нковщина, tr. Lysenkovshchina) was a political
campaign conducted by Trofim Lysenko, his followers and Soviet authorities
against genetics and science-based agriculture. Lysenko served as 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.

The pseudo-scientific ideas of Lysenkoism assumed the heritability of
acquired characteristics (Lamarckism).[1] Lysenko's theory rejected
Mendelian inheritance and the concept of the "gene"; it departed from
Darwinian evolutionary theory by rejecting natural selection.[2] Proponents
falsely claimed to have discovered, among many other things, that rye could
transform into wheat and wheat into barley, that weeds could spontaneously
transmute into food grains, and that "natural cooperation" was observed in
nature as opposed to "natural selection".[2] Lysenkoism promised
extraordinary advances in breeding and in agriculture that never came about.

Joseph Stalin supported the campaign. More than 3,000 mainstream biologists
were fired or even sent to prison,[3] and numerous scientists were executed
as part of a campaign instigated by Lysenko to suppress his scientific
opponents.[4][5][6][7] The president of the Agriculture Academy, Nikolai
Vavilov, was sent to prison and died there, while scientific research in
the field of genetics was effectively destroyed until the death of Stalin
in 1953.[2] Research and teaching in the fields of neurophysiology, cell
biology, and many other biological disciplines was also negatively affected
or banned.[8]

In modern usage, the term lysenkoism has become distinct from normal
pseudoscience. Where pseudoscience pretends to be science, lysenkoism aims
at attacking the legitimacy of science itself, usually for political
reasons. It is the rejection of the universality of scientific truth, and
the purposeful defamation of the scientific method to the level of
politics. "

Here's more on Lysenko:

"Lysenko forced farmers to plant seeds very close together[citation
needed], since according to his “law of the life of species,” plants from
the same “class” never compete with one another. An article in The Atlantic
suggests that Lysenko played active role in the famines that killed
millions of Soviet people, and that Lysenko’s practices prolonged and
exacerbated the food shortages [13], but the arguments for this claim
remain unclear. The Soviet Union’s allies suffered under Lysenkoism, too.
Communist China adopted his methods in the late 1950s and endured even
bigger famines. Peasants were reduced to eating tree bark and bird
droppings.[citation needed] At least 30 million died of
starvation.[citation needed] Outside the U.S.S.R., scientists spoke
critically: British biologist S. C. Harland lamented that Lysenko was
“completely ignorant of the elementary principles of genetics and plant
physiology.” (Bertram Wolfe, 2017). Criticism from foreigners did not sit
well with Lysenko, who loathed Western “bourgeois” scientists and denounced
them as tools of imperialist oppressors. He especially detested the
American-born practice of studying fruit flies, the workhorse of modern
genetics. He called such geneticists “fly lovers and people haters.” Unable
to silence Western critics, Lysenko tried to eliminate all dissent within
the Soviet Union. Scientists who refused to renounce genetics found
themselves at the mercy of the secret police. The lucky ones simply got
dismissed from their posts and were left destitute. Hundreds if not
thousands of others were rounded up and dumped into prisons or psychiatric
hospitals. Several were sentenced to death as enemies of the state or
starved in their jail cells (most notably the botanist Nikolai
Vavilov)[citation needed]. Before the 1930s, the Soviet Union had a strong
genetics community. Lysenko gutted it, and by some accounts set Russian
biology and agronomy back a half-century."


The Soviet Era's Deadliest Scientist Is Regaining Popularity in Russia

Trofim Lysenko’s spurious research prolonged famines that killed millions.
So why is a fringe movement praising his legacy?



Although it’s impossible to say for sure, Trofim Lysenko probably killed
more human beings than any individual scientist in history. Other dubious
scientific achievements have cut thousands upon thousands of lives short:
dynamite, poison gas, atomic bombs. But Lysenko, a Soviet biologist,
condemned perhaps millions of people to starvation through bogus
agricultural research—and did so without hesitation. Only guns and
gunpowder, the collective product of many researchers over several
centuries, can match such carnage.

Having grown up desperately poor at the turn of the 20th century, Lysenko
believed wholeheartedly in the promise of the communist revolution. So when
the doctrines of science and the doctrines of communism clashed, he always
chose the latter—confident that biology would conform to ideology in the
end. It never did. But in a twisted way, that commitment to ideology has
helped salvage Lysenko’s reputation today. Because of his hostility toward
the West, and his mistrust of Western science, he’s currently enjoying a
revival in his homeland, where anti-American sentiment runs strong.

Lysenko vaulted to the top of the Soviet scientific heap with unusual
speed. Born into a family of peasant farmers in 1898, he was illiterate
until age 13, according to a recent article on his revival in Current
Biology. He nevertheless took advantage of the Russian Revolution and won
admission to several agricultural schools, where he began experimenting
with new methods of growing peas during the long, hard Soviet winter, among
other projects. Although he ran poorly designed experiments and probably
faked some of his results, the research won him praise from a state-run
newspaper in 1927. His hardscrabble background—people called him the
“barefoot scientist”—also made him popular within the Communist party,
which glorified peasants.

Officials eventually put Lysenko in charge of Soviet agriculture in the
1930s. The only problem was, he had batty scientific ideas. In particular,
he loathed genetics. Although a young field, genetics advanced rapidly in
the 1910s and 1920s; the first Nobel Prize for work in genetics was awarded
in 1933. And especially in that era, genetics emphasized fixed traits:
Plants and animals have stable characteristics, encoded as genes, which
they pass down to their children. Although nominally a biologist, Lysenko
considered such ideas reactionary and evil, since he saw them as
reinforcing the status quo and denying all capacity for change. (He in fact
denied that genes existed.)

Instead, as the journalist Jasper Becker has described in the book Hungry
Ghosts, Lysenko promoted the Marxist idea that the environment alone shapes
plants and animals. Put them in the proper setting and expose them to the
right stimuli, he declared, and you can remake them to an almost infinite

To this end, Lysenko began to “educate” Soviet crops to sprout at different
times of year by soaking them in freezing water, among other practices. He
then claimed that future generations of crops would remember these
environmental cues and, even without being treated themselves, would
inherit the beneficial traits. According to traditional genetics, this is
impossible: It’s akin to cutting the tail off a cat and expecting her to
give birth to tailless kittens. Lysenko, undeterred, was soon bragging
about growing orange trees in Siberia, according to Hungry Ghosts. He also
promised to boost crop yields nationwide and convert the empty Russian
interior into vast farms.

Such claims were exactly what Soviet leaders wanted to hear. In the late
1920s and early 1930s Joseph Stalin—with Lysenko’s backing—had instituted a
catastrophic scheme to “modernize” Soviet agriculture, forcing millions of
people to join collective, state-run farms. Widespread crop failure and
famine resulted. Stalin refused to change course, however, and ordered
Lysenko to remedy the disaster with methods based on his radical new ideas.
Lysenko forced farmers to plant seeds very close together, for instance,
since according to his “law of the life of species,” plants from the same
“class” never compete with one another. He also forbade all use of
fertilizers and pesticides.

Wheat, rye, potatoes, beets—most everything grown according to Lysenko’s
methods died or rotted, says Hungry Ghosts. Stalin still deserves the bulk
of the blame for the famines, which killed at least 7 million people, but
Lysenko’s practices prolonged and exacerbated the food shortages. (Deaths
from the famines peaked around 1932 to 1933, but four years later, after a
163-fold increase in farmland cultivated using Lysenko’s methods, food
production was actually lower than before.) The Soviet Union’s allies
suffered under Lysenkoism, too. Communist China adopted his methods in the
late 1950s and endured even bigger famines. Peasants were reduced to eating
tree bark and bird droppings and the occasional family member. At least 30
million died of starvation.

Because he enjoyed Stalin’s support, Lysenko’s failures did nothing to
diminish his power within the Soviet Union. His portrait hung in scientific
institutes across the land, and every time he gave a speech, a brass band
would play and a chorus would sing a song written in his honor." The Soviet
Era's Deadliest Scientist Is Regaining Popularity in Russia"

Lawrence F. London, Jr.
lfljvenaura at gmail.com

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