Why dogma into science won't go

The Lysenko Effect
July 29, 2005

The state's role in science is to provide cash, then to leave researchers alone to uncover the truth. And just look what happens when this rule is broken. For 25 years in the mid-20th century, Soviet biology was hamstrung by official adherence to the theories of Trofim Lysenko, who rejected classical genetics and preached crop improvement through a Lamarckian breeding programme. The crops, unaware of the ideological imperative to behave as prescribed, failed to improve.

The Lysenko affair ranks second only to Galileo's condemnation by the Inquisition in the folk history of science. The moral of both stories is that extra-scientific authority has no place in scientific debate. That conclusion remains beyond reproach, but closer examination shows both episodes to be more complex and more interesting than superficial accounts admit. There are many reasons why Galileo failed to reach an accommodation with the Catholic Church. And, as Nils Roll-Hansen shows, there was more to Lysenko than a man who won Stalin's backing for a wrong-headed theory.

Roll-Hansen's book offers a nuanced, post-Cold War account of Lysenko's rise that draws on newly accessible archives and on popular journals.

Lysenko was indeed an opportunist who rose to power under the shadow of a ruthless dictatorship. As early as 19, a visitor to his base in Azerbaijan found him an "experimenter who was fearless and undoubtedly talented, but also an uneducated and extremely egotistical person, deeming himself to be a new Messiah of biological science".

These personal weaknesses, though, were outweighed by the promise of his work on "vernalisation", the treatment of seeds to induce winter wheat to germinate in spring.

These experiments, as Roll-Hansen shows, were not out of line with what was then known of plant physiology and development, and they fit in with much other agricultural research. It was only later that Lysenko set his face against the mainstream of biological theory. By then, he had attracted political support from a ruling party that was committed to a progressive view of science, but combined this with an increasingly restricted view of what counted as progressive.

Lysenko scored heavily for being of peasant stock, for apparently uniting theory and practice and for promising results in an area where they were sorely needed. He also latched on to aspects of Mendelism many biologists were uncomfortable with, and not only in the Soviet Union. The inviolable gene, he maintained, denied the power of selection, so it was unDarwinian.

Worse, he thought it implied that the route to social improvement lay through eugenics. These and other factors kept Lysenko's star in the ascendant even though the evidence for his claims of practical benefit grew ever more flimsy.

Roll-Hansen suggests that his impressively researched and subtle account of Lysenkoism has contemporary relevance in showing "how bad science grew out of good under the influence of a particular science policy". Certainly, the whole episode is still troubling. But perhaps it also shows that it takes rather special conditions for attempts at planning science to turn into the policing of scientific thought.

Jon Turney is senior visiting fellow in the department of science and technology studies, University College London.

The Lysenko Effect: The Politics of Science

Author - Nils Roll-Hansen
Publisher - Humanity Books
Pages - 335
Price - £16.50
ISBN - 1 59102 262 2

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