Lysenkoism (Russian: Лысе́нковщина, tr. Lysenkovshchina) was a political campaign conducted by Trofim Lysenko, his followers and Soviet authorities against genetics and science-based agriculture. Lysenko served as the director of the Soviet Union's Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences. Lysenkoism began in the late 1920s and formally ended in 1964.
The pseudo-scientific ideas of Lysenkoism assumed the heritability of acquired characteristics (Lamarckism). Lysenko's theory rejected Mendelian inheritance and the concept of the "gene"; it departed from Darwinian evolutionary theory by rejecting natural selection. Proponents falsely claimed to have discovered, among many other things, that rye could transform into wheat and wheat into barley, that weeds could spontaneously transmute into food grains, and that "natural cooperation" was observed in nature as opposed to "natural selection". Lysenkoism promised extraordinary advances in breeding and in agriculture that never came about.
Joseph Stalin supported the campaign. More than 3,000 mainstream biologists were fired or even sent to prison, and numerous scientists were executed as part of a campaign instigated by Lysenko to suppress his scientific opponents. The president of the Agriculture Academy, Nikolai Vavilov, was sent to prison and died there, while Soviet genetics research was effectively destroyed until the death of Stalin in 1953. Research and teaching in the fields of neurophysiology, cell biology, and many other biological disciplines was also negatively affected or banned.
Mendelian genetics, the science of heredity, developed into an experimentally-based field of biology at the start of the 20th century through the work of August Weismann, Thomas Hunt Morgan, and others, building on the rediscovered work of Gregor Mendel. They showed that the characteristics of an organism were carried by inherited genes, which were located on chromosomes in each cell's nucleus. These could be affected by random changes, mutations, and could be shuffled and recombined during sexual reproduction, but were otherwise passed on unchanged from parent to offspring. Beneficial changes could spread through a population by natural selection or, in agriculture, by plant breeding. In contrast, Lamarckism proposes that an organism can somehow pass on characteristics that it has acquired during its lifetime to its offspring, implying that change in the body can affect the genetic material in the germ line.
Soviet agriculture around 1930 was in a massive crisis due to the forced collectivisation of farms, and the extermination of the kulak peasant farmers. The resulting famine in 1932-33 provoked the people and the government alike to search for any possible solution to the critical lack of food.
In the Soviet Union
In 1928, Trofim Lysenko, a previously unknown agronomist, claimed to have developed agricultural techniques, unrelated to conventional plant breeding, which could radically increase crop yields. He made a series of unsubstantiated claims for techniques supposedly created in the Soviet Union that allegedly caused major increases in crop yields. These included vernalization, species transformation, intergeneric hybridization, inheritance of acquired characteristics, vegetative hybridization, and the use of "mentor" grafts. In his view, these proved that the Western genetics was wrong. Instead, most importantly, came the Lamarckian implication that acquired characteristics of an organism could be inherited by that organism's descendants.
1. Lysenko claimed that vernalization could triple or quadruple crop yield by exposing wheat seed to high humidity and low temperature. While cold and moisture exposure are a normal part of the life cycle of autumn-seeded winter cereals, the vernalization technique claimed to increase yields by increasing the intensity of exposure, in some cases planting soaked seeds directly into the snow cover of frozen fields. In reality, the technique was neither new nor Soviet (it was discovered at Michigan State College in 1854, and had been extensively studied in the early 20th century), nor did it produce anything like the yields he promised. He asserted that it showed that the environment could "shatter" a plant's heredity.
2. He claimed that he could transform one species, Triticum durum (pasta wheat, a spring wheat) into another, Triticum vulgare (bread wheat, an autumn wheat), by 2-4 years of autumn planting. Since T. durum is tetraploid with 28 chromosomes (4 sets of 7), and T. vulgare is hexaploid with 42 chromosomes (6 sets), Western geneticists at that time already knew this was impossible.
3. Another Lysenkoist, V. N. Yakolev, claimed that the Soviet Union had at the Michurin Nurseries pioneered intergeneric fruit tree hybrids, including apple-pear, plum-peach, cherry-plum, and redcurrant-blackcurrant. However, noted Charles Leone in 1952, some such hybrids had been in use for many years; the plum-peach hybrid had been described by the geneticist W. Laxton in 1906. Others of the hybrids had been attempted repeatedly in the West without success, Leone observed, so horticulturalists would have expected full details of which varieties had been crossed, and what the hybrid flowers and fruits were like.
4. Lysenko claimed that fully-Lamarckian inheritance of acquired characteristics occurred in plants, stating in the 1948 book Soviet Biology that "altered sections of the body of parent organisms always possess an altered heredity", whether these were twigs, buds, or the "eyes" of potato tubers. Leone noted that these were in fact somatic mutations, citing the Russian geneticist T. Asseyeva's 1927 work on bud mutations in the potato.
5. Lysenko claimed that when a tree is grafted, the scion permanently changes the heritable characteristics of the stock. This would constitute vegetative hybridization. Leone noted that this phenomenon had never been observed despite detailed study (he cites Karl Sax 1949 and M. B. Crane 1949) of many interspecific grafts (such as peach on cherry) in the Western world.
6. Lysenko asserted that I. V. Michurin's "mentor" grafts showed that "external" (environmental) factors could improve varieties of fruit trees. Michurin's idea was to graft a twig of an old variety on to a young tree which had grown and branched for six or seven years but had not started fruiting. Michurin wrote that such trees would not be expected to fruit "until their twentieth year", but his grafted trees fruited "within two years". Leone commented on this that Michurin's statements "are curious", noting that the slowest commonly-grown trees to fruit are pears, where half the trees are in fruit at age nine; some cherries start to fruit at age four and all of them are in fruit by age eight. He suggested that Michurin's observations of very slow fruiting reflected "the primitive state" of agriculture left over from Tsarist (pre-Soviet) Russia.
Isaak Izrailevich Prezent brought Lysenko to public attention, using Soviet propaganda to portray him as a genius who had developed a new, revolutionary agricultural technique. Lysenko's resulting popularity gave him a platform to denounce theoretical genetics and to promote his own agricultural practices. He was, in turn, supported by the Soviet propaganda machine, which overstated his successes, cited faked experimental results, and omitted mention of his failures.
Lysenko's political success was mostly due to his appeal to the Communist Party and Soviet ideology. Following the disastrous collectivization efforts of the late 1920s, Lysenko's "new" methods were seen by Soviet officials as paving the way to an "agricultural revolution." Lysenko himself was from a peasant family, and was an enthusiastic advocate of Leninism. During a period which saw a series of man-made agricultural disasters, he was also very quick to respond to problems, although not with real solutions. Whenever the Party announced plans to plant a new crop or cultivate a new area, Lysenko had immediate practical-sounding suggestions on how to proceed.
So quickly did he develop his prescriptions—from the cold treatment of wheat grains, to the plucking of leaves from cotton plants, to the cluster planting of trees, to unusual fertilizer mixes—that academic biologists did not have time to demonstrate that one technique was valueless or harmful before a new one was adopted. The Party-controlled newspapers applauded Lysenko's "practical" efforts and questioned the motives of his critics. Lysenko's "revolution in agriculture" had a powerful propaganda advantage over the academics, who urged the patience and observation required for science.
Lysenko was admitted into the hierarchy of the Communist Party, and was put in charge of agricultural affairs. He used his position to denounce biologists as "fly-lovers and people haters", and to decry the "wreckers" in biology, who he claimed were trying to disable the Soviet economy and cause it to fail. Furthermore, he denied the distinction between theoretical and applied biology. Lysenko presented himself as a follower of Ivan Vladimirovich Michurin, a well-known and well-liked Soviet horticulturist, but unlike Michurin, he advocated a form of Lamarckism, insisting on using only hybridization and grafting, as non-genetic techniques.
Support from Joseph Stalin gave Lysenko even more momentum and popularity. In 1935, Lysenko compared his opponents in biology to the peasants who still resisted the Soviet government's collectivization strategy, saying that by opposing his theories the traditional geneticists were setting themselves against Marxism. Stalin was in the audience when this speech was made, and he was the first one to stand and applaud, calling out "Bravo, Comrade Lysenko. Bravo." This event emboldened Lysenko and gave him and his ally Prezent free rein to slander the geneticists who still spoke out against him. Many of Lysenkoism's opponents, such as his former mentor Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov, were imprisoned or even executed because of Lysenko's and Prezent's denunciations.
On August 7, 1948, the V.I. Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences announced that from that point on Lysenkoism would be taught as "the only correct theory". Soviet scientists were forced to denounce any work that contradicted Lysenko. Criticism of Lysenko was denounced as "bourgeois" or "fascist", and analogous "non-bourgeois" theories also flourished in other fields such as linguistics and art in the Soviet academy at this time. Perhaps the only opponents of Lysenkoism during Stalin's lifetime to escape liquidation were from the small community of Soviet nuclear physicists: as Tony Judt has observed, "It is significant that Stalin left his nuclear physicists alone and never presumed to second guess their calculations. Stalin may well have been mad but he was not stupid."
From 1934 to 1940, under Lysenko's admonitions and with Stalin's approval, many geneticists were executed (including Isaak Agol, Solomon Levit, Grigorii Levitskii, Georgii Karpechenko and Georgii Nadson) or sent to labor camps. The famous Soviet geneticist and president of the Agriculture Academy, Nikolai Vavilov, was arrested in 1940 and died in prison in 1943.
In 1936, the American geneticist Hermann Joseph Muller, who had moved to the Leningrad Institute of Genetics with his Drosophila fruit flies, was criticized as a bourgeois, capitalist, imperialist, and promoter of fascism, so he left the USSR, returning to America via Republican Spain. In 1948, genetics was officially declared "a bourgeois pseudoscience"; the remaining geneticists were fired from their jobs (some were also arrested), and genetics research was discontinued.
Over 3,000 biologists were imprisoned, fired, or executed for attempting to oppose Lysenkoism and genetics research was effectively destroyed until the death of Stalin in 1953. Due to Lysenkoism, crop yields in the USSR actually declined.
At the end of 1952, the situation started changing, possibly due to Stalin taking offense at Lysenko's growing influence. Articles criticizing Lysenkoism were published in newspapers. However, the process of return to regular genetics slowed down in Nikita Khrushchev's times, due to Lysenko showing him the supposed successes of an experimental agricultural complex. It once again became forbidden to criticize Lysenkoism, though it was now possible to express different views, and all geneticists were released or rehabilitated posthumously. The ban was finally waived in the mid-1960s.
In other countries
Many other countries of the Eastern Bloc accepted Lysenkoism as the official "new biology" as well; however the acceptance of Lysenkoism was not uniform in communist countries. In Poland, all geneticists except for Wacław Gajewski followed Lysenkoism. Even though Gajewski was not allowed contact with students, he was allowed to continue his scientific work at the Warsaw botanical garden. Lysenkoism was then rapidly rejected starting from 1956 and modern genetics research departments were formed, including the first department of genetics headed by Wacław Gajewski, which was started at the University of Warsaw in 1958.
Czechoslovakia adopted Lysenkoism in 1949. Jaroslav Kříženecký (1896–1964) was one of the prominent Czechoslovak geneticists opposing Lysenkoism, and when he criticized Lysenkoism in his lectures, he was dismissed from the Agricultural University in 1949 for "serving the established capitalistic system, considering himself superior to the working class, and being hostile to the democratic order of the people", and imprisoned in 1958. In 1963, he was appointed head of the newly established Gregor Mendel department in the Moravian Museum in Brno, the city in which Gregor Mendel pursued his early experiments on inheritance and formulated the laws of Mendelian inheritance.
In the German Democratic Republic, although Lysenkoism was taught at some of the universities, it had very little impact on science due to the actions of a few scientists (for example, the geneticist and fierce critic of Lysenkoism, Hans Stubbe) and an open border to West Berlin research institutions. Nonetheless, Lysenkoist theories were found in schoolbooks until the dismissal of Nikita Khrushchev in 1964.
Lysenkoism dominated Chinese science from 1949 until 1956, particularly during the Great Leap Forward, when, during a genetics symposium opponents of Lysenkoism were permitted to freely criticize it and argue for Mendelian genetics. In the proceedings from the symposium, Tan Jiazhen is quoted as saying "Since [the] USSR started to criticize Lysenko, we have dared to criticize him too". For a while, both schools were permitted to coexist, although the influence of the Lysenkoists remained large for several years.
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