Lysenko and Lesser Science Grifters
Trofim Lysenko mixed pseudoscience and ideology to set back Soviet biology.
by Kevin Hoover
Advice for today’s up-and-coming scientific charlatan: If you have an abundance of goofy but superficially sciencey ideas, a nice smile and a crazy dream of fame, riches and influence, your next step is to pick a path to success. One role model might be Soviet agronomist and pseudo-biologist Trofim Denisovich Lysenko.
Lysenko is a superachieving standout among history’s ignoble inveiglers. He didn’t just win friends and influence people; he took control of an entire branch of the Soviet Union’s government, misdirecting resources, setting back that country’s agricultural and genetic science for decades, denouncing, and through his sponsor, Joseph Stalin, even disappearing those who questioned his ideologically driven pseudoscience.
While Lysenko later turned into a monster, he didn’t start out that way. Nor was he entirely bereft of scientific cred.
Trofim Lysenko began life among the peasants of Ukraine, gaining an education at the Kiev Agricultural Institute. He hit the ground at an Azerbaijan research farm just as communist doctrine, in the form of forced collectivization, was taking its toll on Soviet agriculture.
The state-controlled newspaper Pravda cast him as a rough-hewn miracle worker, well in keeping with the emerging mythology about proletarian heroes. Lysenko was "skinny, with prominent cheekbones and closecropped hair… a man of doleful appearance."
Pravda said the young ag scientist had "solved the problem of fertilizing the fields without fertilizers and minerals."
While that stunt, even if true, apparently wasn’t repeatable in successive years, Lysenko had gotten a taste of fame and learned the ways of story-hungry journalists - how to feed them lines and how to get his own work published.
Then Lysenko got his big break. Over the winter of 1927/28, Ukraine suffered the loss of five million hectares of winter wheat crops. No one - including a large gathering of scientists convened to address the crisis - knew why, or what to do about it. The next winter was even worse, with the loss of seven million hectares of winter wheat.
Enter peasant hero Trofim Lysenko, with a new process he called Jarovization, today known as vernalization – literally, "making spring happen." Some plants respond to a period of cold followed by a temperature upturn with flowering and fruit production. Vernalization involves the soaking and chilling of seed to induce flowering, and it’s a real thing. German plant physiologist J. Gustav Gassner had already vernalized rye years earlier, but Lysenko rode the technique to glory.
He had had his father soak 48 kilograms of wheat seed, then bury the moist bag in a snowbank to chill it out. When a half-hectare of the treated winter wheat seed was sown alongside a crop of spring wheat, it yielded an even better harvest, with abundant earing. This spurred a visit by a commission from the Ukrainian Commissariat of Agriculture, which ordered large-scale tests.
In typical commie propaganda fashion, the Commissariat didn’t even wait until the tests were done to tell the press that the winter wheat die-offs had been solved. In October, 1929, Lysenko was transferred to the All-Union Institute of Plant Breeding in Odessa, the center of Ukrainian ag research. As his star rose, establishment scientists who but prescribed caution fell.
The same press that elevated Lysenko called dissenting scientists "wreckers" and "fly lovers" who’d rather fuss with theories than "practical" solutions. Thus began a long, runaway spiral of self-reinforcing propaganda which would eventually collapse, but not for decades. By 1931, Lysenko was emerging as a darling of the commissars whose bacon, that is, wheat he was saving.
Lysenko didn’t really know what he was doing, at least scientifically. His concept of vernalization was vague, and his experiments sloppy. But the method did produce results. With this kind of fodder, the ever-hungry Soviet propaganda machine went full-tilt boogie with Lysenkomania.
In 1935, he addressed Comrade Stalin himself at a gathering of leading industrial achievers, and when he humbly apologized for being a better vernalizer than orator, Stalin interrupted him with, "Bravo, Comrade Lysenko!"
With that, Lysenko was off and running. He made fantastic projections of massive gains in agricultural productivity through adoption of his techniques, and pushed for expanding vernalization to other crops.
His critics were either on the ropes or expressing tepid support for survival reasons. But not all. Many still questioned his overreaching, under-verified claims of revolutionary "agrobiology." At a 1936 scientific conference, genetic scientists and ideologically driven Lysenkoists wrangled with ferocity that presaged similar vitriolic debates today between GMO opponents and those who stick to the science.
Lysenko knew little about genetics, and wasn’t very curious. He even questioned the existence of genes, claiming temperature guided heritable traits. Said Lysenko:
We deny corpuscles, molecules of some special ‘substance of heredity,’ and at the same time we not only recognize, but in our view, incomparably better than you geneticists, we understand the hereditary nature, the hereditary basis of plant forms.
Lysenko preached that plants impart lasting traits to their offspring based on what they experience during their lifespan, an extra-genetic concept of transgenerational inheritance previously championed by Jean-Baptiste LeMarck and Ivan Vladimirovich Michurin.
In other words, people are perfectible – it just takes practice by their parents. That’s right - Lysenko was so full of himself that he summarily threw natural selection overboard.
For all this, he was likened by one geneticist to those who champion perpetual motion machines. But it was too late. Reputable scientists began to disappear from top posts, only to be replaced by Lysenkoists or Trofim himself. He became president of the Institute of Genetics at the Soviet Academy of Sciences in 1940 when its previous head, botanist and longtime Lysenko critic Nikolai Vavilov, was arrested and sentenced to death. Vavilov, a courageous pioneer of what we now know as permaculture, later starved to death in prison. Many others met similar fates.
From there on out, terror ruled Soviet genetics, with dozens of "bourgeois" genetic scientists arrested and hundreds of others driven from the profession. Meanwhile, Lysenko kept coming up with various gimmicks, stunts and wild claims to stay in the spotlight, all dutifully documented by state media.
In 1948, Lysenko was granted complete control over Soviet biological science as part of "the great Stalin plan for the transformation of nature." He delivered a grandiloquent, self-ennobling address to the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences, one which interwove science, as he understood it, with ideology. It denounced "Darwinism" and its adherents, extolled the "practical" methods he had pioneered over decadent western theories and declared "complete triumph" over traditional genetics.
That was to be his high-water mark. When Stalin died in 1953, Lysenko carried on with business as usual under Nikita Kruschev, but his years were numbered. Kruschev was no Stalin, and Soviet agriculture still lagged. Scientists came out of the woodwork to raise questions about Lysenko, but there was too much legacy ideological investment in his work for Soviet science to turn on a dime.
By 1962, prominent scientists could openly criticize Lysenko, call BS on his pseudoscience and decry his chronic political bullying. In 1964, physicist Andrei Sakharov openly condemned Lysenko in a speech to the Academy of Science. Said Sakharov:
He is responsible for the shameful backwardness of Soviet biology and of genetics in particular, for the dissemination of pseudoscientific views, for adventurism, for the degradation of learning, and for the defamation, firing, arrest, even death of many genuine scientists.
State media took the cue, and anti-Lysenko stories sprouted like vernalized wheat after a long winter. When Kruschev was deposed in 1964, Lysenko’s experiments were investigated and found massively fraudulent. In 1965, he was stripped of authority. His journal, Agrobiology, disappeared, Lysenko was muzzled and fell into disgrace.
One of his earliest casualties, poor old Nikolai Vavilov, was later publicly rehabilitated as a hero of Soviet Science.
The story of Lysenko and his notions of trans-generational heritability might have ended there, but for the advent of epigenetics. It turns out that environmental conditions experienced by one generation can influence the characteristics of their offspring.
Women who become pregnant during times of famine give birth to undersized children, who, in turn, do the same even when adequate nutrition is restored. Even behavioral influences can be passed on. Mice conditioned to associate a chemical odor with electric shocks produce offspring who also respond fearfully to the same smell.
Epigenetic influence works by temporarily silencing certain genes - not modifying them. Carbon-hydrogen compounds called methyl groups can bind to genes, and suppress their expression. Histones constrict and loosen DNA, altering their availability.
Unhelpful phenotypes, or physical characteristics, are temporarily suppressed, but are not as Lysenko had imagined, by being modified in any lasting way. These epigenetic tags are again updated in the next generation.
If genes are genetic hardware, epigenetics are the software. They act like almost like a self-aware autoexec.bat file, setting up an organism and its successors to succeed in life.
Superficially, it might seem that epigenetics - literally, "above genetics" - exonerates Lysenko. Sadly, no. The epigenetic effect doesn’t fundamentally alter genes, only their expression. Evolution and natural selection are fundamentally unfazed by the ephemeral adaptations.
Epigenetics is a fast-evolving and very promising branch of biology, with vast potential for the creation of new drugs and therapies. I can’t help but note that scientific research - not intuition, ideology, stirring slogans, protest signs, Facebook memes or government propaganda, but science - is what brought us insight into epigenetics.
Now, if you’re still set on scamming, but don’t have a friendly dictator handy to hand over a branch of government, don’t lose hope. There are multiple, proven ways to cash in on the public’s lack of scientific sophistication, and lots of fabulous fraudsters in whose footsteps you can follow.
You could create a miracle product, like the energy-channeling pyramids of the 1970s. These days, you might toss some sawdust and crumbled drywall into a jar and call it a dietary supplement.
If making something is too much trouble, just make stuff up. Alternative medicine requires little more than an office with a framed diploma, some incense and ferns and an exotically named therapy to cash in on distrust of real doctors. Multi-level marketing lets you make more money selling the rights to sell your useless thing, whatever it is, than you do on the thing itself.
But why struggle in obscurity? For the really big bucks, you need to hitch your woo-wagon to a star, or even a superstar. Scientology has a whole host of top-flight celebs to extol its sci-fi spirituality. Deepak Chopra routinely enjoys the attentions of Oprah Winfrey, purveying New Age bafflegab to millions of avid viewers. Then there’s Dr. Oz. While he’s no Lysenko, this medical wizard has uncovered and helped market more miracle diets and paranormal phenomena than the rest of medical science combined.
If you lack a knack for commerce, you still have options. There’s always what’s been called Hollywood for the homely - Washington, D.C. Dietary supplement manufacturers who made generous political donations there later benefitted from bipartisan legislation exempting them from regulation.History is bursting with bamboozlers buddying up to big shots. And while they didn’t give very good advice, at least they wasted everyone’s time and resources.
Russian spiritual healer Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin gained the trust of Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra and wielded considerable influence among the aristocracy. Though as Alison Hudson documented in Skeptoid no. 432, things did not end well for him.
A few decades later, Adolph Hitler’s personal physician, Dr. Theodor Morell, had Der Fuhrer gobbling various pills and taking "vitamin" injections every day, all of which made the big guy feel downright Hitlerific. The shots are now thought to have included methamphetamine, and that may explain a lot.
In the swingin’ sixties, "Magic Alex" Mardas, a nutty inventor, dazzled John Lennon with fanciful devices and crackpot ideas, such as invisibility paint, and soundproofing the Beatles’ studio with a force field. While physicists are closing in on limited forms of invisibility, that doesn’t rehabilitate Magic Alex any more than epigenetics exonerates Trofim Lysenko.
If there’s a lesson here, it might be that science scammers are eventually exposed and discredited, their ephemeral glory turned to ashes. So if you’re really smart and want to make a name for yourself in the annals of science, why not put all that potential to good use and go legit?
Let Trofim Lysenko and the lesser science grifters serve as your anti-role models. While reality rained on their parade, science’s steady march continues, and you can be part of it.
By Kevin Hoover
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