Please do not misunderstand this thread as another attempt to bring in Stalinism. My interest is in the interaction of policy/politics and science in the past - in situations far enough away that they will not arouse passions today (maybe a futile hope). Lysenkoism was one of the worst, if not the worst cases, where this interaction went really bad. Another one was eugenics. How did science come into such bad situations, and how did it escape/recover from it.
Therefore I have asked Nils Roll-Hansen to summarize his knowledge about the Lysenko-case, which is described at length in his book (Roll-Hansen, N., 2005: The Lysenko Effect. The Politics of Science. Amherst, NY: Humanity Book, 335 p) and in a number of articles. He was so kind to fulfill my request ... and the result is here -- Hans von Storch
Nils Roll-Hansen: A lesson from Lysenkoism?
In 1948 the Soviet government decided that Mendelian genetics is a pseudoscience and should no more be taught in the country. Instead Trofim Lysenko’s agrobiology should be the basis of biological research and practice. This was the big scientific scandal of the 20th century. At the outbreak of the Cold War it blatantly signalled a deep irrational strain in Soviet ideology and marked progressing defeat on the intellectual front. How could it happen that a regime perceiving itself as particularly “modern” and “scientific” in this way discard the most advanced theory in biology?
The standard historical explanation has been Stalinism. The brutal overruling of science by political bosses created Lysenkoism. Stalin himself was central. In fact he closely edited the script “On the situation in biological science” for Lysenko’s presidential address to the crucial August 1948 congress of the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Science. There was a minority that criticised Lysenko’s views, but at the end of the congress he informed that his key notre speech had been approved by the Politbureau, the top political authority, and all opposition crumbled.
A verbatim report was quickly published and distributed nationally as well as abroad, in English, German and other languages. The political suppression of science, of well established knowledge and rational argument, was clearly exposed to the international scientific community. Why did the Soviet regime so effectively shoot its own foot?
A plausible explanation is that the political leadership sincerely believed Lysenko was right and that his ideas would in time prevail in international science. Supporting him would simply confirm the progressive modern and scientific nature of the Soviet system. From the end of the civil war in the early 1920s a grand scientific establishment had been built at great expense. The Lenin Academy was a keystone created to solve the crucial problem of reforming agriculture. Collectivization and plant science together were to create an effective modern agriculture and thus to provide new cadres for industry as well as ample food for the whole population. But how come the leadership did not get better advice from its scientists?
Could it be that the pragmatic and instrumental Soviet Marxist theory of science had shaped a scientific establishment with inadequate understanding of scientific objectivity? Marxist theory questioned any fundamental distinction between facts and values and held political practice to be a guide for scientific progress. Did such ideas blur the difference between science and politics, promote wishful thinking among scientists as well as politicians, and thus pave the way for the Lysenko scandal?
In the standard story about Lysenkoism the heroic martyr of true science is the botanist Nikolai Vavilov. His defence of classical genetics led to arrest in 1940 and death in prison in 1943. However, as the main entrepreneur of Soviet agricultural science from the early 1920s Vavilov also held responsibility for the development of the great system of research institutions under the Lenin Academy. Soviet science, and the agricultural branch not least, was built at breakneck speed in the 1920s and -30s. Under such circumstances usual scientific standards of qualification could not be upheld.
Lysenko was a dedicated researcher of peasant origin and weak scientific training. In the early 1930s his research on the developmental physiology of cultivated plants, especially grain, attracted much scientific attention, nationally and internationally. Effects of temperature and light on growth and flowering of plants was a pioneering field considered to have great practical potential. Lysenko became famous for his experiments on “vernalization”, control of flowering by low temperatures. The term is still current in plant physiology.
Vavilov was a liberal and pragmatic leader. He saw a valuable scientific potential in the energetic young peasant scientist and promoted his career. Lysenko’s methods and ideas had a prominent place in the treatise Theoretical foundations of plant breeding edited by Vavilov and published in 1935. As late as the summer of 1935 he vigorously defended Lysenko in scientific debates.
The geat investments in science did pay off. Soviet science enjoyed great success on the technological front, culminating with space technology in the 1950s and -60s. To a majority of Western scientists Soviet science policy appeared as a model of how science should be built to serve society. However, already by the mid-1930s it had become clear that the aim of the Lenin Academy, an efficient agricultural technology, was much harder to achieve. “The grain problem” continued to pester the Soviet Union to its end.
Ideological controversies pushed by Marxist theory had appeared in several branches of Soviet science. In microphysics, where there existed a well established theoretical tradition, ideological dissatisfaction with quantum mechanics and relativity theory as insufficiently “materialist” had limited impact. The practical usefulness of these theories in nuclear technology was also a good argument. But the situation was different in young and controversial scientific fields like genetics and developmental physiology of plants.
The Soviet suppression of genetics in 1948 was a paradigm case of illegitimate political intervention into science. It was not however, as often believed, the result of a simple ideological distinction between good socialist and bad bourgeois science. Stalin systematically removed from Lysenko’s 1948 speech the references to “bourgeois science”. In his mind it was the general validity of scientific claims, beyond political ideologies, that was at stake. His confidence in Lysenko was based on confidence in the superiority of the scientific establishment built by the Soviet regime.
Lysenkoism was an extreme case of political perversion of science due to the particular social and political circumstances. The precarious situation of the young socialist state combined with suppression of public criticism made it difficult correct mistaken decisions. But precisely because of the extreme character the case provides useful lessons on how science can be perverted by politics. The nature and interactions of social and intellectual mechanisms that produce irrationality also under more normal circumstances are easier to discern and study.