Lysenkoism Today and the Return of Ideological Warfare

This month, Current Biology published an article about the revival of Lysenkoism, a pseudo-scientific concept developed by Trofim Denisovich Lysenko (1898– 1976), the Ukrainian-born Soviet agronomist. His theory was that environmental changes to crop plants like wheat, rye, potatoes, and beets, are heritable through the organism’s cells, dismissing entirely the role of genetics.  Developed in the 1920s, Lysenko’s theories were fully adopted under Stalin and had disastrous consequences for the people of the Soviet Union when v_e_r_n_a_l_i_s a_t_i_o_n (the chilling of seeds to stimulate germination) combined with his complete rejection of modern genetics contributed to the disaster for the people of the Soviet Union who were to starve during the Great Famine of 1932-1933 and the 1946-1947 drought.

Although Stalin holds the brunt of the responsibility for these famines which killed at least 7 million people, Lysenko’s anti-science practices greatly contributed to these deaths. Lysenko, Stalin’s Director of Biology, headed the group of animal and plant breeders who rejected the work of botanist, Gregor Mendel, and American evolutionary biologist, Thomas Hunt Morgan. Instead, the Soviets of this era promoted the work of Ivan V. Michurin who espoused the ideas of the Lamarckian evolution which held, for instance, that giraffes stretched their necks to such extensive lengths that this trait was necessarily passed to their direct offspring. Of course, there was no scientific merit for this any more than vernalisation would effect future generations of seeds, but these ideas stuck largely because Joseph Stalin launched an aggressive campaign to effectively destroy any work in genetics.

Lysenkoism is a fitting example of how social and political idealism can be imposed on society and even the sciences—despite having absolutely no merit. Where Lysenkoism appealed to the masses who survived poverty made a revolutionary force happen in their environment, they wrongfully applied political changes of revolution to that of science.  Yet, today we are not light years away from Lysenkoism where there is now an initiative in the United States to allow for Creationism to be taught as a scientific theory in schools. There is also pressure from lobby groups, like Heartland, which have heavily invested in debunking climate change science to encourage climate denial be taught.  With a new wave of bills aimed at changing what school children are learning in the US and the fact that Creationism is still taught in faith schools in the UK despite their being publicly funded, scientific debates can be the most ferocious on the political front. Why is it that scientific disagreements turn into battlegrounds when, ostensibly, science is supposed to be clear cut?

The answer to this question dates back to when Nicolaus Copernicus published his manuscript, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (1543), which states that the earth orbits the sun. Although not formally banned, this work was removed from circulation marking the moment when religious belief and science have been perpetually at odds. Then in 1616, when Galileo was issued an injunction not to “hold, defend, or teach” heliocentrism, who would have imagined that just over 500 years later the same passionate urge to silence what is taught or practiced would have such ideological echoes to the present. With the waning of religious presence within western institutions and government over the past fifty years, religious belief has been largely replaced with the politics of selfhood where the neoliberal belief in the individual or in a specific ideology results today in ferocious debate.

We are living in an era of “post-truth” where not only media is proliferated with bogus news stories, but where there seems to be an upsurge of individuals who believe in pseudoscience: the anti-vaxxers, those who use homeopathy for cancer treatments, climate change deniers, those who live their lives guided by horoscopes, clean coal advocates, and myriad other anti-science beliefs. Yet, many of these science skeptics still believe in certain areas of science such that some are even making ecologically-sound purchases based on scientific reports they read informing them which green vehicle, insurance, or solar panel will be the most ethical.  And this is the contradiction: many of the very same people who are aware that science is vital to our collective growth, health and social adhesion, have one specific area where they flat-out disbelieve the science and that leans towards a neoliberal, individualist approach to the problem.  Similar to Lysenkoism, these beliefs do not emerge in a vacuum but have their roots in culture, political ideology, and even personality.

For instance, a very recent study spearheaded by the Annenberg Public Policy Center examines the Dunning-Kruger effect in the endorsement of anti-vaccine policy attitudes.  In psychology, the Dunning–Kruger effect is a “cognitive bias whereby people who are incompetent at something are unable to recognise their own incompetence.” So Motta and his team hypothesised that those with little understanding of autism would be the most likely to think they are the best informed on the subject. And the results were shocking: they found that 35% of the respondents thought they knew as much as more than doctors and 34% knew more than scientists on the causes of autism. Moreover, the research has linked this uninformed overconfidence to the endorsement of misinformation to include the “increased support for the role that non-experts (e.g., celebrities) play in the policymaking process.”

While this study only applies to one specific paradigm, it is important to keep in mind the reasons why people might be quick to attack science to underscore their belief system.  Anyone who has seen Donald Trump’s opinions on climate change as a conspiracy, might have a laugh at some of his claims, but it is important that we face myths with facts, to include being ready to expand our own views when new facts come to light. After all, we are living in an era where car choices and politics are directly related to each other such that we invest into our political ideals the scientific knowledge which has convinced us to buy a certain vehicle, and not another.  In essence, we need to stop cherry-picking our science. And this also means that we need to take Russia’s recently rekindled love affair with Lysenkoism seriously and understand how nationalism can breed a blind faith in tradition. With the growing love affair for epigenetics in Russia, we have a scientific cold war beginning where genetics are being dismissed in parallel with Putin’s renewed nationalist project.

While belief systems which challenge science will likely always exist, it is important that we can separate our individualist notions of the self that seem to be overwhelming our society today. As Lysenkoism is in full revival mode today due to anti-American sentiment in Russia, it is important that we learn from this desire to ally ourselves with an ideology simply to counter our enemy.  While much of science is in evolution, it is important that we value what it has to show us through evidence and not for what it represents politically or emotionally.

Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: julian.vigo@gmail.com. Read other articles by Julian.