[Marxism] Lysenko

MM marxmail00 at gmail.com
Sat Dec 14 21:41:15 MST 2019

> On Dec 14, 2019, at 10:23 PM, Ken Hiebert via Marxism <marxism at lists.csbs.utah.edu> wrote:
> Tonight I had occasion to pick up a copy of The Spark, Marxist Theory and Discussion, a publication of the Communist Party of Canada.
> It carries a review of Lysenko’s Ghost: Epigenetics and Russia.  The reviewer claims that advances in science have vindicated Lysenko.
> “…the author accidentally but fatally exposes West capitalist bioscience to be severely flawed.  With its dogmatic rejection of the possibility of other methods of inheritance it was Western bioscience that was shown to  be less open, narrow, non-dialectical, philosophically frozen and inferior in comparison to an imperfect but superior Soviet dialectical science.”
> Can someone who knows more about this than I do please comment.

LOREN GRAHAM, Lysenko’s Ghost: Epigenetics and Russia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016. Pp. 200. ISBN 978-0-674-08905-1. £18.95 (hardback). doi:10.1017/S0007087416000959

There is a remarkable moment, halfway through this book, when Graham happens to bump into Trofim Lysenko (1898–1976) – after numerous failed attempts to arrange a meeting – in a dining room at the House of Scientists. Lysenko is sitting and eating alone, having lost his position of dominance at the Institute of Genetics (where he dismissed Mendelian genetics and promoted a version of the inheritance of acquired characteristics that promised to make Russia a verdant land). Amazingly, we witness Lysenko brazenly laying down the victim card, but Graham has the better hand, citing Lysenko’s public criticism of his rivals, who often ended up in prison or dead. When Lysenko died five years after this encounter, few people would have predicted that he and his theories would be granted a curtain call. But, as Graham shows in this delightful little book – part history, part memoir – research in epigenetics has done so. In recent years, geneti- cists have shown that environmental changes can affect the expression of genes (without altering the genetic code) and that, crucially, in some cases and through an as-yet-unknown mechanism, the resulting phenotype can be inherited. Graham asks whether this research vindicates Lysenko, but he also offers his book as a history of the concept of ‘soft inheritance’.

Graham takes us from Hippocrates to Paul Kammerer via Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Ivan Pavlov in thirty-two pages. It is useful to have this synthesis, as it shows how common belief in the inheritance of acquired characteristics has been; indeed, it underlines Graham’s assertion that ‘the twentieth-century denial of the inheritance of acquired characteristics is likely to be con- sidered an odd detour in biological thought’ (p. 16). This is chiefly a history of ‘official’ science, and as such Graham perhaps overstates the extent to which the inheritance of acquired characteristics had been discredited in the West by the 1920s. As Piers Hale’s work suggests (to take one example), research scientists like J.B.S. Haldane and Julian Huxley were at least concerned that the non-specialist public (and perhaps other research scientists) would accept George Bernard Shaw’s Lamarckian-inspired biology. More research on this needs to be done, touching as it does on important issues of the relation between science and the public, and the construction of scientific understandings in the ‘popular’ realm. Graham maintains a similar division between ‘of- ficial’ science and the popular when citing Kammerer’s status as a ‘popularizer’ and a ‘speculator in a way that is alien to scientists seeking reliable evidence and rigorous analysis’ as a reason why scientists rejected his ideas (p. 39). This sort of speculation was fairly common amongst scientists in the early twentieth century, for example in the To-day and To-morrow series – small books, some of which were written by practising scientists (including Haldane, the biologist H.S. Jennings and the physicist James Jeans), which often contained speculative scientific daydreams. Indeed, Graham is particularly good at pointing out how politics shaped ideas about heredity (and vice versa).

The material on what is happening in Russia today is perhaps most fascinating, not least because many of the historical chapters on the USSR will be familiar to readers of Graham’s previous work. Supporters of Lysenko have emerged from the woodwork in recent years, claiming that research in epigenetics vindicates his beliefs. One of these is Iurii Ignat′evich Mukhin, a metallurgist who has written a book entitled Genetics: A Prostitute (2006). Graham convincingly shows that these apologists often have political motivations: many want to rehabilitate Stalin via his favourite agronomist. Having read all of Lysenko’s publications that appeared between 1923 and 1965, Graham is in an excellent position to debunk many of the myths and misunderstandings perpetu- ated by Lysenko’s defenders, for example that Lysenko thought his work could be applied to humans. But no matter how little these writers actually know about Lysenko and his theories, their propaganda is having bizarre, sometimes nasty, effects in Russia. Geneticists understandably do not wish to be associated with Lysenko, and there is therefore a dearth of epigenetic research in Russia. The famine that accompanied the blockade of Leningrad between 1941 and the beginning of 1944 could be revealing of the transgenerational epigenetic impact of extreme hunger and stress, but Lysenko is managing to suppress science from beyond the grave, and Russian scientists have not yet researched the event (p. 127). Beyond science, what Graham calls ‘the New Lysenkoism’ has been used by figures in the Russian Orthodox Church to try to discredit Darwin and genetics, and by those who see homosexuality as unnatural. Meanwhile, some critics of the Lysenko– Stalinists have conceded that characteristics can be inherited: how else to explain the Russian population’s continued political passivity, they say, but as a result of epigenetic markers having been inherited after years of subjugation?

Graham attempts, like those critics of resurgent Lysenkoists within Russia, to cut the connection between Lysenko, epigenetics and the concept of inheritance of acquired characteristics. He has sound historical reasons for doing so: many others, aside from Lysenko, have believed in soft in- heritance, and epigenetics would not exist had biology developed along Lysenko’s lines. Graham says that we should instead associate Lysenko’s name with abuse of power and poor research. In doing so, he tries to take the fear out of Lysenko’s ghost. This is, therefore, not only an immensely interesting book; it is also a highly relevant one.

University of Sussex

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