R.H. Monroe and Joseph Hansen

The Lysenko Case

(March 1951)

Source: Fourth International, Vol.12 No.2, March-April 1951, pp.57-62.
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.

(Continued from last issue)


How do new varieties arise? How do they transmit their new organs and functions to their young? This has been the central problem of evolution since Darwin’s Origin of Species appeared in 1859, the same year as Karl Marx’s Critique of Political Economy.

Gregor Mendel, an Austrian monk and part-time mathematician and plant experimenter, made the first real advance. Though his results, showing that different characteristics do not “blend” in heredity, were published in 1866 in an obscure journal, they did not become known in the world of science until 1900.

Meanwhile biology had made other important advances. The “cell” whose discovery had been popularized by Schleiden and Schwann in the 1830’s, quickened interest in microscopic work. Everything that could be sliced was carefully scrutinized. With parallel progress in physics and chemistry, new biological sciences were born or received fresh impetus, as biochemistry and physiology (the study of function).

The rediscovery of Mendel’s experiments opened a fertile field. The study of the cell (cytology) had shown that when each cell divides in the process of growth or reproduction, certain filaments in the nucleus also divide. These mysterious filaments which were easily observable because they turned dark when the cell was stained were named “chromosomes.”

Another important discovery was the fact that only one male sex cell (the sperm) will fertilize the female egg. Later it was found that on forming in the sex organs, both sperm and egg contain chromosomes. The number, size and shape of these filaments proved to be highly regular for all members of a species.

However, it soon turned out that Mendel’s experiments had created more questions than they could answer. If hereditary characteristics are carried by material structures (genes) and these structures do not blend, “consume” each Other as Lysenko believes, then the genes of each individual are more like a hand of cards in a poker game than a bowl of paste in which the heredity raw material is thoroughly fused. Discontinuous particles appear to carry the continuity of heredity. After each reshuffling of the deck that constitutes a new generation, the same cards turn up in all the new hands constituting the gene structure of individuals of the new generation. But here was a real mystery. Why is it that certain poker hands (combinations of characteristics) keep turning up with such regularity that the whole deck appears to be stacked? Why are certain combinations repeated? This became a burning question: What stacks the deck?

Morgan’s Experiments

The answer to it was found by T.H. Morgan, an American biologist working at Columbia University. He and his students showed by many experiments, mainly on the Drosophila fly, that the chromosomes of the sex cells are the carriers of the cards (genes). For a simplified picture, you can imagine the chromosome as a necklace from which the beads (genes) break off in groups between knots in the string. When the cells divide to form sperm or eggs, the genes between breaking points on the chromosome enter the shuffle as groups carrying definite hereditary characteristics. And it is these groups that are the poker hands. But the broken groups don’t enter the new sex cell just any which way. They first recombine to form new chromosomes which are outwardly exact replicas of the chromosomes that first divided. The shuffle is therefore between groups of genes. However, each sex cell gets only half the number of chromosomes present in other cells of the species. On combining with an opposite sex cell of the same species (fertilization) the normal number of chromosomes is restored. A normal embryo starts out life with a full load of the genes that will determine its development, half from each parent.

This gives us a glimpse of the great complexities involved at this level of life, all of which is dismissed by Lysenko as a “reactionary” view.

Morgan’s discoveries could account for combinations of characteristics. Still to be answered were the questions: How do new characteristics arise in the first place? And precisely what is this mysterious gene that carries them from one generation to the next?

Mutations of the Genes

In 1927, H.J. Muller, an American geneticist who worked for many years in the Soviet Union, found that by subjecting sex organs to X-rays new characteristics could be made to appear in the next generation. Here for the first time we had a hint of the precise way in which environment influences heredity.

Under X-ray bombardment, some of the genes changed (mutated). Later it was found that certain chemicals and temperature shocks had similar effects. Subjected to such treatment, extra chromosomes are also sometimes formed, or the whole set is doubled, pieces broken off, added on, or switched around. Organisms bearing such altered genes and chromosomes depart sometimes widely from the normal.

As in nature, many “mutations” thus formed are of no advantage to the new organism. In fact many prove lethal. Some mutations appear, however, which under different environmental conditions prove advantageous.

An instance of how this works out in nature is provided by the occasional Drosophila flies born with very reduced wings. In normal life this mutation will usually not be passed on since such an individual is handicapped in finding food and sex partners. However, if the Drosophila colony is located say on an island in a prevailing wind, the members with reduced wings have less chance of being blown away into the sea. Consequently they soon become the dominant type in the colony. Three French geneticists proved this by experiment in 1937.

Mutations are widely observable. Sometimes people are born with extra fingers or toes. Or contrariwise, in a recent case a person was born without hands or feet. Mated to a normal person, the mutation was passed on to the children. Hemophilia, or inability to form normal blood clots, is another well-known hereditary condition that arises every so often.

Dwarf plants and trees suddenly appear, or sometimes plants with differently shaped leaves or new fruit colors. Thousands of mutants occur. Some survive. Many do not. In 1937 Dubinin and three other Russian geneticists examined 130,000 Drosophila melanogaster flies from Southern Russia and found more than 2,800 mutants in this collection. Such research is, of course, now banned in the Soviet Union.

Some mutations occur more frequently than others. Some do not show their effect in the new generations until the individual mates with another carrying the same mutation.

We can now say with great certainty that the raw material for evolution – the new types selected by environment for survival – is continually being formed in nature as a result of quantitative mutation, both of genes and chromosomes. Under new environmental conditions these mutant types give rise to qualitative changes – new species.

Interrelation of Life and Environment

The relation between living forms and environment is dialectical through and through. Over geologic time, environment goes through tremendous changes. Mountains rise and are eroded. Glaciers advance, then recede before encroaching tropical climates. Oceans change in temperature and composition. New natural enemies appear. Foods change in type and quantity. Thus environment acts as a mighty dynamic power to “negate” mutations and combinations that do not fit changed conditions. The process leads to an ever-increasing complexity of forms and relations, to a greater role for “mediation” such as is played by the gene, and as we see to a high degree in the case of man to increased reciprocal influence between living form and environment.

This knowledge has already made possible a greater measure of control over evolution of types of interest to man. By cross-breeding, new gene combinations can be brought about from which we can select the best. By inducing mutations through newly-discovered means, we can step up formation of new varieties from which to choose those suited to our purposes. New highly productive foods like hybrid corn and various rust-resistant wheats and cross-bred cattle and poultry are all products of our conquest and understanding of these principles. That our gains are so paltry in the light of the known possibilities is part of the overhead cost of the capitalist system. Included in the great promise of Socialism is increasing control over environment and even conscious direction of man’s own evolution.


Let us now turn to the $64 question. Is Perov, a follower of Lysenko, right when he calls the gene “mystical, mythical, and actually non-material”? [13] Or is Prezent accurate in scornfully comparing the “invisible gene” to the “invisible spirit”?

Research up to now reveals the chemical structure of this “spirit” is that of a highly organized protein molecule or side-chain attached to a protein molecule. Protein particles are the most complex chemical structures yet known and up to now only a few of the simplest have been synthesized. It is the chemical structure of protein, not any abstract “property” or “essence” as Lysenko claims that gives matter the mode of existence we know as life.

Recently, with the aid of the electron microscope a photograph was taken of a chromosome section showing many small dots clumped along its length. Whether these dots are actual genes cannot yet be accurately determined. However, although we are not sure that we have a photograph of the gene, we can infer from its actions that it is quite real just as we can infer the same for atoms.

The gene acts like a protein particle, to be more specific, an enzyme. Just as water molecules act as a catalyst, enabling iron to rust, so the gene acts as an intermediary in the chemical reactions of the cell. It is, however, an enzyme that acts in the production of other enzymes. When its structure is changed under the impact of X-rays or other environmental influences (many not yet discovered), the enzymes produced by the gene are also changed, and this occurrence is known as “gene mutation.”

Gene Mutation

In the developing organism some of the enzymes produced by the genes function as growth accelerators or differentiators, causing some tissues to grow faster than others or some to change from a primitive state to bone, muscle, nerve, etc. All the cells of the body have the same number and kind of genes except in certain very rare cases of “somatic” mutation. This can easily be seen if we remember that the fertilized egg has a full complement of genes, that this complement doubles, then divides into two daughter cells which also now have a full complement of genes. This process continues throughout growth.

However not all the genes of the body or their products work at the same time. Certain areas start growing when others stop. Some areas differentiate into structures with functions quite distinct from others. If you throw a rock into a quiet pond and follow it with a series of others, the ripples will converge and diverge in a complex pattern. The analogy provides an idea of how chemical gene products, interacting within the organism as a whole, set each other off at various times and places. Small quantitative changes combining with other small quantitative changes in an exceedingly intricate way cause the general qualitative changes observable in the growing organism. And so mutant chemical genes cause new effects in different parts of the body.

Not a Conscious Process

Far from Lysenko’s concept that living things can “absorb” the environment and then act accordingly in future generations, the gene has no conscious power to direct its changes. It cannot say to itself, “I’m going to mutate so that future generations will fit better with a certain new environment.” It can’t possibly know how the environment will change, not even under the prodding of a Lysenko. It is only a chemical, a very complex chemical, but not a fortune-teller able to predict that “for this environment this type of mutation is necessary and for another environment I’ll have to mutate in a new direction.”

The gene mutates without discrimination among possible effects. The causes of its changes are of an electro-chemical order. The eventual effects as we see them among surviving species may make it appear superficially that they have “acquired” their characteristics directly from the environment, so dovetailed is their relationship to it. But this relationship is due to the “selection” by the environment of favorable genie effects and consequently of the genes and gene combinations that cause these effects. In the absence of factual knowledge, it is not strange that the Lamarckians did not understand this complex interaction of environment and heredity.

Natural or artificial selection, however, as we now see in observation and practice, acts on the varieties which are formed by mutation. If certain mutations turn out to be useful, “fine,” if not, “too bad.” The gene itself has no idea where it is going. Eventually man, by conscious application of the theory and practice of genetics and all the other sciences, will be able to guide mutation in the direction he wishes. But so far, no one has been able to show that the gene or organism is guided by an “internal life energy” such as Lysenko postulates. [14]


We have already mentioned Lysenko’s famous “vernalization” experiments in which summer varieties of wheat, given shock treatment in a refrigerator, responded by absorbing the cold environment and changing into a winter variety. What about his other claims? At best it is difficult to say, since Lysenko does not specify his materials and methods so that other experimenters can check them. He takes no consideration of statistical results which alone might reveal the success or failure of his experiments. He uses no “controls” to determine whether something new has really been discovered in the experiment. He does not specify the purity or impurity of his materials. These omissions reveal that Lysenko’s technique does not even approach scientific procedure.

The evidence shows, moreover, that impure stocks with a large amount of hereditary variability have been used in Lysenko’s experiments. There is increasing suspicion that Lysenko has been selecting those genetic variations always present in impure stocks, which can survive in new environments. As Darlington, the British biologist, comments:

The evidence as a whole shows that Lysenko is making use of the three classical precautions needed for the “success” of experiments designed to prove the inheritance of environmental effects: namely, beginning with a mixed stock, omitting to use proper controls, and repudiating statistical tests. [15]

“Pangenesis” and “Blending Inheritance”

Two of Lysenko’s pet beliefs are “Pangenesis” and “Blending Inheritance.” Pangenesis holds that every part of one’s body makes its individual contribution to the heredity that goes into the sex cells. Blending Inheritance maintains that in a fertilized egg each of the parents’ contributions merges directly like two dyes in water. These beliefs, held by Catholic theologians in the middle ages, have not been borne out by science. [16]

Genes transmitted from the parents.do not “blend” any more than sodium and chlorine atoms “blend” in sodium chloride, common table salt. As for the sex cells, they are formed in specialized protected sex organs which safeguard the hereditary line from gross accidental change. If Pangenesis were true, the effects of amputation, infantile paralysis, poor physical and mental environments would be inherited.

Reactionary Inferences of Theory

Lysenko himself does not openly carry the reactionary content of his theories to their logical conclusion. However H.J. Muller reports a revealing conversation with a Stalinist bureaucrat, the head of Soviet Agriculture, in 1936. When asked if it were true that Lysenko’s theories indicate that minority, colonial and poverty-ridden peoples are inferior to the better-off populations, this bureaucrat replied:

... yes, we must admit that this is after all true. They are in fact inferior to us biologically in every respect, including their heredity. And that is in fact the official doctrine. But after two or three generations of living under conditions of Socialism, thein genes would have so improved that then we would all be equal. [17]

This is nothing but a reflection of the Russian chauvinism fostered under Stalin. The truth is. that these peoples are not inferior in the first place. And if just living in the shadow of the Kremlin can change genes, then Soviet monkeys should soon be as genius-like as Stalin.

Yet Lysenko insists that he has proved Blending Inheritance by experiments of “vegetative hybridization.” This is to graft a branch of one variety (the scion) on to a plant of another variety (the stock). “The union of the grafted plants,” says Lysenko, “gives rise to an organism of a different breed, namely a combination of the breeds of the scion and the stock.” [18]

Lysenko’s Vegetative Hybridization

Julian Huxley, one of the world’s foremost biologists, discusses these claims at some length. Here is one deflating excerpt:

... when Ashby (an Australian botanist) and I were in Moscow in 1945, we ascertained that the crucial grafting experiments of Avakian and Yastrub, which, though published in 1941, were then (and still are) the mainstay of Lysenko’s evidence for vegetative hybridization, had been independently repeated in another laboratory in the USSR, with the same strains of tomatoes, but using adequate controls. In particular, numbers of plants of the strains used for stock and for scion were raised without grafting and bred from. Ashby later investigated further, and found that the one positive result obtained was that the ungrafted controls produced just as many “new” forms as the grafted plants. In other words, the strains employed in Lysenko’s Institute were genetically far from pure, “throwing” many variations without grafting; and accordingly this genetic impurity, and not the grafting would in fact account for many of the new forms which had turned up in Lysenko’s experiments. He also ascertained that permission could not be obtained to publish the results, presumably because they throw doubt on Lysenko’s conclusions.

A little later, Wilson and Withner (1946) repeated the same type of experiment with a number of combinations of tomato strains, all of which had been previously bred to a high degree of purity. In this case, no results of the original grafting, either of stock on scion or vice versa, could be detected. There was no question of Lamarckian inheritance in later generations, as there was no initial effect to be inherited. [19]

Simple mechanistic theories about complex phenomena appear lucid and materialistic. Carry them to their logical conclusion, however, and they end in the murkiest mysticism. Lysenko’s views are a case in point.

Lysenko and Bergson

To explain how “external characteristics and conditions” can be “acquired” and inherited, Lysenko postulates in his main theoretical pamphlet, Heredity and Its Variability, that all living beings have a “property.” In various places he calls this property “nature,” “heredity” or “life.” It is this “property,” according to the doctrine, that enables organisms to “acquire” new characteristics. “Any living body part, and even a droplet (if the body is liquid) possesses the property of heredity, i.e., the property of demanding relatively determined conditions for its life, growth and development.” (Lysenko’s italics) [20]

If we now ask Lysenko what is the basis of this “property” we get the following answer: “the life impulse,” [21] “the very essence, i.e., the nature,” [22] “the internal life energy.” [23]

This is like asking an astrologer of the middle ages why he maintains that the sun goes around the earth and getting the profound answer, “The sun goes around the earth because you can see it does. It obviously has the property of revolving, to be more specific, a revolving essence, an internal revolving energy.”

Here Lysenko’s thought departs completely from materialism and merges with reactionary idealist philosophy. It was Henri Bergson who sought to popularize belief in a mystic “elan vital” or “vital impulse” as the basic cause of evolutionary change. As is known, the central .radiating point of Bergson’s “elan vital” turned out to be “God.”


The destruction of genetics in the Soviet Union and Lysenko’s ascendancy cannot be explained on any rational grounds if you confine yourself to biological science. In both theory and practice Lysenko must be characterized as either a deluded zealot or a charlatan. The correct explanation must be sought in more general aspects of life in the USSR today. We have already indicated that the parallel which comes most forcefully to mind is the destruction of Marxism and the rise of Stalin to power.

Stalinism in Politics and in Science

Stalin turned away from the difficult international task of building world socialism. He held out the promise of quick, easy gain’s if the Marxist program were scuttled and attention focussed on building “socialism in one country.” All this was done under guise of maintaining Marxism and remaining faithful to scientific socialism. For a time Stalin appeared to have some substance to his claims. National planning and the monopoly of foreign trade made it possible even under Stalin for Soviet industry to forge ahead rather rapidly. The rate of gain, however, soon slowed and eventually Stalinist politics helped pave the way for catastrophic setbacks both to the Soviet Union and the world working class. The Marxists, headed by Leon Trotsky, warned of these dangers with singular foresight. But the dangers appeared distant. Stalin could usurp power because he represented the rising bureaucracy with its limitless thirst and greed for an immediate pay-off from the planned economy. The Russian Trotskyists, remaining true to the long-range interests of both the Soviet Union and world socialism as a whole, struggled against the reactionary tide but like the scientists today, suffered temporary defeat.

Lysenko represents the encroachment of the Stalinist tendency in the field of science. He scorns the difficult problems and techniques of genetics which appear to him remote from life. He holds out the promise of quick, easy gains if genetics is scrapped and attention focussed on some immediate practical steps in plant breeding. This is done under the guise of faithfulness to science and especially to dialectical materialism. And it is quite possible that some gains can be shown. As Huxley points out:

Lysenko’s success was in large measure due to the fact of Soviet agricultural backwardness. In a country with antiquated methods, any modernization of technique will have a salutary effect ...

Again, in a country where the strains of crop-plants and livestock are relatively unimproved and far from genetically pure, as appears to be the case in the USSR, almost any energetic attempt at improvement will have considerable practical results in the first few years. And Lysenko is undoubtedly energetic ... It is worth pointing out, however, that mass selection cannot go on, producing rapid results. It soon reaches a point of diminishing returns; and after this is reached, it is necessary to employ special methods based on Mendelian theory to secure any considerable improvement.” [24]

Huxley cites the case of the development of hybrid corn in the USA on this basis. Nearly 100,000 inbred lines were prepared and tested. “The inbred lines, lacking hybrid vigor, look (and are) miserable; but the new hybrids are immensely superior to the original strain.” Some 90 percent of the corn in the Corn Belt is now hybrid. This seed enables the farmers of America to grow in two years what would normally require three years with old type varieties. Hybrid corn is worth about $1,000,000,000 a year to the farmers of the USA. (That’s before the current inflation.) Huxley concludes:

It is a great pity for the USSR that they were in such a hurry and they would not trust neo-Mendelian theory. On seeing the poor quality of the lines produced by intensive inbreeding, the Michurinites decided against “time-consuming inbreeding procedures” and in favor of direct selection from the original strains. This undoubtedly will have had a rapid effect over a short period, but the improvement will have been much less than what they could have obtained by following in the footsteps of the neo-Mendeliana in America. [25]

The source of the pressure for quick results is not difficult to ascertain. It is the same pressure that led the bureaucracy to plunder the satellite countries taken by the Red Army. Throughout the Soviet Union at the end of the war, hatred of the regime that had helped open the country to the Nazi scourge was at fever height. The bureaucracy had to appease this mass feeling immediately with some fruits of victory. Lysenko was held up to the peasants as a miracle man who could guarantee quick increase in crop production. The geneticists were made into convenient scapegoats.

A Lesson in Politics – for Scientists

Stalin himself is reported to have Lamarckian leanings but it is more likely that the personal interest of the dictator in the purge derives from his general policy of rooting out all personnel of Lenin’s time, no matter how remote the field, if they possess an ounce of independence of mind. Under a totalitarian dictatorship, centers of political resistance can form in the most unlikely fields. Stalin equates all independence of thought to political opposition. In this his instincts no doubt serve him well.

When Trotsky was driven into exile in the Soviet Union and Marxism was extirpated, many Soviet scientists very likely comforted themselves with the thought that these events were remote from their field and did not concern them. Their failure to intervene in the political struggle proved costly.

In the society of today whether it be the USSR, Germany or the United States or anywhere, no fields are exempt any longer from the great social and political issues. Failure to intervene actively in time is equivalent to suicide. Scientists must consider themselves citizens as well as observers and investigators in a narrow field. This is the great lesson to be drawn from the strangling of genetics in the Soviet Union.

Some scientists delude themselves with the thought that Lysenko’s views are a consequence of his holding to dialectical materialism along with the rest of the bureaucracy and that a purge such as he headed can’t happen in a land where government officials profess a different philosophy. Two things can be said in reply:

Two Admonitions for Lysenko’s Critics

  1. Lysenko is not a defender of dialectical materialism any more than is Generalissimo Stalin. The evidence shows that he is a mechanist with a strong inclination toward vitalism. His claim that he defends dialectical materialism can no more be taken at face value than his claim that he defends genuine science in biology. A geneticist who denies the validity of Lysenko’s views on heredity but concedes dialectical materialism to him reveals ignorance in philosophy quite on a par with Lysenko’s ignorance in biology. The truth is that the findings in biology as in all other sciences speak for dialectical materialism and not against it. The case of Lysenko is one of fraud, slander, bigotry and abysmal ignorance, from his “experiments” with tomatoes to his pronouncements on philosophy. [26]
  2. The “loyalty” purge and witch-hunt conducted by the Truman administration for the past five years, along with its reactionary censorship of atomic research, give no room for confidence that science is much safer in imperialist America than it is in the USSR under Stalin. To permit the present trend to gather momentum without intervening politically is to follow the fatal course many Soviet scientists took in Trotsky’s time. The time to act is now before the juggernaut of the police state takes final shape.



13. The Situation in Biological Science, p.146.

14. Lysenko, Heredity and its Variability, p.51.

15. C.D. Darlington, A Revolution in Soviet Science, Journal of Heredity, p.143. Quoted by Huxley, op. cit., p.74.

16. See Conway Zirkle, The Early History of the Idea of the Inheritance of Acquired Characters and of Pangenesis, Transactions of the Amer. Philos. Soc., Vol.XXXV, No.2. 1946.

17. H.J. Muller, Genetics in Relation to Modern Science, Eighth International Congress of Genetics, 1948. Quoted in Zirkle, op. cit., p.91.

118. Lysenko, Heredity and its Variability, p.32. Also:

“The frequency of obtaining vegetative hybrids will depend upon the ability of the experimenter to force the scion to assimilate as many as possible of the nutrient materials prepared by the variety the properties of which are to be transmitted to the scion. The experimenter must overcome the ‘lack of desire’ (the selectivity) on the part of the scion to include these materials in the building of its body.” Ibid., p.34.

119. Huxley, op. cit., pp. 78-79.

20. Lysenko, Heredity and its Variability, p.32.

21. Ibid., p.51.

22. Ibid., p.3.

23. Ibid., p.51.

24. Huxley, op. cit., p.180.

25. Ibid., p. 181.

26. P.S. Hudson and R.H. Richens, who have written what many consider to be the most thorough analysis of the experiments published by the Lysenko school (The New Genetics in the Soviet Union. Imperial Bureau of Plant Breeding and Genetics. Cambridge, 1946) use Lysenko as a convenient stalking horse to attack dialectical materialism.

“By extrapolating from history to philosophy and deciding philosophically questions which should be approached by experimental methods, Marxists have emptied their philosophy of much of its value, etc.” (p.55)

Are Hudson and Richens ignorant of the views of Marxism? In criticizing Hegel, for instance, Frederick Engels said:

“The mistake lies in the fact that these laws (dialectics) are foisted on nature and history as laws of thought, and not deduced from them. This is the source of the whole forced and often outrageous treatment; ...” (Dialectics of Nature. International Publishers, 1940, p.26)

And Leon Trotsky, speaking at the Mendeleyev Congress, Sept. 17, 1925, said:

“Whenever any Marxist attempted to transmute the theory of Marx into a universal master-key and ignore all other spheres of learning, Vladimir Ilyich (Lenin) would rebuke him with the expressive phrase: ‘Komchvanstvo’ (‘Communist swagger’). This would mean in this particular case – communism is not a substitute for chemistry.” (Reprinted in The New International, Feb. 1940. Also in pamphlet form, Marxism and Science, Pioneer Publishers.)


Last updated on: 24.2.2006