Reviewed by William deJong-Lambert (Bronx Community College)
Published on H-Diplo (November, 2016)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach
Although the excitement of the space race and fret over the atomic bomb have traditionally been center stage in the historiography of Cold War science, biology steals the spotlight from the “rocket scientists” with the “Lysenko affair.” The story of how a Ukrainian peasant who did not attend school until he was a teenager managed to destabilize the science behind the singular biological advance which could have fed the masses of perpetually starving Russia, is compelling reading. The Lysenko affair began in the fateful summer of 1948, when at the end of a week-long show trial at the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Moscow, Ukrainian agronomist Trofim D. Lysenko announced he had received the support of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to launch a purge of genetics. What followed, in global terms, was possibly the most extensive fallout of executions, arrests, demotions, liquidated university departments, research institutes, and careers of any event in the history of science: a lost generation of geneticists behind the “iron curtain” of Europe, the Americas, Asia and beyond.
Loren Graham’s chapter on these events in his 1966 survey of Soviet science, Science, Philosophy in the Soviet Union (1987), initiated the first wave of literature to analyze the history and consequences of what happened next. Now Graham has written a sobering update for Lysenko scholars, Lysenko’s Ghost: Epigenetics and Russia, in which he reveals that what in the English-speaking world we refer to as “Lysenkoism”—which in Russian is used as a binary term to Лысенковщина—“Lysenkovischina”—has survived by adapting to the environment of its origin today.
In Russian, “Lysenkoism” is used solely to refer to the content of what Lysenko said— i.e., varieties of wheat can be transformed by subjecting them to colder temperatures, genes do not exist, etc. “Lysenkovschina” is the rest of the story—Party philosopher Isaac Prezent as Lysenko’s Karl Marx whisperer, and Joseph Stalin as the man who could make it happen. “Lysenkovschina” has been generalized to any context where power and influence are used to credit one scientific theory over another.
In English we use the single word “Lysenkoism” to describe both these issues—the theory and the politics surrounding it, and the problem then is that the content of what Lysenko said is not being separated from the fate of Nikolai Vavilov et al. The genius of the Russian distinction is that it enables a more nuanced analysis of what actually happened.
With that in mind, it should come as no surprise to observers of contemporary Russian politics that a class of nationalists writing their own history have seized upon Lysenko as a martyr of Soviet biology. This literature consists of a steady stream of books and articles online and off that turn the tables by presenting Lysenko’s most famous victim, Vavilov, as a wastrel squandering state support on fruitless expeditions around the globe. Meanwhile, the fact that Lysenko used the enthusiasm of the Bolshevik press to promote a series of failed agricultural schemes which positioned him to usurp Vavilov, is portrayed as the triumph of a hero whose ideas had been given due recognition. Lysenko’s downfall was the result of the mechanizations of his enemies. Lysenko was right.
There are many angles to this argument—but the most potent is that Lysenko should be credited as a precursor to epigenetics. Epigenetics is a field of study founded by British geneticist C. H. Waddington, which shows that genetic inheritance is in fact influenced by environmental factors. This is a very important point because it highlights the extent to which Lysenko’s reign of terror in Soviet biology provoked a counter-reaction against what many took to be centerpiece of his ideas—the inheritance of acquired characters, often referred to as “Lamarckism.” That there is a lot more to the legacy of French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck than this one idea is often ignored; nevertheless there certainly were anti-Lysenko Cold Warriors, Conway Zirkle at the University of Pennsylvania being probably the most conspicuous, whose ire towards Lysenko was fueled by their antipathy to Lamarck. Then there is also the fact that Waddington, unable to get a hearing for his ideas in the West, first published his studies in Agrobiologia—Lysenko’s mouthpiece journal.
Graham’s story of his lunch with Lysenko in the cafeteria of the Russian Academy Sciences, where the latter sat alone, shunned by his colleagues in the aftermath of his downfall, are among the riveting tales he recounts of his years following genetics and breeding in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia. In the concluding chapter Graham neatly dismisses Lysenko with a few sentences and that would more or less seem to be the end of it, if not for everything that appears in the pages before. Ideas regain currency through reinvention. What a previous generation discarded comes back to life once the dead are buried and their stories are retold. Lysenko’s Ghost is a compelling case study of how it happens.
. Conway Zirkle, Death of a Science in Russia (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1949), Evolution, Marxian Biology and the Social Scene (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1959), and “Some Biological Aspects of Individualism,” in Essays on Individuality, ed. Felix Morley (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1958).
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William deJong-Lambert. Review of Graham, Loren R., Lysenko's Ghost: Epigenetics and Russia.
H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews.
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