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Lysenko and Stalin s Genetics

09/29/2017, 10:20am EDT
By Lance Braithwaite

Trofim Denisovich Lysenko (1898-1976) was an agronomist. During the reign of Lenin and Stalin years in the Soviet Union, he became the chief proponent of the work of the  self-taught plant breeder Ivan Vladimirovich Michurin (1855-1935) and his brand of Lamarckism - a pre-Darwinian theory of evolution of the species proposed in the French scientist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829). He was appointed as the president (1938-56) of the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences and the director (1940-65) of the Institute of Genetics, USSR Academy of Sciences. The leadership of the USSR believed his promises to deliver rapid increases in crop yields.

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Lamarck proposed that organisms can inherit traits acquired by their ancestors. The first giraffes stretched their necks to eat leaves on tall trees. Their offspring acquired this elongated neck and the desire to further stretch it. A species with long necks was born.

The Soviet leadership sought an indigenous theory to counter the "capitalistic" works of Mendel and Charles Darwin and to separate evolution from genetics. 

Following a speech he gave at a conference in 1948 denouncing Mendelian genetics as "reactionary and decadent", Lysenko rose to prominence. Geneticists who opposed Lysenkoism were dispatched to the gulag as "enemies of the Soviet people". Most confessed to their "errors" in propounding Mendel's and Darwin's teachings - and, consequently, kept their jobs.

No one dared challenge Lysenko until 1964 - 9 years after Stalin died - even when he claimed, between 1948 and 1953, that wheat plants can produce seeds of rye. But, as the Encyclopedia Britannica observes, "he and his followers, however, long retained their degrees, their titles, and their academic positions and remained free to support their aberrant trend in biology."

Lance Braithwaite
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Mississauga Gazette

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