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American Lysenkoism


Historian Gerard DeGroot recently published a review of Simon Ing’s forthcoming book, Stalin and the Scientists. Amazon’s description of the book includes the following:

The Soviet Union had the best-funded scientific establishment in history. Scientists were elevated as popular heroes and lavished with awards and privileges. But if their ideas or their field of study lost favor with the elites, they could be exiled, imprisoned, or murdered.

Stalin’s favorite scientist was agronomist Trofim Lysenko (1898-1976). In the 1930s and 1940s, Lysenko gained Stalin’s favor with various ill-founded ideas about heredity, and he used his political power ruthlessly to suppress his critics, many of whom lost their jobs and some of whom suffered imprisonment or even death.

This is not a review of Ing’s book (which won’t be released until February 2017), but it reminds me that some Darwinists have compared ID to Lysenkoism. Retired physicist and ID critic Mark Perakh has written that the behavior of ID advocates is “often redolent of that by the suppressors of biological science in the former USSR.” Perakh claimed that the “denial of Darwinian biology” by ID advocates is similar to “the denial of the neo-Darwinian synthesis by the Lysenkoists.” And according to philosopher and ID critic Robert T. Pennock:

[I]n the former Soviet Union, Darwinian evolution was rejected on ideological grounds. Because the Communist Party denounced the Darwinian view in favor of Lysenkoism, a variant of Lamarckism that was more in line with Party ideology, biological research was set back for a generation. ID-ology could have the same effect in this country, if it succeeds in its lobbying efforts.

But Perakh and Pennock have it exactly backwards. Stalin and Soviet Communists embraced Darwinism. They liked its historical approach to human origins and its materialistic rejection of religion. Although Lysenko was not a Marxist, after Isaak Prezent (president of the Society of Marxist Biologists) introduced him to evolutionary theory Lysenko became a devoted Darwinist. In The Origin of Species, Darwin had speculated that new variations might arise through “use and disuse,” or the inheritance of acquired characteristics (a view generally attributed to Lamarck). But Gregor Mendel’s theory of inheritance was incompatible with Lamarckism, and in the 1920s and 1930s many biologists considered Mendelism to be incompatible with Darwinism. So Lysenko declared that Mendelian genetics was unacceptable because it contradicted Darwinian evolution.

Soviet Minister of Agriculture Jakov Jakovlev supported Lysenko by announcing that Mendelism was inconsistent with true Darwinism. In 1937, Prezent (using typical Communist jargon) praised Lysenko for “marching… under the banner of reconstruction of biological science on the basis of Darwinism raised to the level of Marxism.” Mendelians, by contrast, were portrayed as “powers of darkness.”1

So Lysenkoism was fueled by the conflict between Darwinism (which had Lamarckian elements) and the new Mendelian genetics. The Soviet Union had the best-funded scientific establishment in history, and it used that establishment to persecute scientists who challenged the official view of Darwinian orthodoxy or defended Mendelian genetics.

The tragedy of Lysenkoism was that it used government funding and authority to suppress a scientific idea that contradicted established orthodoxy. The parallel with ID is clear: Scientists and scientific organizations supported by billions of dollars in taxpayer money are being used to suppress a scientific idea that challenges Darwinism. Although the United States, thank God, is very different from the former Soviet Union, and dissident scientists are not being imprisoned or murdered, many have been exiled from their careers because of their views. What we have is American Lysenkoism.


(1) See Nils Roll-Hansen, The Lysenko Effect: The Politics of Science (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 2005), pp. 86-89, 218-220; Zhores Medvedev, The Rise and Fall of T. D. Lysenko (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969), pp. 46-49.

Photo: Trofim Lysenko, by Sovfoto [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.