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Trofim Lysenko

[li-seng-koh; Russ. li-syen-kuh]
Trofim Denisovich Lysenko (Трофи́м Дени́сович Лысе́нко) (September 29, 1898November 20, 1976) was an agronomist who was director of Soviet biology under Joseph Stalin. Lysenko rejected Mendelian genetics in favor of the hybridization theories of Russian horticulturist Ivan Vladimirovich Michurin, and adopted them into a powerful political scientific movement termed Lysenkoism. His unorthodox experimental research in improved crop yields earned the support of Soviet leadership, especially following the famine and loss of productivity resulting from forced collectivization in several regions of the Soviet Union in the early 1930s. In 1940 he became director of the Institute of Genetics within the USSR's Academy of Sciences, and Lysenko's anti-Mendelian doctrines were further secured in Soviet science and education by the exercise of political influence and power. Scientific dissent from Lysenko's theories of environmentally acquired inheritance was formally outlawed in 1948, and for the next several years opponents were purged from held positions, and many imprisoned. Lysenko's work was officially discredited in the Soviet Union in 1964, leading to a renewed emphasis there to re-institute Mendelian genetics and orthodox science.

Though Lysenko remained at his post in the Institute of Genetics until 1965, his influence on Soviet agricultural practice declined by the 1950s. The Soviet Union quietly abandoned Lysenko's agricultural practices in favor of modern agricultural practices after the crop yields he promised failed to materialize. Today much of Lysenko's agricultural experimentation and research is largely viewed as fraudulent.

Early rise

Lysenko, the son of Denis and Oksana Lysenko, came from a peasant family in Ukraine and attended the Kiev Agricultural Institute. In 1927, at 29 years of age and working at an agricultural experiment station in Azerbaijan, he was credited by the Soviet newspaper Pravda with having discovered a method to fertilize fields without using fertilizers or minerals, and with having proved that a winter crop of peas could be grown in Azerbaijan, "turning the barren fields of the Transcaucasus green in winter, so that cattle will not perish from poor feeding, and the peasant Turk will live through the winter without trembling for tomorrow." In succeeding years, however, further attempts to grow the peas were unsuccessful.

Similar Soviet media reports heralding Lysenko's further discoveries in agriculture continued from 1927 until 1964; reports of amazing (and seemingly impossible) successes, each one replaced with new success claims as earlier ones failed. Few of the successes attributed to Lysenko could be duplicated. Nevertheless, with the media's help, Lysenko enjoyed the popular image of the "barefoot scientist"—the embodiment of the mythic Soviet peasant genius.

By the late 1920s, the Soviet political bosses had given their support to Lysenko. This support was a consequence, in part, of policies put in place by Communist party personnel to rapidly promote members of the proletariat into leadership positions in agriculture, science and industry. Party officials were looking for promising candidates with backgrounds similar to Lysenko's: born of a peasant family, without formal academic training or affiliations to the academic community.

Lysenko in particular impressed political officials further with his success in motivating peasants to return to farming. The Soviet's Collectivist reforms forced the confiscation of agricultural landholdings from the peasant farmers and heavily damaged the country's overall food production, and the dispossessed peasant farmers posed new problems for the regime. Many had abandoned the farms altogether; many more waged resistance to collectivization by poor work quality and pilfering. The dislocated and disenchanted peasant farmers were a major political concern to Soviet Leadership. Lysenko emerged during this period inaugurating radically new agricultural methods, and also promising that the new methods provided wider opportunities for year round work in agriculture. Lysenko proved himself very useful to Soviet leadership by reengaging peasants to return to work, helping to secure from them a personal stake in the overall success of the Soviet revolutionary experiment.

Lysenko's theories were grounded in Lamarckism. His work was primarily devoted to developing new techniques and practices in agriculture. But he also contributed a new theoretical framework which would become the foundation to all Soviet agriculture: a discipline called agrobiology that is a fusion of plant physiology, cytology, genetics and evolutionary theory. Central to Lysenko's tenets was the concept of the inheritability of acquired characteristics. In 1932 Lysenko was given his own journal, The Bulletin of Vernalization, and it became the main outlet for touting emerging developments of Lysenkoist research.

One of the most celebrated of the earliest agricultural applications developed by Lysenko was a process of increasing the success of wheat crops by soaking the grain and storing the wet seed in snow to refrigerate over the winter ("vernalization"). Though his work was scientifically unsound on a number of levels, Lysenko's claims delighted Soviet journalists and agricultural officials, who were impressed by its promise to minimize the resources spent in theoretical scientific laboratory work. The Soviet political leadership had come to view orthodox science as offering empty promises, as unproductive in meeting the challenges and needs of the Communist state. Lysenko was viewed as someone who could deliver practical methods more rapidly, and with superior results.

Lysenko himself spent much time denouncing academic scientists and geneticists, claiming that their isolated laboratory work was not helping the Soviet people. By 1929 Lysenko's skeptics were politically censured, accused of offering only criticisms, and for failing to prescribe any new solutions themselves. In December 1929, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin gave a famous speech praising "practice" above "theory", elevating the political bosses above the scientists and technical specialists. Though for a period the Soviet government under Stalin continued its support of agricultural scientists, after 1935 the balance of power abruptly swung towards Lysenko and his followers.

Lysenko was put in charge of the Academy of Agricultural Sciences of the Soviet Union and made responsible for ending the propagation of "harmful" ideas among Soviet scientists. Lysenko served this purpose by causing the expulsion, imprisonment, and death of hundreds of scientists and eliminating all study and research involving Mendelian genetics throughout the Soviet Union. This period is known as Lysenkoism. He bears particular responsibility for the persecution of his predecessor and rival, prominent Soviet biologist Nikolai Vavilov, which ended in 1943 with the imprisoned Vavilov's death by starvation.

After Stalin

Following Stalin's death in 1953, Lysenko retained his position, with the support of the new leader Nikita Khrushchev. However, mainstream scientists re-emerged, and found new willingness within Soviet government leadership to tolerate criticism of Lysenko, the first opportunity since the late 1920s. In 1962 three of the most prominent Soviet physicists, Yakov Borisovich Zel'dovich, Vitaly Ginzburg, and Pyotr Kapitsa, presented a case against Lysenko, proclaiming his work as false science. They also denounced Lysenko's application of political power to silence opposition and eliminate his opponents within the scientific community. These denunciations occurred during a period of structural upheaval in Soviet government, during which the major institutions were to be purged of the strictly ideological and political machinations which had controlled the work of the Soviet Union's scientific community for several decades under Stalin.

In 1964, physicist Andrei Sakharov spoke out against Lysenko in the General Assembly of the Academy of Sciences:

He is responsible for the shameful backwardness of Soviet biology and of genetics in particular, for the dissemination of pseudo-scientific views, for adventurism, for the degradation of learning, and for the defamation, firing, arrest, even death, of many genuine scientists.
The Soviet press was soon filled with anti-Lysenkoite articles and appeals for the restoration of scientific methods to all fields of biology and agricultural science. Lysenko was removed from his post as director of the Institute of Genetics at the Academy of Sciences and restricted to an experimental farm in Moscow's Lenin Hills (the Institute itself was soon dissolved). After Khrushchev's dismissal in 1964, the president of the Academy of Sciences declared that Lysenko's immunity to criticism had officially ended. An expert commission was sent to investigate records kept at Lysenko's experimental farm. A few months later, a devastating critique of Lysenko was made public. As a result, Lysenko was immediately disgraced in the Soviet Union, although his work continued to have impact in China for many years after.

Lysenko died in 1976.

See also

Notes

References

  • Graham, Loren, Science in Russia and the Soviet Union, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
  • Graham, Loren, What Have We Learned About Science and Technology from the Russian Experience?, (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1998).
  • Joravsky, David, The Lysenko Affair, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970).
  • Lecourt, Dominique, Proletarian Science ? : The Case of Lysenko, (London: NLB ; Atlantic Highlands, N.J. : Humanities Press, 1977). (A Marxist, though anti-Stalinist, history of Lysenkoism)
  • Lysenko, Trofim, The Science of Biology Today, (New York: International Publishers, 1948). Text of an address "evoked by the international discussion of the subject of inheritance of acquired characteristics," according to an introductory note. Delivered before a session of a meeting of the V.I. Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences on July 31, 1948, when Lysenko, its president, was at the apex of his power. [For an online version of the text see the Lysenko "Report" provided in the External Links section, below.]
  • Medvedev, Zhores, The Rise and Fall of T.D. Lysenko, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969)
  • Soyfer, Valery N., Lysenko and the Tragedy of Soviet Science, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1994.

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