Evolution Icon Evolution
Free Speech Icon Free Speech

Darwinian Lysenkoism in America


Yale’s Steven Novella writes about the revival of Lysenkoism in Russia. Novella is right to be concerned about Lysenkoism and its catastrophic effect on science, but he misunderstands the nature of Lysenko’s evil and he fails to see the emergence of the Lysenkoist approach to science in our own country.


Lysenko [is] an historical example of what can happen when ideology trumps science and reason…. 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.

Lysenko rejected Mendelism. He did not believe in the existence of genes, and his scientific approach, called vernalization, depended on a Lamarckian theory of inheritance.

Lysenko was far more sympathetic to Darwinism than Novella implies. Lysenko opposed the Mendelian aspects of the modern Darwinist synthesis, but he embraced much of Darwin’s original theory, which has strong Lamarckian themes. The Soviet Union was quite sympathetic to Darwin’s theory, and in fact Marx and Engels embraced Darwinism enthusiastically. Fredrick Engels’s funeral oration for Marx equated Marxism with Darwinism:

Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history.

Lysenko, good Communist that he was, endorsed a broadly Darwinian understanding of man. It was Mendelian inheritance that Lysenko denied.

As Jonathan Wells notes in The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design:

When Mendelian biologists criticized Trofim Lysenko, he simply evaded their arguments and declared that Mendelian genetics was unacceptable because it contradicted Darwinian evolution. By then, many Western biologists were accepting the “modern synthesis” of Darwinian evolution and Mendelian genetics, but Soviet Minister of Agriculture Jakov Jakovlev supported Lysenko by declaring Mendelism to be incompatible with true Darwinism. In 1937, Prezent praised Lysenko for “marching under the banner of reconstruction of biological science on the basis of Darwinism raised to the level of Marxism,” while he demonized the Mendelians as “powers of darkness.”

If government officials and Darwinist ideologues had not come to Lysenko’s rescue, the Mendelians would probably have prevailed — as they did outside the Soviet Union — because they had better science on their side. Lysenko’s Stalinist suppression of Mendelians in the 1940s made matters much worse, but the underlying problem was that the government-supported scientific establishment had chosen to support one side in a scientific dispute. For many years, biologists in the Soviet Union were persecuted by the government if they challenged the official view of Darwinian orthodoxy or defended Mendelian genetics.

So, contrary to the claims of [American Darwinists], the scientific conflict underlying Lysenkoism was not Lamarckism against Darwinism, but classical Darwinism (which had undeniably Lamarckian elements) against the new Mendelian genetics. The present conflict between neo-Darwinism and intelligent design resembles Lysenkoism in the sense that the Darwinists are still opposing new ideas.

There is nothing unusual about mistaken scientific theories or misguided scientists. That is the normal state of science. The real evil of Lysenkoism is that it was government-enforced science — state-sanctioned science that was exempted by law from criticism. Soviet scientists who questioned the favored theories were Expelled: they were stripped of their positions, driven out of the scientific community, and not infrequently consigned to labor camps and executed.

Lysenkoism is the use of government power to enforce scientific orthodoxy. It is the use of courts and police power to exempt officially approved scientific theories from critique. Lysenkoism has flourished in America for decades. Questioning Darwinian orthodoxy in America will not merely get you in trouble with the scientific powers-that-be; in certain situations, it is a matter for the courts. See, “A Reflection on the Dover Anniversary.”

The damage done to Soviet agriculture by Lysenko’s government-enforced scientific orthodoxy was enormous. Yet the damage done to American science by enforcement of Darwinian orthodoxy is substantial as well. As an illustration, junk DNA was historically a cornerstone of Darwinian science — the inference that most genomic DNA was evolutionary garbage accumulated over millions of years of undirected mutation and natural selection was considered a major piece of evidence supporting the Darwinian paradigm. Yet the Darwinian inference that most DNA is “junk” has recently been thoroughly discredited — much of what was traditionally considered junk DNA has discernable and important function in the genome. The discipline of molecular genetics was set back decades by the (government-backed) Darwin-only orthodoxy that most DNA is junk.

An American version of Lysenkoism, the use of government power to enforce scientific orthodoxy, thus flourishes. While it is altogether justified to decry the rise of Lysenkoism in Russia, we should decry Darwinian Lysenkoism in America as well.

Photo: Lysenko speaks, Stalin listens, via Wikicommons.