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How the Pseudoscience was Settled: Lysenko and the Art of Ideological Institutional Capture
Lessons on 'gender' from the history of Soviet 'science'
Image curation was a major concern for the Soviets. Despite a vast censorship bureaucracy, however, truths still got out of the Soviet Union in the form of official photography. Truth could appear as informed commentary on the official caption. When Robert C. Cook published the above photo in a 1949 issue of The Journal of Heredity devoted to “the genetics controversy” in the USSR, he included a tongue-in-cheek comment. “It is noteworthy that Lysenko, who has interdicted experimental controls and the use of mathematics in biological research, needs only eye-power and general impressions to ‘measure the growth of wheat,’” Cook explained. “The presence of that capitalist symbol, Santa Claus, in the center of the picture is purely coincidental.”
Contrary to popular framing, Trofim Denisovich Lysenko did not personally starve millions of people to death, nor was he personally responsible for Stalin’s purges, which included people in his own orbit. Rather, Lysenko’s impact on Soviet and Maoist agriculture was indirect. An applicable modern term might be ‘vaporware,’ for what Lysenko actually did was perform magic tricks and pretend they were science while the actual science languished; it was the Elizabeth Holmes Theranos act write large. Joseph Stalin found value in Lysenko’s theories and ordered everyone to follow his instructions. Famines resulted from the sham pseudoscience crowding out the real, data-driven science that would have otherwise developed in Russia, much like an invasive weed taking over a fallow field. It simply failed to prevent or ameliorate famine the way real science would. Imagine that Ibram X. Kendi’s ‘Center for Antiracist Research,’ which imploded recently amid accusations of self-dealing and dysfunction, had been put in charge of the US Department of Agriculture. (Arguably, Kendi’s proposed ‘Department of Anti-racism’ would accomplish this exact goal.) Just imagine.
Reading about Lysenko today reveals clear parallels with our new moment of ideological institutional capture by ‘gender identity,’ social justice woo, and postmodern critical theory. “Scientiﬁc papers came to require extensive digressions on the signiﬁcance of the topic at hand in terms of Marxism-Leninism,” William Dejong-Lambert wrote in The Cold War Politics of Genetic Research: An Introduction to the Lysenko Affair, published in 2012. “Scientists no longer criticized one another, they ‘unmasked’ and ‘exposed’ dangerous ideas.” Irascible, “Lysenko remained willfully ignorant of research outside of the Soviet Union, hated math and never passed a formal scientific examination.” In the context of Stalin’s Soviet state, though, “Lysenko’s ignorance and intolerance of dissent were assets.” When everything is political, leaving no room for anything but politics, ‘science’ is shaped by power, not evidence. It is possible to have no scientific background or education, say unscientific things such as ‘the science is settled’, and still have a serious image as a scientist — as long as you have the power to enforce respect.
Lysenko’s power derived from his image as a ‘barefoot scientist,’ a part of the ‘peasant intelligentsia,’ but this image was not original to him. It was a familiar trope from Imperial Russia associated with Ivan Michurin, who was also uneducated and folksy and made the most of his outsider status. One approving colleague described Michurin as “so intimate with plants and has studied their life so much that one glance is enough, and he can already predict the qualities of a plant and its future fruit.” Measurements and record-keeping were elitist bougeois gatekeeping. Likewise, Lysenko judged results by eye alone. A contemporary report described him as an “extremely egotistical person, deeming himself to be the new Messiah of biological research.” He never published in the science press. His ‘theories’ were all based on unique examples, just like Michurin.
Lysenko’s conclusions derived from what would be called ‘lived experience’ or ‘other ways of knowing’ these days. “Michurin’s view was that plantsmanship was an art, incommunicable in abstractions or formulas,” Simon Ings writes in Stalin and the Scientists: A History of Triumph and Tragedy 1905-1953. Michurin produced dubious ‘hybrid plants’ through ‘vegetative blending’ and ‘mentoring.’ Some of the more impossible ones, such as a supposed cross between a melon and squash, “attracted especially negative attention” from horticulturists. His unlikely methods meant “there was no regularity in hereditary phenomena, and no coherent science to be had from studying them.” Michurin was making it up as he went along.
Opposition only hardened Michurin’s belief in his own theories. “When scientists conducted rigorous examinations of ‘mentors’ in Michurin’s nursery, their ﬁndings were angrily rebuked,” Dejong-Lambert writes. An impoverished aristocrat himself, “Michurin fumed that their performance was ‘slipshod’ and accused them of ‘undermining faith’ in what he had done.” Russia was newly-atheist, but still haunted by the ghosts of the old religion. Michurin was a guru demanding belief without evidence. His ‘scientific philosophy’ was in fact human moralism projected on plants, so the last thing he wanted was actual data.
Anthropomorphism formed the basis for Michurin’s understanding of the natural world, and he believed all living things were endowed with an intelligent ability to adapt in the struggle for existence. This inﬁnite plasticity implied to Michurin a challenge not to wait on the kindness of nature, but to create new varieties even nature itself could not imagine. He dismissed scientists and academics who sought to understand problems to be answered by Mendel’s statistics, calling them “caste priests of jabberology.”
Michurin did not care for Lysenko. When he died in 1935, however, Michurin’s populist legend became “a bitter myth Lysenko would latch onto,” Dejong-Lambert writes. Lysenko owed no one, for he had grown from the earth itself. When a westerner encountered Lysenko in a cafeteria in 1968, years after his star had set, he was keen to reject any debt to anyone. Asked about Nikolai Vavilov, his former champion in the scientific academy who had died in prison, Lysenko insisted that he was a self-made man.
You think I am a part of the Soviet oppressive system. But I have always been an outsider. I came from a simple peasant family, and in my professional development I soon encountered the prejudices of the upper classes. Vavilov came from a wealthy family and knew many foreign languages. When I was a boy I worked barefoot in the ﬁelds and I never had the advantage of a proper education. Most of the prominent geneticists of the 1920s were like Vavilov. They did not want to make room for a simple peasant like me. I had to ﬁght to be recognized. My knowledge came from working in the ﬁelds. Their knowledge came from books, and was often mistaken. And, once again, I am now an outsider. Why do you think I was sitting alone here at this table when you came up? No one will sit with me. All the other scientists have ostracized me. I sympathize with the Jewish refuseniks. They are scientists who have been ostracized by the Soviet establishment because they applied to emigrate to Israel, were turned down by the Soviet authorities, and now they have no jobs and no place to turn. They are alone like me.
Lysenko developed a germination process he called ‘vernalization,’ purporting to increase crop yields by manipulating the storage temperature and hydration of seeds. Lysenko shared some of his ‘vernalized’ seeds with his family during one of the periodic famines that wracked the Soviet Union. These seeds were planted in desperation and the resulting bumper wheat crop was pronounced miraculous.
At first, Lysenko’s triumph fell flat. “When he presented his results to experts at a scientiﬁc convention he was mortiﬁed to learn it had already been done,” Dejong-Lambert writes. “And though vernalization became the basis for Lysenko’s belief he could transform nature, it was actually just a technique that had never proved useful, and never would.” American agronomy had already tried and dismissed the technique decades ago. It was useless for increasing grain yields.
Lysenko’s pseudoscience had an important ideological appeal, however. He was telling a story that made sense to Marxist philsophers. “Marxism was supposed to be the capstone for a certain sort of nineteenth-century science,” Ings writes. While “scientists were becoming, in an ever more godless age, a replacement priesthood” everywhere in the world, “the cult of science lay at the foundation of Soviet rule.” Marx, like Hegel before him, had promised a singular science in which “everything became explainable in the terms of everything else.”
A decade before the Bolshevik Revolution, Vladimir Lenin entangled his misunderstanding of physics with his political ideology and produced a book, Empiricism and Empirocriticsm, to denounce the work of Austrian physicist Ernst Mach, whose metaphysical implications disturbed him. “In the coming years it acquired the status of scripture,” Ings says.
Making matters worse, the writing of Ivan Pavlov — famous discoverer of classical conditioning, whose dogs salivated at the sound of the pre-dinner bell — began to resemble Lenin’s work more and more in his dotage. His mouse experiments unintentionally fed into wrong, but Marxist, theories about inherited characteristics. Pavlov was posthumously converted to Muchurinism. A pseudoscientific belief had gained academic acceptance on half-baked ‘evidence.’
As the terror of Joseph Stalin raised the stakes, ideological consensus was the only refuge for scientists. “Citations from Marxist classics and Party leaders became the best defense,” Dejong-Lambert writes. “A useful guide was published entitled Marx, Engels, Lenin on Biology, which proved so essential to the task of providing a quote in a pinch, it ran into several editions.” Experimental results were measured and explained with dialectical materialism instead of numbers. Debates became struggle sessions because the underlying Marxist principles were not up for debate.
Academic conferences were replaced by “public discussions” of scientiﬁc issues. The public discussion was an important ritual, scripted by the humiliating practices of criticism and self-criticism. They became the arena where power struggles could be played out, favoring the ideologically astute over the scientiﬁcally competent.
Agriculture commissar Yakov Yakovlev pronounced Lysenko’s work as a revolutionary breakthrough at a conference in 1931. Isaak Prezent, a philosophy lecturer at the Communist Academy in Leningrad, was inspired to write a pamphlet, Class Struggle on the Front of National Science, calling on Soviet scientists to become “engineers” of nature. One year later, Prezent and Lysenko were in charge of their own research institute, staff, and budget.
Lysenko was a demanding, arrogant leader. His plants were being used, after all, and his initiatives were being promoted, therefore all the state-directed media coverage of his plants being used was in itself proof of their success. Egotistical to the end, Lysenko “did not want his work considered as part of an honorable tradition. He wanted credit, all the time, for everything he touched,” Ings writes. His writings were “mystical and maddeningly unspecific,” but they invoked Michurinism, and they rejected classical genetics.
It was this last point which made Lysenko a good fit with Marx, Lenin, and Stalin. Like Michurin and Prezent and the posthumous Pavlov, he believed that characteristics could be inherited from the environment — that humans and plants and animals were shaped by their surroundings rather than their genes, passing on acquired traits to their offspring. Lysenko ridiculed the very existence of genes (“little corpuscles of heredity”) and dismissed the work of Gregor Mendel. Helpfully, genes were theoretical until the first x-ray experiments producing mutations in fruit flies proved that genes were physical matter. Lysenko continued to deny the existence of the human genome even after American scientists worked out the structure of DNA in 1953.
Named for Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who coined the word ‘biology,’ this body of theory denying the role of genetics in evolution altogether was called ‘Lamarckism,’ and its metaphysics appealed to the dictatorship of the proletariat. Much like today’s equity and inclusion dialectic, “Marx supposed the environment was everything.” Inequality could only be explained by immoral policy. “The idea that an unborn child had a fixed genetic endowment, which nothing could alter, suggested a mechanistic sort of predestination — a sort of scientific Calvinism,” whereas “Marx had promised that science as it developed under socialism, would improve the human lot. Lamarckism fitted seamlessly into this ideological scheme,” Ings writes.
Lysenko’s story resonates most with ‘gender identity’ at the ‘gene.’ American medical students are actually being taught right now that gender is nonmaterial and “independent of physical structure.” Nonsense about the ‘sex spectrum’ abounds, indeed it has the front page endorsement of Scientific American. These absurdities invariably appeal to ‘safety’ and ‘inclusion.’ Objections meet with violent intolerance. Intellectual violence is necessary for such an ideology to succeed when it cannot win on the merits of evidence. Power must silence criticism because the supposed science is actually just woo.
Lysenkoists accused geneticists of rationalizing monarchy, fearing enlightenment, lowering man to the level of beasts, of pursuing profit, imperialism, of doing ‘bourgeois science,’ of anti-Soviet bias. Today, wrongthink is ‘hate’ and ‘transphobia’ and ‘systemic racism’ that does ‘actual violence’ to ‘marginalized communities.’ Lysenko would have recognized the struggle sessions and cancel mobs in the modern academy.
Not only did genetics threaten orthodox theories about the potential levelling of humanity into a new race (‘Soviet man’), it challenged the premises of collectivization. “Because this type of ‘science’ did not permit rational planning, it was not suitable for a socialist society,” Dejong-Lambert says. “Lysenko’s belief that nature would obey his will caused him to anthropomorphize as ardently as Michurin.”
Plants and animals were supposed to enact human morals: Lysenko wanted saplings planted close together in the desert because he thought they would share resources and find a way to survive. Thousands of exotic species were introduced to the wilderness in the belief that their evolution could be directed. He was particularly repelled by plant inbreeding, a mode of reproduction that humans abhor but corn adores.
Lysenko believed self-pollination was degenerative and referred to cross-pollination as “marriage for love.” As a result, hundreds of thousands of collective farm workers were sent into the ﬁelds to remove the antlers from spikes of wheat. Effectiveness was veriﬁed through questionnaires sent to the administrators which— whatever the actual results— came back positive.
Based on his ‘vernalization,’ Trofim Lysenko told a Marxist story about plant development. “Phasic theory was based on the idea that plants went through various developmental stages, and after understanding these stages we can ‘destabilize’ and ‘break’ their heredity to transform them,” Dejong-Lambert writes. How a plant was raised mattered more than its parents, according to socialist theory.
If exposed to new conditions at the proper moment in their development, plants would acquire the necessary characteristics to survive. Thus any species could change, become something new, and thrive in any environment. It was the same as Michurin’s idea that plants could be “taught” and transformed by grafting — attaching cuttings to more mature plants they could “learn” from.
More recently, teachers unions have cast aside everything they once knew about child development stages and the human life-cycle in the mistaken belief that children have unique ‘gender identities.’ They offer to prove it by exposing children to radioactive ideas that destabilize and break their psychosocial development, transforming them into a progresive generation. a new kind of evolved human being that will save the climate and end racism.
Treating children like experimental fruit flies just to see which random mutations develop, this grafting of academic Queer Theory onto school systems required a terrorizing unity of purpose across media and government that would be the envy of Joe Stalin.
Eugenics was still a respectable science around the world, including Russia, in 1938. Naturally, the study of genes was interesting to eugenicists, and so the two areas were related fields. After Operation Barbarossa in 1941, however, eugenics was understandably associated with Hitler and Nazi race ‘science.’ By extension, geneticists were now guilty of fascism. It was the war, not Lysenko, that finally made genetics untouchable for several years in the USSR.
Yet it was the nascent Cold War which forced an end to the suppression of genetics in the Soviet Union after 1945. Atomic research had implications for genetics, per the fruit flies, and so geneticists found new lives working at secret facilities beyond the Ural mountains. Green shoots slowly began to appear in Soviet genetics even as Lysenko enjoyed the peak years of his power in the academy.
Stalin had tried to force the unification of science, philosophy, and religion into a single coherent, state-directed body of ‘knowledge’ in 1935. Lysenko had served that purpose well, even if Stalin never explicitly endorsed Lysenkoism. By 1950, however, Stalin was trying to untangle science, philosophy, and religion again out of necessity. He had left himself wiggle room and so Lysenko’s star began to set accordingly. Before he died in 1953, Stalin hinted that a reckoning was close at hand for his ‘barefoot scientist.’ It is ironic that Stalin’s stroke saved Lysenko’s life, while Nikita Kruschev extended his career.
Results finally did matter, however, and played a minor part in the coup which replaced Kruschev. Tasked to raise the butterfat content of Russian milk, Lysenko promised that he could double it by introducing Jersey cows. Indeed, his cross-breeding with local herds produced a temporary surge of milk production with high butterfat content. However, each following generation saw a decline in butterfat production because the Jersey cow must remain purebred to keep its unique genetics. Lysenko did not understand this because he did not believe in genetics despite heading the Institute of Genetics.
Shortly after Kruschev was removed from the Kremlin, Lysenko’s butterfat statistics were exposed by a colleague, and he was deposed at last from his gargoyle-perch within the Soviet academy. The bust of Gregor Mandel was returned to the lobby of the Institute of Genetics and Lysenko was packed off to a testing station.
Plant scientists P.S. Hudson and R.H. Richens wrote a study in 1946, The New Genetics in the Soviet Union. Struggling for a term to describe what was taking place there, they coined the term “alogical.” Rather than illogical, which “usually implies a defective logical sequence,” they wanted a word for “methods of discourse other than logical… devoid of any logical texture altogether.” They also coined the term Lysenkoism, for they found his ideas “lacking in cogency.”
It was his own book, Heredity and Its Variability, that made Soviet science a laughingstock in the outside world and wrecked Lysenko’s reputation. Geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky translated the work into English, calling it “one of the most unpleasant tasks I had in my whole life.” The illiteracy and scientific illiteracy of the text meant “his writings are undoubtedly actually his writings,” Dobzhansky declared, but Lysenko should have hired a ghost writer, for he was “a son of a bitch,” his claims were “to put it mildly, improbable,” and his work was “excrement.”
Informed reviewers were savage. New York Times science editor Waldemar Kaempffert ridiculed Lysenko’s “vague and mystical ideas” about inheritance. By treating the natural world as a tabula rasa, and organisms as blank slates upon which the party could inscribe characteristics, Lysenko drew comparisons to Rasputin and Savonarola.
Julian Huxley criticized the “social-political orthodoxy” that made Lysenko possible, concluding that “highly-placed administrators and people eminent in their own walks of life, as well as of the general public” who did not perceive the “distinctive character of science” had enabled his rise. Huxley wrote a book in 1949, Heredity East and West: Lysenko and World Science, to contextualize the throttling of pure science research in the USSR within the broader stifling of intellectual freedom there.
Lysenko could only fake it for so long, though. “The practicality of vernalization and the other Lysenkoite recipes was not proved by Lysenko’s little lists of farms that had allegedly used them with success,” David Joravsky writes in his 1986 The Lyseko Affair. “The similarity with advertisers’ proof by testimonials was quite obvious.” Had he been born in the United States, Lysenko might have been a patent medicine success. But Trofim Lysenko was not a P.T. Barnum-style huckster. He did not win the argument in the academy because he was popular, or because he had Comrade Stalin on his side, or because of his showmanship.
Fundamentally, he was an obscurantist who “took his stand on the superiority of vague intuition to precise science” which had been entirely destabilized in the dangerous politics of Stalin’s Soviet state. When Lysenko was confronted in debate, “the ‘discussion’ was a conflict between two little bands of militants,” Joravsky says. “The bulk of the scientific community simply watched in silence,” leaning with the political winds. Other than the scientists in applied biology and zoology, few voiced opposition. Rather than support their colleagues, the professoriate just shied away from the biology department.
Joravsky notes that natural science and modern political ideology share the same rational enlightenment roots. However, “the basic difference can be sensed by comparing the resistance of scientists and ideologists to the discovery of unacknowledged dogma.”
For example, the practical consequences of believing that ‘sex is a spectrum’ cannot be acknowledged in today’s scientific academy without raising accusations of ‘harm.’ No one can quite explain how this alleged harm works. Known as ‘the minority stress model,’ this absurd charge is based on junk science. It is an unacknowledged dogma.
“In groups of natural scientists,” Joravsky writes, when this discovery happens “the resistance is comparatively slight and brief; in ideological groups such as political parties it is usually intense and prolonged.” Gender Lysenkoism is indeed turning out to be an intense, prolonged, and unabashedly partisan pseudoscience. But the power to declare what is science, and what is not science, is a temporary state that varies with the political winds. Sooner or later, results do matter more than image.
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