Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 494:
LYSENKO

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 494.

Today, we join an unhappy wedding of science and politics. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The Cold War broke out while I was in college. All around me teachers lost their jobs for talking about Marx, Engels, and a Soviet agronomist named Lysenko. Those were bad days. The name Lysenko still makes me uncomfortable.

But any search for the inventive mind has to take account of this terrible anti-hero of creative thought. The young Lysenko surfaced during the Soviet agricultural crises of the 1930s.

The mechanism of evolutionary change had been under debate for some time by then. Mendel's theory of genetic change was starting to win out over Lamarck's theory of adaptation.

Lamarck had thought evolution was a direct adaptation to nature. The people who followed Lamarck went further. They said you could inherit acquired traits. A giraffe's neck is made long by generations of stretching to get fruit.

It was a harsh debate, but still an honest one. It was still question-driven. Then Lysenko came along. There was no question in his mind. He wed Lamarck to communist theory. A change of environment, cried Lysenko, can shatter the heredity of an organism. Change is revolution by all the cells in a body. The drama of October 1917 plays out in every plant and animal.

Lysenko did little systematic science. The experiments he did do were inept. But he sang Stalin's song with wild-eyed oratory. Stalin paid him by wiping out his Mendelian opponents.

By 1950 Lysenko dominated Soviet science. His power corrupted him completely. He used slander and murder. Power carried him to the edge of insanity. In the right environment, he claimed, a wheat plant can produce rye.

By the time Khrushchev took over, Lysenko had become a national embarrassment. First Khrushchev sanctioned articles that criticized Lysenko. Then he traveled to Iowa to find out why we did so well at growing corn.

So I learned about Lysenko in the McCarthy years. Americans who'd once joined the old Lamarck/Mendel debate lost their jobs. The mere mention of Lysenko in a classroom meant big trouble. The Russians had given us a terrible lesson in scientific repression, all right. But we'd let ourselves learn from them.

Science grows vulnerable to this sort of thing when it seeks truth through combat. Combat opens the door to people like Lysenko and McCarthy. We have to find less aggressive roads to understanding. Science will do badly whenever it's driven by anything other than questions. Only one master serves true learning. And that is our own delicious sense of curiosity.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Gould, S.J., The Panda's Thumb. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1980.

Gardner, M., Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1957.

You should also check your Encyclopaedia Britannica.

For more on Lysenko and the problems of Stalinist biology, see the website,

http://skepdic.com/lysenko.html



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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