Lysenko: Cautionary Soviet-Era Tale Of How Tragically Politics Can Pervert Science

Soviet "scientist" Trofim Lysenko examines some wheat. His infamy stemmed in part from his pseudoscientific claims about agriculture. (Wikimedia Commons)
Soviet "scientist" Trofim Lysenko examines some wheat. His infamy stemmed in part from his pseudoscientific claims about agriculture. (Wikimedia Commons)

On April 22, masses of American researchers are planning to leave the lab and take to the streets in a "March For Science," warning of a looming political threat to science. (The public Facebook page has more than 480,000 "likes" so far; the secret — but not so secret — Facebook group has more than 839,000 members.)

Here in Boston, as much a science hub as a medical mecca, organizers are expecting one of the bigger turnouts among the couple of hundred planned venues, possibly second only to the central national march in Washington, D.C.

Boston also happens to be home to a leading historian on perhaps the ultimate cautionary tale of politics perverting science. It's the sinister story of Trofim Lysenko, a Soviet-era "scientist" known for his cockamamie, anti-Darwin theories about agriculture and his penchant for denouncing colleagues who were doing actual solid work and dared to disagree with him, leading to their arrests and executions.

That historian is professor emeritus Loren Graham of MIT and Harvard, author of the recent book, "Lysenko's Ghost." I asked him, with the March for Science around the corner, to tell the Lysenko story for those who don't know it.

Our conversation, lightly edited:

Graham: Trofim Denisovich Lysenko was an agronomist, a rather poorly educated one, who in the late 1920s and the early 1930s began attracting a lot of attention in the Soviet Union because he maintained that he could increase crop yields dramatically.

This message was very welcome news to the Soviet government, because at that time, there was an agricultural crisis, and they needed more crops, higher yields. Part of the reason why they were in crisis, and part of the reason why there was famine in some areas, was because of the recent [Communist] collectivization program in agriculture.

Lysenko's message was extremely welcome — so welcome that he attracted a lot of attention. And Lysenko, even though he was poorly educated as a biologist, had a very acute political sense. So he knew how to present himself in such a way that the authorities would support him. He was clever. He was never a member of the Communist Party. Never. He portrayed himself as a simple peasant's son who had discovered new ways to grow crops that were superior to old ways.

And he turned to the government and said, "I would like to help you do what you want to do with my new methods." Well, they loved that, you know. And the crisis was so great that no one said, "Well, let's just verify some of his claims. Does he use control groups? Does he use statistics? Are these verifiable claims?" The answer to all those questions was no. Nonetheless, because of the politics of the time, they supported him and fed his ambitions.

Screen Shot 2017-04-06 at 3.50.56 PM
(Wikimedia Commons)

And as he became more and more influential, his ambitions grew to an almost pathological sense. He couldn't stand criticism, and when any biologist would say, "Well, now, wait a minute, you just made such-and-such a claim; I tried to reproduce it in my laboratory, it doesn't work," that man became an enemy to Lysenko. And what happened to Lysenko's enemies? Many of them went into labor camps, many of them were executed. His most prominent opponent was a man named Nikolai Vavilov, and he died of starvation in prison.

Now, how did Lysenko do this if he wasn't a member of the Communist Party? He would denounce these people. He would say, "I'm trying to help the country, I'm doing good work for agriculture, and we've got these bourgeois biologists out there in their laboratories, they're working with fruit flies and things that have nothing to do with agriculture. They're fly-lovers and people-haters." That was one of his phrases. And he said, "They're actually wrecking our agriculture by deflecting us, diverting our attention from the main task at hand, which is to grow wheat and rye and other crops."

And what was his effect on agriculture?

The statistics of the time were terrible. We've tried to reconstruct it, and we don't think they had a good effect at all. And perhaps the best way of illustrating that is that none of the various nostrums and various methods that he promoted are used in Russia today.

And so people may have starved?

People did starve.

And the crux of his method was the belief that acquired characteristics can be inherited?

That's right. Winter wheat and spring wheat are two different varieties. You have to decide which one you're going to plant. He maintained he could convert one into the other just by changing the environmental conditions, and that he could do this in one or two generations. And why? Because acquired characteristics can be inherited. So he embraced what is actually a very old doctrine: The inheritance of acquired characteristics goes back to Hippocrates and Aristotle, and throughout history it's more often than not been supported.

The example that's most often given is the giraffe. Very briefly: Why do giraffes have long necks? There are two alternative explanations.

One, the one that follows the inheritance of acquired characteristics, which is usually called "Lamarckian," is that giraffes stretch their necks in order to reach the top leaves of trees and fruits and nice little juicy things that are up there. And the stretching during the lives of individual giraffes gets inherited, and giraffes get longer and longer necks.

Darwin said — I'm simplifying just a little bit — Darwin said, "Oh no, oh no, in any population of giraffes, there are some that have longer necks than others, just like in any population of humans. My brothers are taller than I am, you know, there's just natural variation. And those giraffes which have longer necks tend to survive more often than others. And so that gets inherited. And so whatever happens in the life of the individual giraffe doesn't have anything to do with it."

Well, Lysenko supported the first version, the Lamarckian version.

In fact he, with his denunciations and his political pull, he made that become the doctrine of the state, right?

The state embraced him. He embraced the state. It was an unholy alliance. They corrupted each other.

"There is actually a resurgence of Lysenkoism going on in Russia right now. People can't believe it in the West, but it's happening."

And how does the story end?

Lysenko was discredited in the Soviet Union in 1965-'66. There was a thorough investigation made of him in which people started asking these statistical questions and verification questions, and he just turned out to be a fraud.

So everybody thought that was the end of Lysenko. Well, it actually wasn't. There is actually a resurgence of Lysenkoism going on in Russia right now. People can't believe it in the West, but it's happening. And one of the reasons it's happening is that there is a new field in biology called epigenetics. When I say new field, I mean the last 20 to 25 years. And according to epigenetics, in some instances — not all instances, let's be careful — but in some instances, acquired characteristics can be inherited.

So this led in Russia to many old communists, who are still around, saying "Oh, Lysenko was right after all!" So there has been this kind of resurgence. Most academic biologists won't have anything to do with it. They know that it's wrong. But it has to be said that one or two established biologists in Russia have joined the Lysenko bandwagon.

Well, and how would you explain, what's the difference between legitimate epigenetics, which is happening all over the place, and Lysenkoism?

Here we come back to the [March For Science]. In my opinion, if you ask the question, "Who was Lysenko?" and you're permitted only a soundbite answer, the answer is not "a person who believed in the inheritance of acquired characteristics," although that's true. But the correct soundbite answer is, "a sloppy scientist who made claims that could not be substantiated, and who got political support for it, and perverted science through politics." That's where the march comes in.

But what's the Lysenkoism that's happening in Russia now that's not good science? So what you're saying is that there's sloppy science again?

Yes, not as sloppy as he was. Because the new supporters can point to good epigenetic research that shows that acquired characteristics can be inherited and then they say that makes Lysenko right. I think that's wrong, because Lysenko was much more than just a supporter of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. He was a fraud. He was a political tyrant. And the fact that epigenetics has now arisen doesn't mean that being a fraud and a political tyrant is correct.

And so far there seem to be very few instances where epigenetic effects have been documented...?

That's a developing science. There are biologists, very prominent ones, who would say what you just said, that epigenetics is marginal. It may be true that now and then, you can have some acquired characteristics inherited, but it's not the main road, and the main road is still molecular biology in which genetic information goes in only one direction, and all that sort of thing. There are biologists who say that — Mark Ptashny, a very prominent biologist, would say that and has said it in writing.

But there are other biologists, and we can find them at MIT and Harvard, who say that epigenetics is still insufficiently understood, and sufficiently misunderstood, that we can't yet say what its boundaries are. We don't know yet.

Because the trend in recent years has been to say that gene expression — mechanisms for turning genes on and off, in what we'd thought was "junk" DNA — is even more important than we realized?

Exactly. There are people out there, some with quite good credentials, people who do good science, who are saying, "You know, epigenetics may become the big thing, with genetics as we know it a subclass." Those are warring words, to say it the way I just said it. And the biological establishment as a whole would never accept that at this moment.

But there are a few people who are saying it.

But what we do know is that Lysenko was not converting winter wheat to spring wheat, or vice versa.

No. None of those claims can be replicated. And there have been real attempts to do it.

So what's the moral of the story?

Don't let politics pervert science. But at the same time, don't simplify.

Readers, thoughts? If you're in science, will you march? Why or why not?

Carey Goldberg Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.



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