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Genetic Lysenkoism: Insulting history by repeating its mistakes from the opposite direction.

June 16, 2010

Genetic Lysenkoism: Insulting history by repeating its mistakes from the opposite direction.

 

Not that history can be insulted in any way but I think that the title does convey a certain irony in the current war of ideologies.

The quickest way to become a popular scientist with any regime is to promote a theory that supports its ideology and gives comfort to all that they stand for. In the case of Hitler vast sums of money was spent on research to prove that Tibetans were a superior people. The fact that the swastika is used extensively across Asia and the Arians migrated further than India added to the hope that once again science could be flung in the face of critics as the ultimate trump card. Like all forms of scientific racism the mantra was that, ‘It may seem cruel but if we support science we must accept it.’ It is easy to point at Hitler and poke fun at his collection of scientists who fudged any results to match the political agenda but they were not the only ones.

 

Tromif Lysenko was the most celebrated scientist in the Stalinist era. He was also opposed to any theory that disagreed with his views on Nurture verses Nature. Lysenko rejected Mendel’s genetic science in favour of conditional science. No other scientist was so emphatic that genetics did not exist than Lysenko and no other scientist was more wrong in that conclusion. Despite the fact that newer test results yielded more reliable data than Mendel’s; despite the fact that microscopes were improving all the time; despite the active selective breeding of animals Lysenko was convinced it was all wrong. He put everything down to conditioning and environment. As such he insisted that his theories echoed Marxism in that way it became attractive to Stalin.

 

The theory as espoused by Lysenko reflected the nurture side of Marxism in such a way that he was validating Marxism as science. He argued that under the correct condition any plant could be made better regardless of what genes they had. Plants could be educated to produce more, be bigger and in some cases Lysenkoism argued that you could educate an apple to become an orange.

 

Had Lysenko been born in the West he may have been laughed at but under a Marxist state he telling them precisely what they wanted to hear: Marxism was being validated by science and you cannot argue with science. However he was not just some harmless crank, who mistook ideology for science, as so many have in the past, there was dark side to his insistence. To disagree with Lysenko was to disagree with Karl Marx, Lenin and ultimately Stalin. With his new influence he began a persecution of scientists that dwarfs anything that had ever happened before then. Berthold Brecht wrote his famous play about Galileo and infused it with his own Marxist spin at the same time that scientists were being marched off to the Gulags for believing in genetic science. Galileo, though tragic, was but an ant in comparison to the damage that the Rational Scientific Marxist state was doing to scientific knowledge. Ultimately crops failed and people starved and no amount of Lysenkoism was able to produce the food that he had promised. Instead the purges of Stalin wiped away all criticism of the state where even science had to be a slave to Marxism.

 

A review from Who’s Who in Russia and the Former USSR by Terra Moskva, 1994 is deservedly scathing of Lysenko.

“Insisting that this theory corresponded to Marxism, he successfully attracted official support of the Party to his side. He was named president of the Academy of Agricultural Sciences in 1938. He began a persecution of those colleagues who did not agree with his theories, notably the founder of the Academy, Vavilove (who was deprived of work, arrested, and died in the Gulag).

[Lysenko] Became dictator in biological sciences under Stalin, whose cult he supported. In effect, he became a Stalinist deputy for science, like Zhdanov for culture, Voroshilov for the army, Beria for everything in the country. [Lysenko] was personally responsible for the exile, torture, and death of many talented scientists, and for an environment of oppression and backwardness in Soviet science.”

 

The errors of Lysenkoism should be self evident but when ideology is mixed with science often the science is the one that purged in favour of the attractive ideology. In this case it was the Marxist view that environment and education can produce perfection and paradise. Yet lessons are often hard to learn if the only reaction to ideological extremism is extremism in the opposite direction.

 

We often hear the call by people who have limited knowledge of science to support a proposal on the grounds that it is on the side of science. Yet this is not always the case as ideology can pollute the motives of some and ignorance can also be self induced. Richard Dawkins has made great mileage from his credentials as an ‘Eminent Scientist’ and then has used those qualifications to offer opinions in areas that he has no real expertise. Yet by linking his credentials as scientist we have several versions of what a scientist is: philosopher, theologian, social engineer, activist. Ideology can infect a scientific debate until it becomes a parody of what it is. The cry that all true scientists agree with me is as fallacious and unscientific a statement that can be made. It was the same cry that Lysenko made years ago. Statements that ‘God is Delusional’ and ‘Religion is a Virus’ do not reflect an objective scientific opinion but rather an ideology driven agenda.

 

Ideologies may be right or they may be wrong but call them a scientific certainty is do what Lysenko did and fake evidence to give the false cloak of scientific respectability. Somehow in this battle for hearts and minds scientific discovery and proliferation is not going to be the result. It may be unpopular to criticize Richard Dawkins and compare his methods to Lysenko but until he starts acting like a scientist rather than a political activist who wants to rid the world of his ideological enemies I think the comparison is very apt.

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