Lysenkoism: When Science is Politicized

“Lysenkoism” is a term that was coined after the Soviet geneticist Trofim Denisovich Lysenko, who rose to prominence in the Soviet Union during the 1930s and 1940s. He was known […]
Published on September 26, 2023

“Lysenkoism” is a term that was coined after the Soviet geneticist Trofim Denisovich Lysenko, who rose to prominence in the Soviet Union during the 1930s and 1940s. He was known for his political influence over Soviet science, rejecting Mendelian genetics and promoting Lamarckian evolution. This evolutionary ideology became known as Lysenkoism and was embraced by Soviet authorities, with a lasting impact on science in the Soviet Union.

Before the rise of Lysenkoism, the scientific community was beginning to recognize the importance of genetics in the biological sciences. However, Lysenko rejected the concept of genetics, and instead advocated for a theory that quickly became known as his namesake.  More specifically, Lysenko rejected the concept of inherited traits and instead proposed that environmental factors could shape the characteristics of organisms.

Lysenko’s ideas were embraced by Joseph Stalin, who saw them as a way to justify his idea that humans would be completely re-made by the regressive policies he was imposing on Russian society. As a result, Lysenko’s theories were adopted as official Soviet science. Any scientists who disagreed with the official Soviet dogma were ostracized, persecuted, and, in a number of cases, even executed. This chillingly obstinate period of Soviet science was marked by the suppression of any research that contradicted Lysenkoism, and the censorship of similar research conducted outside of the Soviet Union. The Soviet government even rewrote textbooks to reflect Lysenko’s ideas, and agricultural practices were changed to reflect Lysenko’s theories. This approach could be considered the very antithesis of good scientific practice, because the conclusion is rigidly predetermined and independent of any variables whatsoever.

Historically, the development of genetics in the Soviet Union predated Lysenkoism. In the early twentieth century, botanists such as Nikolai Vavilov and Ivan Michurin made important contributions to genetic research in the Soviet Union. However, their work was challenged by Lysenko, who was also supported by Soviet authorities, who appreciated his commitment to Marxist-Leninist ideology. The impact of Lysenkoism on Soviet science was significant.

Genuine genetic research was effectively suppressed in favor of Lysenko’s assuming theories, again whose influence extended even to agriculture. Lysenko championed the concept of “vernalization,” in which seeds were pre-treated to allow for earlier crop yield. This practice was widely adopted in Soviet agriculture, with mixed results. The legacy of Lysenkoism is still felt in the modern world. Lysenko’s illogical Lamarckian views are still embraced by some cognitively-impaired present-day scientists, while to the rest of the world, Lysenkoism is largely rejected because it is thought to be pseudoscience.

Lysenko’s influence on Soviet science is still evident in the enormous progressive disparities between underdeveloped Russian science and the pioneering complexities of Western science, and the suppression of genetics during the Lysenko era is still an important lesson in the dangers of politicizing science. Lysenko’s views were embraced by Soviet authorities, and as a result the progress of Soviet science was hindered for decades. Lysenkoism is still felt in the modern world and serves as an important reminder of the need for apolitical scientific objectivity.

The importance of this historical period cannot be emphasized enough. The West is falling into a state of decay because those who subscribe to this narrowly presumptuous ideology have taken the wheel. To what end is unknown, but those who do not learn from history are bound to repeat it. Is it too late for us?

 

Sophia Leis is an associate editor at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. She is a third-year university student majoring in political science. She is passionate about Canadian indigenous issues, economics, and Western cultural influence.

 

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