The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Friday, October 22, 2021

Lysenko's Spirit

Modern man frequently slanders his ancestors by accusing those who lived in the countless generations prior to Modernity of ignorance and superstition.    If called upon to give account for this defamation he will argue that the men of previous generations did not share his knowledge of and appreciation for science.    While it is certainly true that the men of the past did not place science in as high a rank on their hierarchy of epistemic value as Modern man does this does not necessarily justify the latter’s impiety towards his forbears.   It could alternately and just as easily be interpreted as meaning that Modern man has placed too much value on science, so much so that he has in fact fetishized it and rendered it the object of a new superstition.  


It is indeed this writer’s judgement that Modern man has fetishized science and created a new superstition around it.    While this can be said about Modern man in general it is not the general phenomenon that is of interest for the purposes of this essay but the more specific manifestation that occurs when the Modern attitude of wedding the exaltation of science as the path forward into a better future to the dismissal or even condemnation of traditional religion as holding man captive to the past, is taken to its extreme.    When this happens, those who put science in the place of highest honour and loudly proclaim their faith in and allegiance to science, inevitably speak of science in such a way as to attribute to it the qualities that are the opposite of those which make it valuable to more reasonable people.   Moreover, their “science” at best fails to achieve as impressive results as that of others and at worst produces results that are highly negative and undesirable.


The classic example of this can be found in the career of Trofim Denisovich Lysenko.     For the account that follows I have relied upon Valery N. Soyfer’s Lysenko and the Tragedy of Soviet Science, originally published in samizdat format in Russian, translated into English by Leo and Rebecca Gruliow and published by Rutgers University Press in 1994.  


Lysenko, the eldest son in a family of Ukrainian peasant farmers, was born in Karlovka in the province of Poltava in 1898.  In his youth he developed the ambition to make a name for himself as a scientist in the fields of horticulture and agronomy, an admirable goal as genuine achievement in these fields would have greatly benefited his family and the people of his village and province.   In 1917 his second application to the Uman School of Horticulture was accepted and he graduated from this school in 1921.   The following year he entered the Kiev Agricultural Institute as a correspondence student and graduated with a degree in agronomy in 1925.   He was then offered the position of junior specialist at an agricultural experimental station in Ganja, Azerbaijan.   


It was while working in this position that three things happened that would start him on his path to the top of the Soviet agricultural sciences.   The first of these was that Pravda, the Soviet propaganda rag, ran a puff piece on him.   He was barely out of school yet at the time and had not accomplished much but as a scientific researcher from a poor background he fit the image the Communist paper was looking for to a tee.  


The second was that right around the time the Pravda piece appeared he began the research that his legitimate scientific reputation, to the extent that he actually had one, was built upon.   There are some plant types that require winter to trigger the stage of maturation where they flower and produce fruit.   In the case of winter cereals such as winter wheat these have the potential to produce greater yields than their spring counterparts but also carry a greater risk of crop failure due to adverse weather conditions. In the nineteenth century horticulturalists began to discuss the possibility of using artificial cold temperatures to induce these plants to mature early.   With winter wheat, the hope was that if unplanted seed were treated in this way they could be planted in spring and yield a crop in a much shorter time than if they were planted in the fall as usual.   Lysenko’s experiments confirmed that this was possible although he grossly exaggerated his accomplishment, falsified evidence to support the exaggeration, and spun a vast web of pseudoscientific theory out of it.   He gave the procedure both the Russian name of яровизация (yarovizatsiya) and the English name vernalization.   The naming of the procedure was, perhaps, his truest accomplishment.


The third thing that happened was that Lysenko came to the attention of Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov, then Russia’s leading agronomist and the director of ВАСХНИЛ (VASKhNIL), the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences, which oversaw the experimental station for which Lysenko was working.   Vavilov was impressed by Lysenko and his work with vernalization and undertook to promote him and his career by arranging for him to be invited to and to address important scientific conferences.    This would be Vavilov’s own undoing as we shall see.


To understand what comes next in this story some historical context is necessary.    The same year that Lysenko had been accepted into the Uman School of Horticulture, a number of mutinous military units dissatisfied with the government’s handling of the First World War joined with seditious liberals within the Duma (the Russian Parliament) in forcing Tsar Nicholas II of the House of Romanov, the legitimate monarch of Russia, to abdicate.      They attempted to fill the vacuum they thus created with a weak, liberal, republic which was unable to prevent the return of the revolutionary terrorist V. I. Lenin from his exile in Switzerland.    Lenin resumed command of the Bolsheviks, the faction of the larger Marxist movement that had been spawned by his teachings fourteen years previously.   While the Bolsheviks expressed their goals in ideological terms drawn from Lenin's interpretation of Karl Marx's economic and social doctrines of Karl Marx, their actions were primarily motivated by their religious and in many cases racial hatred of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Russian people, and the Tsar who was protector of the former and father of the latter.   They seized control of Russia in a coup in October of 1917 and then fought a six and a half year Civil War against a coalition of various forces that opposed Russia's succumbing to Bolshevik tyranny.    Unfortunately for Russia, the Red Army eventually defeated the White Army, and the triumphant Bolsheviks reorganized the Russian Empire into the totalitarian terror-state the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.  They set out to remake Russia, socially and economically, into the "workers' paradise" of Communist ideological fantasy.   Apart from the Potemkin villages shown to gullible and foolish Western liberal journalists and emissaries, however, the "workers' paradise" more closely resembled a "workers' inferno".   The rapid industrialization of an agricultural economy was carried out through brutal, police state, tactics, which left the Russian labour force in a condition that deserved the label slavery which Communists hurled against the condition of factory workers in capitalist countries far more than that latter condition did. The forced collectivization of the farms generated huge food shortages and millions died of starvation.   While the first steps towards this economic and social transformation of Russia were taken by Lenin, it was his successor Joseph Stalin who presided over it for the most part.   Stalin was a despicable despot who made Adolf Hitler look like a third-rate petty amateur by comparison, as even the Russian Communists admitted shortly after his death condemning his long dictatorship as the "cult of personality".   Faced with the fact that the collectivization of Russian agriculture had produced misery, famine, and starvation rather than the plenty for all it had promised, Stalin was confronted with a choice.   He could admit that Communism doesn't work and disavow the ideological foundation of his own dictatorship.   Or he could find a scapegoat.   The problem for him was that he had already used up Lenin's scapegoat, the kulak class of peasants, during his first Five Year Plan when he confiscated all their property and sent the ones he didn't murder into the GULAG forced labour camps or Siberia.   The Five Year Plan ended, Soviet agriculture was still a mess, and now he needed a new scapegoat.


Then Stalin and Lysenko found each other.


In February of 1935, an agricultural conference was held in the Kremlin with Stalin himself in attendance.   Lysenko, addressing the assembled scientists and government officials, discussed his work with vernalization, both what had been accomplished and what had yet to be done.   Part way through his speech, however, he began denouncing other scientists:


You see, comrades, saboteur-kulaks are found not only in your kolkhoz [collective farm] life…They are no less dangerous, no less accursed, in science.   A great deal of mortification has had to be endured in defending vernalization in all kids of battles with so-called scientists…Comrades, was there—and is there—really no class struggle on the vernalization front?... 

Indeed there was…Instead of helping the collective farmers, they sabotaged things.  Both within the scientific world and outside it, a class enemy is always an enemy, even if a scientist.

So, comrades, that is how we carried out this work.   The kolkhoz system pulled it through.   The kolkhozes have pulled through and are pulling it through on the basis of the sole scientific methodology, the one and only scientific guiding principles, which Comrade Stalin teaches us daily.


These words earned him a standing ovation from Stalin who leaped to his feet, clapped, and yelled “Bravo, Comrade Lysenko, bravo!” which, of course, meant that everyone else present had to begin applauding this disgusting display of stabbing one’s colleagues in the back.   It is no wonder Stalin was pleased.   Not only did Lysenko give him the scapegoat he was looking for in these supposed saboteur scientists, but he showed himself to be a man after Stalin’s own heart and cut from his own cloth.   His path to power had been strewn with the corpses of betrayed comrades and the year after this speech the Moscow Show Trials, in which Stalin would consolidate his power by levelling capital charges against his rivals and opponents within the Communist Party under the Soviet Union’s notorious Article 58 began.   He was also undoubtedly pleased to hear the nonsense about his teachings being the only true principles guiding scientific methodology.  


This speech ensured Lysenko’s rise to the top of his profession because Stalin became his patron and protector.   It also placed those among his colleagues who had started to notice that Lysenko’s claims for his work in vernalization were exaggerated and that his promises of exponential yield growth far exceeded his delivery and who were starting to question his methodology and the legitimacy of some of his results on notice to watch their step.   Geneticists in particular had cause to be afraid.   After his initial work on vernalization had earned him acclaim, Lysenko had made increasingly fanciful claims for the process.   Around the time that he gave the speech that brought him to Stalin’s notice he had begun claiming that wheat seeds from the plants grown from vernalized seed would retain the vernalization.   His geneticist critics noted that this was a reversion to the idea of the inheritance of acquired characteristics, widely associated with the name of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, which had gone out of favour among serious biologists in the early twentieth century with the rediscovery of the findings of Gregor Mendel, first published in 1866.    Lysenko went on the offensive against the geneticists.   He condemned them as “Mendelists” and “Weismannists” after August Weismann, the author of germ plasm theory a precursor to genetics.   His favourite epithet for them was “Morganists” after Thomas Hunt Morgan, the American Nobel-prize winner who was the most prominent geneticist in the world at the time and a particular object of Lysenko’s scorn and envy.   His use of these labels was entirely pejorative and had little to do with the actual ideas and accomplishments of these men.   He used the terms the way contemporary leftists use the words “reactionary”, “fascist”, “imperialist” and “racist” and, indeed, he used this latter set of epithets interchangeably with the former.   He portrayed the geneticists as the “class enemies” and “saboteurs” of which he had spoken in his address before Stalin.   See Evolution, Marxian Biology and the Social Scene (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1959) by Conway Zirkle, who had ten years previously published a monograph specifically on the Lysenkoist persecution of the Russian geneticists, for the case that Lysenko’s neo-Lamarckian biology can be traced back to roots in the writings of the founders of Communism.


The ultimate test of any practical science is its results.   While Lysenko constantly promised that his work would bring about greater, more abundant, harvests so that the USSR would be able to easily feed her people and, more importantly to his political masters, would pull ahead of the United States in food production, he not only constantly failed to deliver, but his techniques, which after 1935 would increasingly be imposed upon all of Soviet agriculture, produced crop failure after crop failure.   By contrast, in the non-Communist world, those engaged in the very research Lysenko demonized in Russia, were successfully providing their countries with results similar to what Lysenko was promising by applying the findings of genetics to hybridization.  Nevertheless, Lysenko had hit upon a formula that was successful in terms of appealing to the Communist minds that ruled Soviet Russia.   By declaring his pseudoscientific quackery to be “progressive” and “revolutionary” and the like and his opponents’ theories to be “fascist” and “reactionary” he was able to declare his theories and methods to be the one true science and the path to a golden future without any concrete and verifiable results and to blame all of his failures on his opponents.


Newly empowered by Stalin’s patronage, Lysenko committed the sin which in Dante’s Inferno damns one to the lowest circle of hell with Lucifer, Brutus, Judas, and Cassius, the sin of betraying one’s benefactor.   He turned on Nikolai Vavilov, and while the latter’s established reputation was not such as could be overturned in one night, eventually Lysenko’s accusations destroyed the man.   He was arrested in 1940 and sentenced to death in 1941.   While his friends were able to obtain a commutation of the sentence of twenty years in prison, he died in 1943 from conditions brought upon by his imprisonment.


After the Second World War ended but food shortages continued, several Soviet scientists, including Stalin’s son-in-law Yuri Zhdanov, felt emboldened to criticize Lysenko who had become the director of VASKhNIL and thus the top agricultural scientist in the Soviet Union in 1938.   Appealing directly to Stalin, Lysenko obtained the authority to crush his opponents completely.    In 1948, in the notorious “August Session”, a weeklong conference of VASKhNIL which Lysenko opened with an address the draft manuscript of which bears comments and corrections in Stalin’s own handwriting, the entire field of genetics was condemned as “bourgeois pseudoscience” and “Michurinism” (1) as Lysenko and his followers dubbed their own theories was declared to be the “only correct” view.   Yuri Zhdanov, seeing the handwriting on the wall, wrote a letter of recantation to his father-in-law which was published in Pravda on the last day of the session.   That day other defenders of genetics gave speeches renouncing their criticism of Lysenko.   The session concluded with genetics being formally banned in the Soviet Union by the Central Party Committee a mere five years before James Watson and Francis Crick published their double-helix model of the DNA structure of the chromosome in Nature.   Geneticists were forced to renounce their field.   Those who didn’t, and even some who did but were deemed to be insufficiently punished thereby, were expelled from the institutions of Soviet biology and in many cases handed over to GULAG or put to death.


Lysenko’s domination of Soviet biology survived the death of Stalin, but it collapsed after Nikita Khrushchev was removed from office in 1964.   Russian physicist Andrei Sakharov denounced Lysenko before the General Assembly of the Soviet Academy of Sciences that year, and after the coup against Khrushchev the Academy began a formal investigation into Lysenko’s work.   The results, when published, demolished Lysenko’s reputation and he was stripped of all authority outside of the Lenin Hills experimental farm that he had taken over upon becoming director of VASKhNIL in 1938 and which remained under his supervision until his death in 1976.


Trofim Lysenko as an ideological Communist held to the most extreme form possible of Modern man’s inflated view of science.   Science was everything to him, the way forward to a golden future from out of a past in which he could see nothing but darkness.   What he thought of as science however, was largely the opposite of the science that has produced the results for which Modern man holds it in such high estimation.    The science that “works” is a methodology in which hypotheses are put forward and tested through experimentation but if the tests support the hypothesis another hypothesis can always come along to replace it and the openness to this possibility is of the very essence of science.   Lysenko’s science consisted of rigid dogmas which amounted to an extreme version of the nurture side of the ongoing nature versus nurture debate that sought to end the debate by ending the discussing and eliminating the other side.   While he promised beneficial results, the harvest he reaped was famine and scarcity rather than plenty.


Only a few short years after Lysenko’s reputation and career collapsed in his own country, his spirit was found to be alive and well on academic campuses in the West.    New Left groups such as Science for the People started protesting lectures by scientists whose views they did not want heard, disrupting meetings of scientific associations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and demanding that a narrow party line be taken with all dissenting views condemned on a variety of politically charged subjects.   Not only was the attitude very similar to Lysenko’s, when the issues pertained to the biological sciences the New Left groups took a hard nurture stance against those whose research and theories supported the nature side.   See Ullica Segerstråle’s Defenders of the Truth: The Sociobiology Debate (Oxford, 2000) and the chapter in Edward O. Wilson’s autobiography Naturalist (Shearwater, 1994) where he discusses his persecution by his Harvard colleagues Stephen Jay Gould and Richard C. Lewontin.   Even the epithets hurled by the New Left – “racist”, “fascist”, etc. are the same as in Lysenko’s day.   Today, the successors to these New Left groups, the “woke”, rule the academic world with an iron fist.


In British Columbia, a family physician who has served the rural community of Lytton for almost thirty years, Dr. Charles Hoffe earlier in the year reported the adverse effects that many of his patients had experienced after receiving the Moderna vaccine and circulated a letter questioning the ethics of continuing to administer the AstraZeneca vaccine after 12 countries in Europe suspended its use over blot clotting.   The BC College of Physicians and Surgeons and the Interior Health Authority ordered him to shut up about all of this because it would promote “vaccine hesitancy”.   Dr. Hoffe continued to see his patients suffer serious ill effects from the vaccines but received brush off responses from the public health authorities to the effect that the vaccines were “safe” and this was all a coincidence.   Taking such basic medical ethics principles as the “no harm” principle of the Hippocratic Oath and the right to informed consent seriously, he refused to obey the order to shut up.   He is now under investigation by the College and the IHA.   Furthermore the IHA has suspended his emergency room privileges on the grounds that he is spreading “misinformation” by which they mean entirely factual information, by any objective standard, about the low fatality rate of the bat flu, the dissemination of which conflicts with their agenda of achieving universal vaccination.   Countless other examples of physicians who have been disciplined for dissenting from the party line on the bat flu and the vaccines in various ways, from administering inexpensive, long-established-to-be-safe, treatments to opposing the unjust and draconian lockdowns, could be cited.   The public health authorities clamping down on these dissident physicians and demanding that everybody obey their every order without question claim that they are following “the science”.   Their totalitarianism tells us that the “science” they are following is closer in spirit to Lysenko’s than to anything deserving of the name.


(1)   Michurinist was derived from the name of Ivan Vladimirovich Michurin, who died in 1935 and thus was spared seeing his name so misappropriated.   Like Vavilov his contributions were in the direction of the development of hybrids based on genetics, and thus the sort of thing that Lysenko condemned as Weissmanist-Mendelist-Morganism.


No comments:

Post a Comment