R.H. Monroe and Joseph Hansen

The Lysenko Case

(January 1951)

Source: Fourth International, Vol.12 No.1, January-February 1951, pp.29-32.
Transcription/Editing/HTML Markup: 2006 by Einde O’Callaghan.
Public Domain: Joseph Hansen Internet Archive 2006; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.


The Stalinist outlawing of genetics in the Soviet Union in 1948 profoundly stirred the scientific world. The proscription of this important science and the liquidation of world famous Soviet geneticists had repercussions that have not yet died down. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, ordinarily absorbed in problems of its own field, devoted an entire issue (May 1949) to a review of the events. Other scientific and cultural magazines took up the issue. The general public, hitherto little interested in what appeared to be a minor, obscure science, tried to puzzle out the truth about the arguments and the reasons for the purges; and two popular books appeared, explaining the complex questions in dispute: Heredity East and West [1] by Julian Huxley and Death of a Science in Russia [2] by Conway Zirkle.

Those few geneticists outside the Soviet Union who support the Stalinist regime at first viewed with interest the rise of T.D. Lysenko, the obscure Ukrainian plant breeder who spearheaded the attack on genetics. Lysenko is now an embarrassment to them. J.B.S. Haldane, long known as an apologist for Stalinism, for a time clung to a “wait and see” attitude, shielding himself as best he could from the stinging remarks that fell his way from leading scientists. Finally, irritated by the Stalinist outrages on genetics, he lodged a public protest. In “Marxist circles,” he complained, referring to his political co-thinkers, “I believe that wholly unjustifiable attacks have been made on my profession (genetics). We are not infallible, but we certainly do not hold many of the opinions which are attributed to us.” [3] Not exactly the most devastating understatement ever made, but it no doubt cost Haldane much torment of soul.

Scientists Aroused

Only the professional poison-pen artists of the Stalinist machine and their dupes still profess to see in Lysenko an “innovator” of science battering at the oppressive wall of conservative theoretical tradition. Outside of those circles possessing vested or emotional interest in Lysenko’s success, not a single well-known scientist has rallied to his defense. On the contrary, he has been the universal butt of ridicule, irony and a devastating marshalling of fact and argument.

Part of the heat was no doubt generated by the cold war which was mounting in intensity at the time of Lysenko’s political triumph over his scientific adversaries inside the Soviet Union. But the brutal purge of genetics in the USSR places the Moscow bureaucracy and its sycophants in a particularly vulnerable position, war or no war. The truth is that scientists everywhere felt genuine alarm and indignation at the ukase of the Central Committee officially approving Lysenko’s doctrines, outlawing those of Soviet scientists of opposite views, and commanding a nationwide purge of men, books and institutions. Scientists, generally inclined to internationalism, rallied to the defense of science in the Soviet Union. Many for the first time really felt the impact of the purges which they vaguely knew had been occurring in other fields for a decade and a half.

Fear of Similar Trend in US

In addition, the destruction of genetics in the USSR gave occasion for many scientists to voice their fear and resentment of similar trends apparent in the United States, particularly in the field of atomic science. Some even warned openly against mistakenly considering the totalitarian danger to science confined to the Soviet Union. The editors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, drawing the lessons of the Lysenko case in their May 1949 issue, warned of the dangers of “statism” to the “free growth of science.” And in the same issue, Richard B. Goldschmidt, former Director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Biological Research in Berlin and now Professor of Zoology at the University of California, underlined the danger of government-financed and government-sponsored “scientific big business” linked with universities where “sooner or later leadership will fall to the university politician, the promoter, the men who make the headlines.” This trend can lead, Goldschmidt feels, to the appearance of the “Lysenko type” in America.

“Though our political system will not give him a chance to act as savagely as is possible in Russia,” he says, “he could do enormous damage to the progress of science and the freedom of research if not checked in time.”

By holding up Lysenko’s triumph as the monstrous result to which such tendencies lead, American scientists hoped to draw an object lesson that might give pause to the ominous trend only too apparent in Truman’s “loyalty” purge, witch-hunt and oppressive censorship of scientific thought in atomic research.


The destruction of genetics in the Soviet Union closed a struggle that had been going on since the early Thirties. A Ukrainian plant breeder, T.D. Lysenko, and a professor of philosophy, I.I. Prezent, at that time began a sustained attack on the biological study of heredity, advancing a doctrine held by I.V. Michurin, a Russian plant importer and horticulturist (1855-1935). Their opponents, headed by the famous N.I. Vavilov, were men who had come into prominence in the days of Lenin and Trotsky, when science was free in the Soviet Union. Their work in genetics had gained such renown that the USSR was considered foremost in sponsoring development of this field.

In the murky atmosphere of the great purges and Moscow Frame-up Trials, the Lysenko-Prezent team moved to the forefront. Even before 1934 they had tasted blood. In 1936 the Medico-Genetical Institute for Study in Human Genetics, the largest of its kind in the world, was “dissolved.” During the war heads rolled in increasing numbers among the geneticists, and finally in 1948, Lysenko’s views were made official dogma. S. Kaftanov, Minister of Higher Education in the USSR, followed up the decree by an order:

“Curricula and programs, textbooks, and methods of teaching and of research must be re-examined and re-organized as must the entire system of education and training of cadres of scientists and the activities of publishers and of journals. All biological chairs and faculties must be held and supported by qualified Michurinists ...

“Thanks to the Bolshevist party and, personally, to Comrade Stalin, ways for the further triumphant march of the most progressive Michurin biological science are now clear. The scientists of our colleges will apply, from now on, all their energy to the propaganda of Michurin’s biology and to the support of undivided rule of Michurin’s biological doctrine in our higher institutions of learning.” [4]

End of a Science: Genetics Banned

In the establishment of Lysenko’s doctrine as Stalinist canon, some of the greatest scientists of the Soviet Union met an untimely end. Vavilov, who, on the founding of the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences, had been made its head at Lenin’s suggestion, died in northeast Sibera in 1942 of hardships beyond his endurance, according to report. He had been arrested and condemned during the period of the Stalin-Hitler pact as a “British spy.” Besides Vavilov, others who perished were Agol, Ferry, Levit, Karpechenko, Levitsky, Chetverikov, Efroimson, Kerkis, Philipchenko, Serebrovsky, Avdoulov, Aljin, Koltzov, etc.

Others succeeded in saving themselves, perhaps only temporarily, by “recanting” as did Galileo in his day. Among the “dismissals” in 1948 were Academician Dubinin, world-famous geneticist, Academician L.A. Obeli, one of the USSR’s leading biologists, Academician I. Schmalhausen, one of the world’s best known theorists on evolution. Also Academicians Gershenzon, Grishko, Kholdony, Nemchinov, Polyokakov, Yudintsev, Tretyakov, Zhebrak, Savodovsky. These are only the major figures.

The Laboratory of Cytogenetics was liquidated along with the Laboratory of Plant Cytology and the Laboratory of Phenogenesis. The Institute of Morphological Evolution was “reorganized” as well as the Institutes of Cytology, Histology and Embryology. Genetics was labelled a “foreign” science, its leading representatives, “bourgeois.” At the 1948 Agriculture Congress that marked the death of genetics in the Soviet Union, Prezent boasted:

“We shall expose them as the representatives of a harmful, ideologically alien, imported-from-abroad tendency. (Applause.)” [5]

The cheering of the Stalinist claque at this witchdoctor’s pronouncement was fitting accompaniment to the somber end of a science which had shewn promise in the Soviet Union of far outstripping achievements in the western world.


Stalin, the obscure “practical” revolutionary, usurped power from the Marxists under the banner of the ignorant and reactionary theory of “socialism in one country.” Lysenko, the obscure “practical” plant-breeder, displaced the geneticists under the banner of the ignorant and reactionary theory of inheritance of “acquired” characteristics.

Just as the ideological dispute with Stalin involves the whole science of Marxism, so the dispute with Lysenko involves the whole science of biology. To judge Stalin’s pretensions correctly it is necessary to know the fundamentals of Marxism. To judge Lysenko’s claims it is necessary to know something about the fundamentals of biology.

Lysenko claims to defend dialectical materialism. Under this protective coloration he advances beliefs that are closer to primitive magic than to either dialectics or materialism. Thus one of his disciples explains in accordance with the tenets of the master that from the milking action on a cow’s teats one can confidently expect increased yield of milk in the cow’s descendants. (Shaumyan.) [6]

Lysenko’s Postulates

Lysenko’s central postulate is that the immediate environment directly and simply molds the characteristics an individual transmits to the offspring. He consequently rules out an indirect and complex mechanism difficult to control in our present state of knowledge. (“There is no organ of heredity: there is no hereditary matter separate from the soma.” [7] The sex cell is not “chemically” complex.)

If you can influence heredity directly and specifically by simple changes in an organism’s food, surrounding temperature, etc., it is not necessary to carry on large-scale, expensive experiments involving plants in the hundreds of thousands and requiring intricate statistical methods. You can use a handful of seeds and put statistics in the ash can. Exacting scientific controls are no longer needed – no organism is exempt from the direct influence of environment. (“By ridding our science of Mendelism-Morganism we will expel fortuities from biological science. We must firmly remember that science is the enemy of chance.”) (Lysenko’s italics) [8]

According to the Lysenko school scientists need not monkey around with colonies of the Drosophila fruit fly. This fly, introduced by Muller into the Soviet Union in 1922, was of epic importance in the work leading to the discovery of the gene as the carrier of heredity – a landmark in genetics as great as the discovery of atomic structure in physics. Why bother with studying chromosomes in the cells of the salivary glands of the tiny Drosophila when you can improve hog types simply by giving the present herds better food and cleaner pens? (“Who wants what by their very nature are useless Drosophilas?” Babajanyan.) [9]

As for the most elementary laws of heredity discovered by Mendel, these can be crossed off as “reactionary.” (“In our opinion, free unlimited selective fertilization in plants leads, as a rule, to one heredity being completely consumed by the other. The maternal heredity most frequently consumes the paternal one. The reverse happens also, though rarely.” Lysenko.) [10]

These grossly mechanical concepts are topped off with what might be expected – belief in a mystic “life impulse” [11] and a basic denial, despite lip service to the contrary, of transitional forms between living and non-living matter. (“Virus is a concept which is not accepted by Soviet biologists.”) [12]

Lysenko’s dogmas stem from the Eighteenth Century views of the Chevalier de Lamarck, a French biologist who first popularized the theory of “Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics.” This theory was proved untenable more than 40 years ago, yet Lysenko’s bid for immortality in science rests on experiments which he claims confirm this outmoded theory. For instance, Lysenko “changed” summer type wheat into winter varieties by subjecting the summer wheat to cold temperatures at its early growth stage. After a few generations of this “vernalisation” treatment, a new species was formed – winter wheat. Could clearer proof be demanded of the correctness of Lamarck’s views?

Unfortunately for Lysenko’s niche in the halls of science, the “vernalization” technique was used by Allen in 1846, Klippart in 1858 and Gassner in 1918. But these experimenters were not able to change summer cereals to winter types permanently. They found that no matter how long the “vernalization” was imposed, the new winter types lasted only one generation. After that they reverted to summer types. These experiments, as well as more recent repetitions, speak against the view that “vernalization” can change a species.

In defense of Lamarck it must be said that in his day no satisfactory explanation existed of how organisms evolve from primitive types. Lamarck in seeking a basis for evolution assumed that the immediate external environment is capable of molding new species since nothing was then known of “cells,” of “genes,” of the many variations that arise within species independently of the immediate environment or of the complex nature of the relation between organisms and their environment.

Lamarck’s Fallacy

At present, all one has to do is look around, as Darwin did, to see that those varieties with less adaptable qualities in specific environments are slowly or quickly supplanted by those with more adaptable qualities, whether the “choosing” or “selecting” agent is the natural environment or man. We, for example, take those variations which produce more meat, eggs, milk, or give greater yields and use them for planting or breeding. The less useful types are displaced. Texas long-horn cattle are today virtually extinct.

In nature too, those preyed-upon varieties whose color more closely approaches the area in which they live will supplant similar varieties with less protective coloration. Certain darker types of moths and butterflies are becoming dominant in smoke-grimed urban and industrial areas where lighter types used to be more common. Insecticides like DDT kill off some varieties while more resistant types survive and multiply. Orchard owners have run into this recently on the West Coast.

Lamarck and others who came to believe in evolution puzzled over how new species can arise. The Lamarckian postulate that new species are formed directly by the influence of the immediate environment was a big step forward as it helped advance the concept and study of evolution. To cling to it today, however, indicates at best ignorance of insuperable objections.

For instance, an animal’s teeth wear down. If acquired characteristics can be inherited, future generations must certainly be born with more and more worn-down teeth. Yet in the evolution of certain types of horses, size of teeth increased at a faster rate than body size although the horse’s diet of grass is very abrasive. And even stranger, in nearly all animals, the form of the teeth is very well adapted to the type of food eaten. Yet the only effect any food can have is to wear down the teeth.

Cases of Oversimplification

The Lamarckian explanation breaks down just as badly in another case as easily observable as Dobbin’s tooth. The external skeleton of many insects hardens upon their emergence from the immature “larva” stage and does not change any more. Since the skeleton does not change, it is impossible according to the theory of Lamarck and Lysenko for new characteristics to be “acquired” at all by the adult and passed on to the offspring. Yet it is well-known that new varieties with new skeletal parts and differences constantly arise among insects.

And here is a still more telling case, if that is possible. Among the social insects – certain species of bees, ants and termites – one or a few females, “queens,” whose form is quite different from “workers,” act as egg-laying machines, reproducing for the entire community. The “workers” being sexless cannot reproduce. How then can changes “acquired” by the “workers” in their environment be transmitted through the “queen”?

Also, in many species females are born in a certain definite proportion to males. What in the environment leads to the “acquisition” of these various proportions?

Did a primitive peacock brush against a cave painting of stone-age man to “acquire” its intricately designed tail? Did flying in a rainbow perhaps cause the brilliant feather colors of the parrot? And how did insects that are practically indistinguishable from sticks and leaves “acquire” their stick and leaf characteristics?

Facts like these could be multiplied by the thousand. Their secret remained an impenetrable mystery as long as biology saw the relation between environment and heredity as simple and direct. The solution came when science discovered that nature is far more complex than the pioneers of Lamarck’s time suspected.

(To be continued in the next issue)



1. Heredity East and West, Lysenko and World Science, by Julian Huxley. Henry Schuman, New York. 1949. 246 pp. This book gives a clear, readable account of the Lysenko dispute and the basic issues involved.

2. Death of a Science in Russia, by Conway Zirkle. Univ. of Penn. Press, Phila. 1949. $3.75. 319 pp. In the main, this book has republished articles, speeches, and declarations from the Soviet Union and other countries concerning events leading up to the final purge in genetics, subsequent recantations and the reverberations abroad.

3. In Defence of Genetics, by J.B.S. Haldane. The Modern Quarterly, Vol.IV, No.3, pp.194-202.

4. Science, Vol.109, pp.90-92. Reprinted from Izvestia, Sept. 8, 1948.

5. From Zirkle, op. cit., p.247. However, in The Situation in Biological Science (Proceedings of the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences of the USSR July 31 – Aug. 7, 1948 – Complete Stenographic Report), International Publishers 1949, the translation of this quotation (p. 602) reads: “They want a discussion. But we shall not discuss with the Morganists (applause); we shall continue to expose them as adherents of an essentially false scientific trend, a pernicious and ideologically alien trend, brought to our country from foreign shores (applause).”

6. The Situation in Biological Science, pp.250-262. This book, published by the Stalinists, contains the speeches of some 50 Lysenkoists.

7. Huxley, Op. cit., p.103.

8. The Situation in Biological Science, p.615.

9. Ibid., p.163.

10. Heredity and its Variability, by T. D. Lysenko. Translated from the Russian by Theodosius Dobzhansky. King’s Crown Press, 1945. p.60.

11. Lysenko, Ibid., p.51.

12. Conversation with Lysenko reported by Eric Ashby, in Huxley, op. cit., p.81.


Last updated on: 24.2.2006