When Biology Meets Ideology

In 2012, the most important monastery in the Russian Orthodox Church published a biology textbook for 10th and 11th graders. It’s called General Biology, but it’s an explicitly creationist text, describing God’s role in the natural world to counteract generations of official atheism in Russian schools. Darwinism, according to this book, has been disastrous for the world and for the Russian people in particular. It has led to an embrace of materialism, in both the philosophical and consumerist senses of the word. It’s antithetical to Russian values because it’s inherently intertwined with the dog-eat-dog lifestyles of 19th-century British capitalists. As the book denigrates natural selection, it praises the idea that characteristics acquired in one’s life can be passed on to future generations. It refers to recent research on epigenetics, the study of how the environment affects genes’ function in ways that are sometimes heritable.

Loren Graham, an MIT historian who has studied Russian science for decades, says General Biology is indicative of a recent resurgence of support for ideas once expounded by Trofim Lysenko, a Soviet biologist who rejected conventional genetics and tried to use acquired characteristics to improve agriculture. Lysenko set back farming and genetic research in the Soviet Union for decades, so why would anyone try to rehabilitate his ideas? Politics, essentially. In his new book, Lysenko’s Ghost, Graham says General Biology is a reminder of “the continuing strength of the belief in the superiority of collectivism over individualism” in Russia.

That startled me. When I went to a fundamentalist Baptist high school in central Kansas, my ninth-grade biology textbook was, effectively, the American Protestant equivalent of General Biology. It, too, talked about acquired characteristics, but not as an alternative to Darwinism. Instead, we were taught that this theory, linked in the text to the French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, was inherently silly and served as proof against evolution. Of course a giraffe that has to stretch to reach its food wouldn’t produce babies with longer necks. Nor would a dog whose tail is docked have tail-less pups. It was just one more example of the ridiculous things evolutionists believed—beliefs that could be deeply dangerous. How dangerous? Well, everybody knows that Darwinism led people to reject God, abandon individual responsibility, and take up the mantle of collectivist communism in Russia.

The ways that politics, religion, cultural norms, and ideologies of all kinds distort science is at the heart of ­Lysenko’s Ghost. Those ideologies can alter our interpretation of facts and reshape our understanding of natural events. They have the power to change the meanings of words, even scientific terms. All those issues are at the forefront as ­Graham explores whether modern epigenetic research—which indicates that environmental conditions like famine can affect gene expression and influence the health of people generations removed from the actual event—means that Lysenko’s approach to agriculture was on the right track after all.

Spoiler: Lysenko has not been vindicated. Although epigenetics is deepening our understanding of how DNA works, it is not overturning the basic principles of genetic heredity that Lysenko challenged. Nonetheless, what to make of Lysenko now is a complicated question. As Graham points out, “the inheritance of acquired characteristics” did not mean the same thing to Lysenko—steeped in the politics and ethics of a collectivist Soviet Union—that it meant to Lamarck in France in the 1800s. It meant a third thing to many of Lysenko’s Soviet science contemporaries, and something else entirely to the farmers and folk agronomists who thought they saw evidence of it long before Lamarck came along. Likewise, the name Lysenko means different things to Russians, Americans, and ­Europeans. “Natural selection” does not mean to modern biologists what it meant to the eugenicists of the 1930s. Even the word “true,” Graham writes, is “thick and multidimensional.” Graham calls this the contradiction between usage and ­accuracy.

Trofim Lysenko is a fascinating character. He was born a peasant in 1898. He rose to immense power in the 1940s under Joseph Stalin by promoting a number of erroneous scientific techniques he claimed could increase wheat yields on famine-wracked collective farms. Among other things, he professed that by keeping seeds of winter wheat at low temperatures for longer than usual, he could convert the strain to a variety that would mature in the spring. When other scientists objected to his work, he attacked them in ways Graham calls “lethal and passive-aggressive,” pointing them out to the secret police and letting the wheels of Stalinist “justice” do the rest. Not until the 1960s did he finally become a pariah, after the death of Stalin and the ouster of Nikita Khrushchev gave Lysenko’s scientific foes an opportunity to denounce him as a fraud. Today, Lysenko is simultaneously a rallying point for a certain authoritarian strain of Russian nationalism and an embarrassment who leads Russian academics to avoid legitimate research on epigenetics.

Why was Lysenko opposed to the idea of inheritance through genes—and how did that mesh with Soviet ideology? ­Graham gives a partial answer. Even before Lysenko, in the 1920s, the German biologist Paul Kammerer and a slew of less-familiar Russian biologists promoted the idea of acquired characteristics as a sort of Marxist eugenics. In the West at this time, eugenics was all about creating a better society by making sure the “right” people (well-off and white) had lots of children and the “wrong” people (poor, disabled, black, and brown) had few or none. Kammerer, in contrast, promoted a eugenics based on improving environments. Marxism could make a better society by providing a better life, which would change the people who lived it, which would change their offspring. Over time, you would end up with an evolved human—the new “Soviet man,” brighter and smarter and healthier than anything produced by simply pairing off generations of bourgeois capitalists.

The problem, of course, is that biology doesn’t seem to play along. But Graham’s narrative of how far Lysenko took these ideas is confusing. Lysenko did not actually believe that inheritance of acquired characteristics occurred in humans. And in Graham’s telling, he seems to have been wishy-washy even on its applicability to agriculture.

That said, Graham is able to tell the story with intimate details. There’s one particularly memorable anecdote in which a young Graham spots the aging, out-of-favor Lysenko at a posh Moscow restaurant in 1971 and maneuvers next to him at a shared table. Over a bowl of borscht, Graham introduces himself. He’s uncomfortable, but he’s certain he’ll never get another crack at this.

Turns out Lysenko already knows who Graham is and doesn’t like him. He feels Graham has unfairly fingered him as culpable in the deaths of many Russian biologists. In a remarkable back-and-forth, Graham and Lysenko argue over whether or not Lysenko was part of the oppressive Soviet system. They have no quibble about the facts. It’s the meanings of the facts that they disagree about.

Maggie Koerth-Baker is a journalist and author in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared in Nature, Popular Mechanics, Gizmodo, and the New York Times.

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