Labour Monthly, November 1942

Soviet Biology
by J.B.S. Haldane, F.R.S.


Source: Labour Monthly, November 1942, p. 346-349;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.


It is hard to learn fully of the achievements of Soviet science for two reasons. The first is the language difficulty. A few periodicals are published with excellent translations into Western European languages. Others have summaries in these languages. But for many a knowledge of Russian is not enough. Much work on wheat and on the physiology of human labour is printed in Ukrainian, work on cotton breeding in Turki, and so on. Secondly, many periodicals are not available at all in England, and nowhere is a good collection to be found. As there is no such sharp break between pure and applied science in the Soviet Union as exists elsewhere, much fundamental work appears in journals of technical and agricultural institutes, which are hard to come by. Soviet scientists seem to have much better access to the scientific work of capitalist countries than conversely. After the war, the provision of a library where the majority of Soviet scientific journals are available to British readers should be an essential measure in making the alliance of our countries a reality in the intellectual field. Meanwhile this article has been written from memory, as no references are available at my place of work.

Soviet biologists have certain advantages over their British colleagues, and suffer under certain disadvantages. Before the Revolution there were very few of them, and it was necessary to build up cadres on a huge scale after it. This meant that, just as during the period of scientific expansion in the United States a generation ago, a good deal of uncritical work was published. Thus foreign workers have been unable to repeat the results of Gurwitz on mitogenetic rays, which were supposed to induce division in cells, and this fact discredited Soviet biology. It is worth noting that Gurwitz had been trained in Tsarist Russia, and that the first refutation of his statements came from the Soviet Union. Also, until recently, laboratory equipment such as microscopes was very scarce. Thus Soviet workers were handicapped in a number of technical fields.

As against this they had the immense advantage of being the pick of the whole population rather than of a restricted class. Their work was part of the development of the productive capacity of their country, which was their government’s main concern. Huge resources were put at their disposal, and they were backed by the keen and critical interest of the masses. Among their tasks were a survey of the wild and domesticated animal and plant life of the entire Union, and of the means for utilising it.

This about 1930 Vavilov and his colleagues were growing about 100,000 varieties of cereal near Leningrad, though not all varieties were sown every year. The best similar collection elsewhere consisted of about 3,000 strains of wheat. Again the whole resources of the Union were at their disposal. For example, all British sheep are adapted to be shorn for their wool. But in the northern parts of the U.S.S.R. there are sheep intended to be skinned for coat linings; in the southern part those which yield Astrakhan fur. These different types have been crossed and the inheritance of their characters has been studied. Doubtless the British Empire includes a still greater variety of cultivated plants and animals, but its governments are not primarily interested in increased production, whilst those farmers and land-owners who are so do little to encourage research. Hence, although the U.S.A. comes a good second, the Soviet Union leads the world in many branches of agricultural research.

In the field of natural history, not only have Soviet biologists surveyed much of their vast country adequately for the first time, but they have paid particular attention to the influence of environment and to local races, and have been able to watch evolutionary changes in progress. Thus Kirikov showed that a black variety of the hamster had spread from a comparatively small area in the late eighteenth century, displacing the typical grey form in woodlands, but not in steppes. Such changes are known in insects, but had not previously been described in mammals.

Soviet expeditions have done fine work in foreign countries, especially with cultivated plants and their allies. Thus Vavilov’s institute sent expeditions to Afghanistan, Abyssinia, and the Andes. The last-named visited the original home of the potato, and brought back frost-resistant and disease-resistant forms which could be crossed with the cultivated plants. It was not till fifteen years later that the economic value of this work proved so clear that a British expedition was sent to the same region. Unfortunately it went too late to improve our own potatoes during the present critical time.

Soviet plant breeders have achieved remarkable practical results. Among the more striking are the production of plant breeds, including not only cereals, but strawberries, adapted to the Arctic, and the cultivation of the kok-saghyz, a plant resembling the dandelion, which yields rubber, and in the present crisis is being grown in various places outside the Union, including Massachusetts. Other results are of very great theoretical interest. For example, by crossing wheats with perennial grasses, perennial wheats have been made, which no more require annual sowing than do meadow grasses. And by intercrossing of wheats, a new species, Triticum sovieticum, has been created, with fifty-six chromosomes, whereas the wheats used by neolithic man has fourteen, macaroni wheat twenty-eight, and bread wheat forty-two. It is too early to be sure of the economic value of these forms.

The animal geneticists have done much work of abstract importance. Vassin has mapped genes in the chromosomes of the sheep as workers elsewhere have mapped them in the mouse and rabbit. In the fly Drosophila, which has been studied for thirty years in the U.S.A., Berg was the first to show that genes responsible for fertility were particularly common in the sex-determining X chromosomes. Soviet workers were the first to study the genetical structure of populations. Beginning with poultry and cattle, they worked on insects on a very large scale, and Tsetverikov showed that apparently uniform populations harboured vast numbers of recessive genes yielding new types when normally out-breeding populations were inbred.

The Soviet Union certainly leads the world in artificial fertilisation. Semen from the best bulls and rams is distributed over wide areas by aeroplane and carrier pigeon, and this has led to an extremely rapid improvement of livestock. But this was only made possible by close scientific studies both of the physiology of reproduction, and of the life processes of spermatozoa kept in artificial media.

In the field of plant physiology, Maximov and others have done fine work, especially on the life of roots, but the most striking discoveries are those of Lysenko, which I have already described in the Daily Worker. He has shown, among other things, how seeds which are normally sown in autumn, and do not begin serious growth till spring, can be made to produce normal plants when sown as late as April. This has made it possible to grow wheat varieties which are generally sown in autumn, in regions where the winter is too cold for this to be practicable. He has applied similar principles to many other plants, including the potato, and this has made it possible to extend the area under some important crops by thousands of square miles.

Corresponding work on animal development has not yet led to important practical results, but Soviet workers have done a great deal in analysing the complicated processes by which one part of a developing embryo determines the development of other parts, for example, whether a particular set of cells will become skin, eye lens, or nerve. In this field they are behind the Americans, and perhaps the Germans, but definitely ahead of the rest of the world.

In the field of animal physiology Pavlov’s work has been continued with special reference to the factors which determine the different kinds of temperament in dogs, which are believed to correspond with temperamental differences between men. The modern technique of blood storage for transfusion purposes was largely worked out by Bagdassarov, and other workers have pushed the technique of blood transfusion near to its limit in the case of dogs. These have been revived by injections of oxygenated blood as long as fifteen minutes after they had bled to “death,” in the sense that the heart had ceased to beat; and have then lived normal lives for several years.. The extension of these methods to man will make it possible to operate on the heart while the rest of the body is supplied with blood from a pump, and thus to cure heart diseases which are at present always fatal.

In animal biochemistry Braunstein and Kritzmann discovered an enzyme called transaminase, which transfers nitrogen atoms from one part of a protein to another. Living proteins are far from being static. They are constantly being taken to pieces and put together again. In fact, their identity from day to day is more like that of a flame or a waterfall, which keeps its form while changing its substance, than that of a dead protein. Engelhart and Lyubinova found that one of the enzymes in muscle is identical with the contractile substance, myosin. Hence for the first time we know the exact chemical process whose energy is converted into work when the muscle contracts. We also realise that when we describe a certain protein as an enzyme we are at least sometimes being undialectical. The protein causes a chemical change to occur, but in so doing it is changed itself, and the change has important consequences for the cell of which it is a part.

The average Soviet citizen is almost as interested in biology as in engineering. This was forcibly brought home to me in 1928, when the tercentenary of Harvey’s discovery of the blood circulation got a good deal more publicity in Russia than in England. I was travelling in a Moscow suburban train with a biologist. One of our neighbours was trying to do a competition in a weekly paper which consisted in naming twelve faces. The biologist borrowed the paper, and showed me that one face was Harvey’s. I doubt if Harvey’s face is well enough known in his native land to figure in a competition.

Again, in the Soviet Union school nature study is not merely a matter of learning, but of discovery. The children in thousands of schools have trapped and ringed migrating birds, which were then released and caught elsewhere. In this way paths of migration were mapped, and the children learned what research was like, and also that you got far more enjoyment by observing birds than by killing them. As an example of the intense interest shown in animal life, it is worth noting that in 1932 it was much easier to buy tropical fish in Moscow than in London.

The remarkable progress in Soviet hygiene, and the surprisingly high recovery rate from war wounds are, I think, due in part to the fact that for the first time in history the ordinary man, woman and child are beginning to think scientifically about themselves. This is perhaps the greatest of all the achievements of Soviet biology, and the one with the greatest promise for the future of mankind.