“Big Farma” (Lysenkoism)


In the United States, opponents of evolutionary biology education generally limit themselves to trying to sneak Jesus in the back school door while ushering out Darwin. But in the Soviet Union, opponents of the theory added mass murder to their arsenal.

During Stalin’s reign, Trofim Lynseko attempted a highly idiosyncratic and untenable reworking of biology, especially the tenets espoused by Darwin and Mendel. The most basic point of Lysenkoism was that an organism’s acquired characteristics could be inherited. He also felt this could be manipulated, so that plants could be conditioned to acquire desirable traits and pass those onto succeeding generations. But this would be like saying mice could have their tails sliced off and, if this mutilation was done under the right conditions and in the right environment, the offspring of those mice would be without the appendage. The idea doesn’t work any better with plants.

In an article on Lysenkosim, The Atlantic’s Sam Kean wrote that genetics teaches that plants and animals have stable characteristics, encoded as genes, which are passed to the next generation. Lysenko loathed this idea because he felt it denied all capacity for change. Marxists liked the idea of heredity having a limited role because that would mean any characteristics gained by living under communism could be inherited by succeeding generations. Of course, all this is the appeal to consequences fallacy and has no bearing on whether what was taught about genetics was true.

For his competing viewpoint, Lysenko decreed that if plants were placed in the proper setting and exposed to the right stimuli, they could be improved and pass those traits on. He rejected both natural selection and Mendelian inheritance, going so far as to dismiss the notion of genes. Soviet leaders found it attractive to have a homegrown peasant to counter Darwin, so Stalin put Lysenko in charge of the county’s farms, where he was content to attempt practical application of his ideas rather than subject them to experiment and scrutiny.

Lysenko’s notions fit in well with forced collectivist agriculture. He was able to force the farmers to participate in his experiments, which were intended to increase crop yields but which ended up exacerbating a famine. Lysenko made farmers plant seeds close together since his belief was that plants from the same class would never compete with each other. He also had bizarre practices like soaking crops in freezing water, thinking positive traits would result and be passed on ad infinitum. Additionally, he forbid the use of fertilizers and pesticides. These terrible ideas led to most of the planted food dying or rotting.

Farmers and biologists who objected were fired, sent to the gulag, or executed, a policy that makes Ken Ham’s anti-science positions seem almost reasonable. Lysenko fell out of favor and power with Stalin’s death and he remained a footnote a historical footnote for decades.

But like the flat Earth, reports of Lysnekoism’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. It has zombified and is once again infesting the scientific landscape. That these issues have gained hold again staggers belief. At the same time, even if 100 percent of the population were scientifically literate, scientific literacy would still be one generation away from potential extinction. For some persons, being iconoclastic is more important than being right.

The resurgence of Lysenkoism has been fueled by a combination of nationalism, anti-Western sentiment, and unofficial endorsement by the Russian Orthodox Church. There is an attempt to cloak the resurgence with a veneer of scientific legitimacy by piggybacking on the burgeoning epigenetics field, which studies environmental influences on gene expression and phenotype. Epigenetic factors can help shape an organism to its current environment and it’s possible for these factors to be inherited. For example, a wheat crop that has the ability to fight drought may have this property manifest if that condition occurs. However, the parent crops always had those traits, meaning epigenetics does not teach that acquired characteristics are inherited. Moreover, epigenetics centers on the work of genes, which Lysenko explicitly rejected.

The other reason some Russians are embracing Lysenko is because they have an anti-intellectual and paranoid mindset that sees malevolence behind space programs, vaccines, and genetic modification. In this case, that paranoia is combined with anti-Western sensibilities and serves as another way of coping with Cold War defeat.

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