What is Lysenkoism, and why was it preferred by the Soviet Union?

137 viewsBiologyOther

What is Lysenkoism, and why was it preferred by the Soviet Union?

In: Biology

3 Answers

Anonymous 0 Comments

Lysenkoism was a paradigm, or collection of principles and theories, of biology named for one of its leading proponents, Trofim Lysenko. In brief, Lysenkoism rejected the very concept of genetics, and asserted that a creature’s traits were acquired through some other means, mostly exposure to the environment. Further, Lysenkoism denied the validity of Darwinian evolution, and instead asserted Lamarckian evolution: a creature would adapt itself to its environment, and those acquired adaptations could then be passed down to the creature’s offspring. The stereotypical example is the giraffe. According to Lamarckian evolution, giraffes would *stretch* their necks just a little bit longer each generation, and pass that stretching on to their offspring, who would then stretch more, etc., eventually leading to long giraffe necks.

Lysenkoism also proposed radical and unscientific expansions of the valid concepts of “vernalization” (making plants ready to flower by exposing them to cold temperatures for a time) and “grafting” (attaching one species to a second species, usually trees or plants), claiming that grafts could actually change the traits of the base species, and that properly “vernalized” wheat could both massively increase its yield and even transform spring wheat (*triticum durum*) into common autumn wheat (*triticum vulgare*). In all, Lysenkoism was a totally bogus paradigm, which never produced any results that so-called “bourgeois” science did not also produce, or (more typically) exceed greatly. It was a scientific and economic disaster and led to many innocent deaths for a variety of reasons.

The Soviet government was interested in Lysenkoism for a number of reasons. Marxist doctrine was formulated around the same time as the foundations of the theory of evolution, but this was before anyone, even Darwin, knew that Lamarck was (almost completely) incorrect; some of Darwin’s own work gave credit to Lamarckian evolution. As a result, when the West had moved on from Lamarck around the early 1920s (rediscovering the work of Gregor Mendel), the Soviets had not, it was baked into their ideology to some extent. Thus, when Lysenko simultaneously claimed to be able to do amazing things with his techniques, *and* characterized Darwinian evolution and Mendelian inheritance as “bourgeois,” racist, capitalist, and opposed to Marx and Engels’ theory of dialectical materialism, he found a winning formula for convincing Communist Party officials to support him and to punish, imprison, or even execute his opponents. It also allowed him the ability to reject mathematical analyses which showed that his methods didn’t work.

The Soviet government’s interest didn’t stop there. Lamarckian evolution was a very tempting belief under Stalinist ideology, because it meant that (say) a steel worker who gets really good at working steel can pass those traits on to his children, making a new generation even better at steel-working, etc. The “new Soviet man” was a huge ideological cornerstone, as it made all differences *controllable*, moldable, open to being smashed…or, conversely, open to being manipulated by the government to aid the revolution. Notably though, while Stalin supported Lysenkoism and the general movement toward ideologically-approved pseudoscientific theory, one area that was never subject to such pogroms was *nuclear* science. Stalin was an oppressive dictator who wanted to hold power, but he wasn’t an idiot, and he *certainly* wasn’t going to play games with nuclear energy.

Advances in modern biology have shown us that Mendelian genetics is not the end-all, be-all of inheritance, there’s stuff like epigenetics and the like, but Lysenkoism is a thoroughly debunked pseudoscience, which was only interesting to the Soviets because of its political and ideological value, not because it had any actual truth in it. If it had, both the USSR and Communist China would not have had some of the most debilitating famines of all time.

Anonymous 0 Comments

It wasn’t really a coherent theory, it was more of a rejection of theories that communists didn’t like because of ideological reasons and wishful thinking about what would be possible with their new communist science. 

Lysenkoists rejected the idea of natural selection through competition and survival of the fittest. They thought that sounded like capitalism. 

They didn’t think that seeds of the same species would compete for nutrients with each other, because the plants would be of the same ‘class’ and so they would cooperate. This meant Lysenkoists thought that you could plant as many seeds in a field as you liked and the crops would cooperate with each other and you’d get loads of harvest.

They didn’t like the idea of genes being in charge, they liked the idea that their new marxist science would be able to conquer nature and turn Siberia into a land of orchards and gardens. 

They liked Lamarckist evolutionary theory because they liked the idea of an organism improving itself. This paralleled their idea of everyone becoming better people under communism. 

The study of genetics was condemned and many biologists were executed or sent to gulags. Crop yields collapsed and there was famine. 

Anonymous 0 Comments

It’s an application of Lamarckian Evolution, an otherwise discredited theory that had fallen out of favour after Darwin showed up on the scene. An example that’s often attributed to Lamarckian evolution is that an animal would stretch its head up toward the branches above to try to eat its leaves, making its neck longer, and that its children would in turn have longer necks that they could then stretch even further until you eventually wind up with a giraffe. It was considered incomplete, even when it was popular, because it didn’t take into account why injuries wouldn’t be inherited by offspring as well, but it was the best game in town, at the time.

What Trofim Lysenko posited was that he could produce a hardier form of wheat by carefully altering its environment and strategically pruning the plants, resulting in a hardier strain in future generations. He took his theories to Stalin who approved of its ideological purity, seeing as Darwin’s theories relied too much on the concept of competition, which was an integral element of capitalism, and therefore anathema to communism. With the backing of the Party, Lysenko was given free reign to apply his techniques to the entire Soviet wheat crop. It didn’t work out well, and much of Russia fell into famine as a result.