When the Soviet Union Chose the Wrong Side on Genetics and Evolution

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Science cannot long remain unfettered in a social system which seeks to exercise control over the whole spiritual and intellectual life of a nation. The correctness of a scientific theory can never by adjudged by its readiness to give the answers desired by political leadership.

--Charles A. Leone, "Lysenko versus Mendel," Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science, 1952

Whenever I hear that some political figure has attempted to legislate science to suit the convenience of their political beliefs—and this happens fairly frequently, even here in the United States—I think back to biology class and the story of Trofim Lysenko in the early years of the Soviet Union.

Lysenko, Joseph Stalin's director of biology, was head of a group of animal and plant breeders who rejected the science of genetics—particularly as developed by Gregor Mendel and Thomas Hunt Morgan—as being foreign, impractical, idealistic and a product of "bourgeois capitalism." Instead, these Soviets promoted the work of fellow countryman Ivan V. Michurin. Michurin believed in a neo-Lamarckian form of evolution. You may recall the classic example of Lamarckian evolution that held that giraffes stretched their necks into such long lengths and then passed on that trait to their direct offspring. Michurin's system was an advanced form of that.

Michurinist biology, which later morphed into Lysenkoism, was convenient for a Soviet government trying to engineer the perfect social utopia. Under this system, they thought they could quickly force plants and animals, even the Soviet people, into forms that could serve practical requirements. For example, Lysenko claimed that he changed a species of spring wheat into a winter wheat in just a few years. Of course, this was impossible—particularly since the spring wheat species had two sets of chromosomes and the winter wheat had three—and more likely his experiment had been contaminated. But Lysenko held great power and his claims were rarely challenged.

Lysenko came to dominate Soviet biology with a 1948 speech—prepared in part by Stalin himself—in which Lysenko denounced Mendel and declared proponents of such science to be enemies of the people. Scientists who disagreed with Lysenko's theories were purged—some were sent to the gulags while others simply disappeared.

The results were inevitable: Soviet biology slowed nearly to a halt until a series of crop failures and resulting food shortages forced the removal of Lysenko in 1965, though his star had already begun to fall after Stalin's death in 1953. And in the rest of the world, science advanced, as it is wont to do when researchers are given the freedom to explore new and old ideas, leaving the Soviet biologists in the dust.

The lesson here? We need to remember that just because a dictator issues a decree or legislators pass a law, they have not changed reality. Ignoring science in favor of a preferred outlook on the world can have devastating consequences.

About Sarah Zielinski
Sarah Zielinski

Sarah Zielinski is an award-winning science writer and editor. She is a contributing writer in science for Smithsonian.com and blogs at Wild Things, which appears on Science News.

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