Dec 21 2017

The Return of Lysenkoism

It seems that bad ideas never truly go away. Whatever cultural or psychological factors favored their rise in the first place may bring them around again and again. A solid debunking may knock them down for a while, but a new generation, ignorant of the past, can resurrect them as needed.

I have to say, despite the fact that I am an experienced and even jaded skeptic, the rise of flat-earthers over the last couple of years surprised me. I know that there are no practical limits to self-deception and the distorting effect that a powerful narrative can have on perception and motivated reasoning. But still I can be surprised when new examples push the limits of sloppy thinking.

Now, vying for the title of dumbest pseudoscience to resurrect, we have the apparent return of Lysenkoism in Russia. A recent article in Current Biology details how sympathy for Trofim Lysenko, while still fringe, is on the rise in Russia, apparently riding a wave of anti-Western and pro-Stalin sentiment.

A brief history of Lysenko

I have often used Lysenko as an historical example of what can happen when ideology trumps science and reason. The story is such a perfect and extreme example that it almost sound apocryphal, but it is entirely true. A recent article in The Atlantic also gives a good overview, but here are the highlights.

Trofim Lysenko was basically a crank. He was a poorly educated peasant, but was an enthusiastic communist who came to the attention of Stalin, who liked his ideas and supported him. Lysenko rejected Darwinian evolution and genetics. He did not even think genes existed. He believed that the environment had unlimited ability to shape plants and animals in permanent ways. This fit very well with communist ideology.

With Stalin’s support, Lysenko was put in charge of Soviet agriculture. Under Lysenko the collectivist farms, which were already failing, failed even more. As the Atlantic recounts:

Lysenko forced farmers to plant seeds very close together, for instance, since according to his “law of the life of species,” plants from the same “class” never compete with one another. He also forbade all use of fertilizers and pesticides.

Wheat, rye, potatoes, beets—most everything grown according to Lysenko’s methods died or rotted, says Hungry Ghosts (a book about Lysenko).

Lysenko believed he could train plants to have whatever traits were needed. His ideas were rejected by the world outside the Soviet Union, and he was mocked as an incompetent. But back at home, Lysenko enjoyed tremendous power and prestige. Under his command Soviet biology was gutted, genetics was destroyed and set back half a century by some estimates. He had scientists who disagreed with him jailed, fired, or even killed.

It was an ugly picture of what happens when science is subservient to ideology, arguable the most extreme example in history. As a result of Lysenko’s crank ideas, the famine that was already underway was worsened. Lysenkoism was also exported to other communist countries like China, who also experienced horrible famine. Millions of people starved due to Lysenko’s crank ideas, making him arguably the scientist with the largest body count in human history.

The Return of Lysenko

Lysenko’s power faded after Stalin died, and Lysenko himself died in 1976. He was still revered to some extent, but that too faded and was gone by the 1990s. But now, according to the Current Biology article, Lysenko and his ideas are making a comeback. The authors suspect that there are two main reasons for the revival.

The first is epigenetics, which is the study of environmental influences on gene expression and phenotype. Epigenetic factors can help adapt an organism to current environmental conditions, such as drought, famine, or abundance. These factors can even be inherited to a limited degree, affecting the next few generations. These factors are essentially a tweak on genetic inheritance, allowing for short term phenotypic adjustments to changing environmental conditions.

Frustratingly, epigenetics is often poorly reported on and explained to the public, hyped into something that it is not. Epigenetics is not the inheritance of acquired characteristics, nor does it refute any of the main pillars of Darwinian evolution. But a superficial reading of epigenetics can twist it into such things, and that is apparently what is happening in Russia in order to argue that Lysenko was right after all.

Of course, Lysenkoism is not epigenetics in any way. Lysenko rejected the existence of genes and had bizarre ideas about how plants behave. He did not anticipate epigenetics, nor does any recent epigenetics research rescued Lysenko from being a pure crank.

But probably the real reason for Lysenko’s return is that he represents former Soviet glory and is a symbol of anti-West ideology. Embracing Lysenko is a way of sticking it in the eye of Western foes and standing up for Russian exceptionalism.

It seems the core lesson of Lysenko has faded along with the memory of the horrors he created. It is a dangerous thing when ideology trumps science. We live in a big and complex world, and often the stakes are high. Our civilization is dependent upon technology, and we are straining its resources. One wacky idea about agriculture, if implemented on a large scale, can be disastrous.

And of course it does not take much imagination to think of other examples of ideology trumping science and evidence. Global warming denial, anti-vaccine sentiments, anti-GMO hysteria, and alternative medicine are all a triumph of narrative over logic and evidence.

These problems are all exacerbated by a general anti-elite, anti-expert, and anti-intellectual sentiment. It is too easy and too accepted to reject knowledge with hand-waving conspiratorial thinking. The bar has been lowered to the point that people can actual believe that NASA is engaged in a massive conspiracy to convince everyone that the world is a sphere and gravity exists. What about the pictures of a round earth from space? They are “fake news.”

I hope we don’t need another 30 million people to starve to death so that we can relearn the lessons of Lysenko for another generation.


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