[Marxism] re-examining lysenko (book review)

Les Schaffer schaffer at optonline.net
Thu Aug 25 13:22:50 MDT 2005

Nature 436, 1089-1090 (25 August 2005)

Growth factors

Garland E. Allen [1]

Putting the ideas of Russian agronomist Trofim Lysenko into political
and scientific context.
BOOK REVIEWED - The Lysenko Effect: The Politics of Science

by Nils Roll-Hansen

Humanity Books: 2005. 335 pp. $25

The theories on plant breeding, hybridization and selection propounded
by Trofim D. Lysenko from the mid-1920s became a cause célèbre in
international scientific circles. In 1948, his views were enshrined as
the official basis for the Soviet Union's agricultural policy. As the
Cold War was reaching its height, the West held up the Lysenko case as a
perversion of the liberal view of science as an autonomous enterprise
into a 'socialist' view of science controlled by authoritarian and
repressive political figures.

A cornerstone of Lysenko's plant-breeding programme was
'neo-lamarckism', the idea that changes to an organism during its
lifetime can be transmitted to its offspring. This notion was highly
controversial both inside and outside the Soviet Union, and by the
mid-1930s it had been rejected by most Western biologists. How a whole
agricultural programme came to be based on theories rejected by the rest
of the world's biologists is a question that has intrigued historians
ever since.

The problem with the traditional historiography of the Lysenko case is
the view that Lysenko's science was bogus quackery from the beginning;
that it was imposed from the top by Stalinist terror; and that
biologists and agronomists in the Soviet Union were 'eliminated' if they
voiced any criticism.

In The Lysenko Effect, Nils Roll-Hansen does not apologize for some of
the worst transgressions of 'lysenkoism', but after a close reading of
much of the published primary literature, as well as the extensive use
of newly opened archives, he is able to paint a much more complex
picture. He has achieved what no previous author has attempted: to take
seriously the science propounded by Lysenko, and to understand how the
debates within Soviet scientific and agricultural circles were framed in
the light of the prevailing biological theory. The result is a
refreshing look at a familiar but traditionally misunderstood episode in
the history of science that has relevance for discussions about the
organization of science, science policy and the relationship between
scientific theory and technological practice today.

According to Roll-Hansen, to understand Lysenko's rise to prominence it
is necessary to separate his work in plant physiology from his later
anti-mendelian and neo-lamarckian theories. Roll-Hansen provides a
detailed examination of Lysenko's background and early research, set in
the context of the history of work in Russian plant physiology. The
factors stimulating germination and early flowering in a wide variety of
crop species had attracted considerable research interest in Russia and
Germany in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One of the
key debates that had emerged by the 1920s was between proponents of day
length (photoperiodism) and exposure to cold temperature (vernalization)
as the major factors stimulating early germination and, more
importantly, flowering.

The 1917 Bolshevik revolution and subsequent civil war disrupted
agriculture, and by 1921, food shortages were acute. The critical
problem for Soviet agriculture was to increase yield, both by learning
how to manipulate environmental conditions and by developing genetic
strains that could flower early and thus produce two crops in a season.
Cold treatment had long been known to affect flowering time, but it was
not clear precisely how best to use it; moreover, what worked for one
strain in one locality did not necessarily work elsewhere. For a country
where much of the arable land lies above the latitude of Minnesota,
these are not inconsequential issues. It was in the context of this
debate in the early 1920s that the young Lysenko made his scientific debut.

Despite coming from a peasant background and being largely
self-educated, Lysenko graduated from the Kiev Agricultural Institute in
1925. His early papers on plant physiology, particularly vernalization,
were not ground-breaking, but they attracted the attention of Nikolai
Vavilov, the leading figure in Russian plant biology and agriculture at
the time. Vavilov became a staunch supporter of Lysenko's work until the
late 1930s. Lysenko eventually linked vernalization and selection to
create genetically stable lines of early flowering varieties, and to
bring flowering times into synchrony so he could make hybrids between
strains from different areas with different flowering times. It was when
he sought to convert one strain into another by 'education' — that is,
by repeated exposure to low temperatures so that the plant's acquired
adaptation to cold eventually becomes inherited — that his theories ran
counter to established biological opinion. However, by recognizing
Lysenko's prominence in plant physiology, Roll-Hansen shows why his
genetic theories were not so easily dismissed.

The book is strongest in its analysis of the events and trends leading
up to the Second World War; the post-war period and the final
enshrinement of lysenkoism in 1948 are treated more sketchily.
Roll-Hansen gives a prominent place to Marxist philosophy of science in
framing debates about agricultural policy and practice. He shows
convincingly that Marxist philosophy was not mere window-dressing for
many biologists in the Soviet Union at the time, but represented a
distinct world-view that many scientists tried to put into practice in
their work. In this sense, Roll-Hansen follows and extends the earlier
work of Loren Graham, who was one of the first Western historians to
seriously explore the role of dialectical materialism in Soviet science.
Ironically, it was Lysenko's failure to apply the dialectical method
rigorously to his own work that ultimately led to his failure to
revolutionize Soviet agriculture.

Throughout the discussion, Roll-Hansen emphasizes both the need to
increase production on the farms and the importance, in Marxist terms,
of the unity of theory and practice. Soviet agronomists often complained
that academic scientists were "obsessed with fruitflies" and had little
interest in the crops needed for the rapid improvement of agriculture,
and even less interest in peasant farming practices. Unlike many
researchers of the time, Lysenko portrayed himself as a practitioner, a
man of the people who sought to use the experience of the masses to
improve both his theories and his practical breeding programmes.

Roll-Hansen also emphasizes the controversies that existed within Soviet
biology and agriculture about mendelian theory. As he points out, none
of these issues was peculiar to Soviet biology. Many of Lysenko's ideas
about phenotypic plasticity, the physiological aspects of development,
and the over-simplicity of the atomistic mendelian gene were remarkably
similar to those of Richard Goldschmidt in Germany, Ross Harrison in the
United States and Albert Dalcq in Belgium. Similarly, neo-lamarckism
retained a strong following in this period in France and Germany. Even
in the United States, where mendelian theory had been accepted early on,
its application to agriculture had barely begun to yield results.

Particularly problematic for Soviet geneticists was the association of
mendelian theory in the West with opposition to the darwinian theory of
natural selection and with eugenics. Darwinism, with its emphasis on
variation and selection, had received strong support in Russia since the
nineteenth century. Mendelian genetics, which emphasized the stability
of the gene, and Wilhelm Johannsen's pure-line experiments, which showed
the limits of selection, were seen as contradictions to Darwin that
undermined its application to agriculture. The fact that many supporters
of classical genetics had also supported eugenics did not place
mendelian theory in a particularly favourable light: it was held up as
an example of reductionistic, atomistic, bourgeois science.

In his concluding chapters, Roll-Hansen describes the debate about
Lysenko's programmes throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Questions were
raised about how valid his practical results really were (he was accused
of over-optimistic reporting, if not the outright falsification of field
results), about the demonstrability of lamarckian inheritance, and about
his frequent refusal to deal with criticism. In the years immediately
after the war, various groups in the scientific community severely
criticized Lysenko's work and sought to have his policies marginalized.
It was only the heightened tensions of the Cold War and Stalin's
personal intervention that turned the tide. Lysenko's theories and
policies were finally given official sanction at a 1948 meeting of the
Lenin Academy of Agricultural Science. By this time many of his
opponents had been silenced through arrests or imprisonment.

The one deficit in this otherwise fine book is the lack of integration
between the scientific and political backgrounds. Earlier treatments of
the Lysenko episode emphasized the political to the virtual exclusion of
the scientific, but Roll-Hansen goes in the opposite direction. His
choice of focus adds important new information and analysis, but it is
not clear, for example, in the few pages devoted to events leading up to
the 1948 congress, what role Stalin and the Central Committee of the
Communist Party actually played, or how the tide turned so rapidly in
favour of Lysenko.

Roll-Hansen has made a major contribution to our understanding of the
Lysenko case. His book is a significant addition to the literature on
Russian biology, genetics and agriculture.

1. Garland E. Allen is in the Department of Biology, Washington
University, St. Louis, Missouri 63130, USA.

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