Darwin and Marxism: Part 2

Ed has written that T. D. Lysenko was against Darwinism. What did Lysenko say?

On July 31, 1948, Lysenko gave an address to the V.I. Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences, entitled “The Situation in the Science of Biology.” The address was published in pamphlet form, copyright 1948. This was the same year that Lysenko’s “agrobiology” ideas actually became official Soviet policy. In the pamphlet, Lysenko writes,

The appearance of Darwin’s teaching, expounded in his book, The Origin of Species, marked the beginning of scientific biology. The primary idea in Darwin’s theory is the teaching on natural and artificial selection. Selection of variations favorable to the organism has produced the purposefulness which we observe in living nature: in the structure of organisms and their adaptation to their conditions of life. Darwin’s theory of selection provided a rational explanation of the purposefulness observable in living nature. His idea of selection is scientific and true. [p. 9]

Lysenko is full of praise for Darwin, “a great naturalist, the founder of scientific biology, whose activity marks an epoch in science” [p. 11-12]. Furthermore, “Progressively thinking biologists, both in our country and abroad, saw in Darwinism the only right road to the further development of scientific biology” and “only on the basis of Darwinism could the science of the life of plants and animals develop successfully” [p. 12]. He even attacks “reactionary biologists”:

Darwinism, as presented by Darwin, contradicted the idealistic philosophy, and this contradiction grew deeper with the development of the materialist teaching. Reactionary biologists have therefore done everything in their power to empty Darwinism of its materialist elements. The individual voices of progressive biologists like K. A. Timiryazev were drowned out by the chorus of the anti-Darwinists, the reactionary biologists the world over. [p. 13]

From these excerpts it is plain that Lysenko was not “anti-Darwinist.” Moreover, at least by 1948, sixteen years after the first purges of scientists, Darwinism was still being taught:

To this day Morganism-Mendelism is taught in the majority of our universities and colleges in the department of genetics and selection, and in many cases also in the courses on Darwinism, whereas the Michurinian teaching, the Michurinian trend in science, fostered by the Bolshevik Party and by Soviet reality, remains in the shade. [p. 43]

However, just because Lysenko used Darwin and Darwinism in his rhetorical appeals, it does not mean that he was following the Darwinian consensus of the day. Lysenko completely rejected “Neo-Darwinism,” the synthesis of Darwinism and Mendelism that was basically complete by 1930. Lysenko’s entire anti-science campaign was predicated on his ideological complaint against Mendelism. This is clearly spelled out by Julian Huxley in his response to Lysenko’s 1948 address, Heredity: East and West (1949), as well as in the definitive account of the Lysenko years, The Rise and Fall of T.D. Lysenko, by Zhores Medvedev.

But why was Lysenko so opposed to Mendelism? His antipathy was rooted in distorted conceptions of Darwinism, Marxism, genetics, and agricultural science, as I will show with further excerpts from his 1948 address.


6 thoughts on “Darwin and Marxism: Part 2

  1. Trying to label “Mendelism” as something separate from evolution doesn’t cut it. Especially when Lysenko lumps Mendelian theory with Morgans work on evolution, it rather gives the game away.

    I don’t have a copy of the document you refer to, but I’ll wager Lysenko does not extoll the virtues of Darwin, nor of Darwinian theory in evolution. That would run counter to everything else he did in life.

    Consequently, to claim Lysenko rejected Mendel but accepted Darwin is simply to try to play on the ignorance of an audience. Such a claim would be impossible, and is counter to history.

    Check out Martin Gardner’s book, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, in which he devotes a chapter to Lysenko, and explains it somewhat succinctly:

    Perhaps the most important reason fo all is ideological. We have already seen how neatly Lamarckianism fits into the emotion of constructing a new society. Evolution, in Mendelian theory, is a slow process which operates by means of random, purposeless mutations. The over-all result is progress, but a progress in which an individual cannot feel that his own improvements are directly passed on to children. Lysenkoism offers a more immediately attractive vision. Humanity becomes plastic — capable of being molded quickly by new conditions and individual efforts. Russian children can be taught that the Revolution has “shattered” the hereditary structure of the Soviet People — that each new generation growing up in the new environment will be a finer stock than the last. Thus, a foundation is being prepared for a new type of racialism. Every Soviet citizen, regardless of his genetic background, will soon be able to feel himself superior in heredity to citizens of decadent, bourgeois environments.

    It’s clear that Lysenko had no intention of endorsing any part of Darwin’s theory. Any claim that Lysenkoism was based in Darwin is pure hooey. There simply is no connection of any value between anything Darwin said or did and Marxist theory, nor to Lysenko’s odd ideas in botany and biology.

    Lysenko was no more pro-Darwin than he was anti-Stalin.

  2. I have read that chapter in Gardner’s 1957 book. Notably, he only asserts that Lysenko opposed “Mendelianism,” not Darwinism.

    I don’t think it is dishonest or false to distinguish Darwinism from Mendelian genetics. Many respectable British and American Darwinists did so between 1900 and 1930. This is a simple logical distinction that is backed up by the history of Darwinian theory: Mendelian genetics was not universally accepted as a logical extension of Darwinian theory until it was actually proven by experiment.

    It is apparent that you believe that anyone who rejects anything from Mendel also rejects all of Darwin; and that anyone who accepts anything from Lamarck also rejects all of Darwin. However, this is not how Lysenko or his supporters described themselves. You can argue that they were lying, ignorant, or deluded, but their words are plain: They called themselves Darwinists, and they called their enemies anti-Darwinists.

    Moreover, I have not found that Lysenko’s contemporaries ever described him as “anti-Darwinist.” His enemies, all of them Darwinists, described him as “anti-science,” “Lamarckian,” “neo-Lamarckian,” “anti-Mendelian,” or “ignorant,” but not “anti-Darwinist.” Huxley, Gardner, and Medvedev were all contemporaries, and I have not found that they accused Lysenko of being “anti-Darwinist.”

    I have yet to address Lysenko’s understanding of Darwin or Marx, and that is where I will get into neo-Lamarckianism and the Marxist view of Darwin and Lysenko.

  3. No serious scientist today tries to distinguish genetics from evolution. Relying on past practices won’t justify it now.

    I’m well aware that Lysenko tried to parse the language to make it appear he supported science, when his methods were sheer authoritarian in dealing with people, and pure bunk in the laboratory and in the field. Again, that’s the problem — it’s no justification for repeating such errors today.

    I challenge you to take that speech you have, and cite from it anything that is consistent with evolution theory that Lysenko approves.

    The history is clear. Darwinists, like Vavilov, were murdered. Trying to claim that this murderous purge of Darwin from Soviet science was, instead, an endorsement of Darwin, is a twisting of history well beyond the pale. Surely you jest.

  4. I am not claiming here that modern geneticists do not support evolution, but rather that it was common in the past for Darwinists to disagree on what constituted authentic Darwinism. Perhaps someone could say the same today, but I am not doing so here.

    Everything I’ve read about Lysenko indicates that he was first an ambitious back-stabber, second a vindictive bureaucrat, third a groveling party hack, and maybe on the side he was interested in some agricultural issues, in a non-scientific capacity. I am not asking anyone to trust him as a scientist. I am trying to present his claims and consider why he made them.

    I’m afraid I don’t have the time right now to analyze Lysenko’s writings in detail to determine how well he adhered to evolutionary theory as it is understood in 2007. However, I do intend to compare his general views to Darwin’s, so perhaps I will present an item such as the one you are asking for.

    Yes, Darwinists were murdered, and the people who did it claimed to be Darwinists, but is this a new phenomenon in history? Patriots have been murdered in the name of patriotism; Christians have been murdered in the name of Christ; Marxists have been murdered in the name of Marx. Such things happen in the realm of politics. It is fruitless to be scandalized by inconsistency, because there is never perfect congruence between a person’s beliefs, intentions, actions, and rhetoric.

  5. Well, when you do find the time to analyze Lysenko’s writings, you’ll find he doesn’t support Darwin in any way. Nor will you find Lysenko claiming to be a Darwinist, nor will you find Stalin making such claims.

    Claiming that the Soviets were Darwinists is incorrect. Claiming the Soviets modeled any part of their philosophy on Darwin’s teachings is the opposite of what happened. Shutting one’s eyes to the truth, that the Stalinists used state power to stop the teaching of Darwin’s theory and any research based on it, does not change the facts that show that is exactly what happened.

    It does suggest that the creationist drive to use law to stop evolution now might be misplaced.

Instigate some pointless rambling

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