Finally I am going to wrap up my analysis of Ed’s silly claims that Soviet communism was anti-evolutionist and anti-Darwinist. His primary evidence of this was that Trofim Lysenko, with Stalin’s blessing, persecuted various geneticists in the middle of the 20th century. Since genetics was at this time being incorporated into evolutionary theory to form the Modern Synthesis (a.k.a. Neo-Darwinism), Ed interpreted this as an attack on evolutionary science. Ed’s secondary evidence was that Lysenko’s theory of evolution was fairly dependent on the inheritance of acquired characteristics (“Lamarckism”), and Ed didn’t think Darwin could possibly have believed in such a thing, since modern evolutionists don’t.
First of all, no historian or philosopher that I can find, including those recommended by Ed, has ever shown that Soviet communist leaders rejected evolutionary theory in principle. They quibbled with various aspects of it that seemed politically inconvenient to them, but they fully accepted the idea that humans originated in the natural world through an evolutionary process that excludes any possibility of intervention from a supernatural being.
It is irrelevant whether some Soviet communist leaders in the middle of the 20th century disagreed with certain of Darwin’s 19th-century ideas or with those of 21st-century biologists. The idea of a fully naturalistic origin for humanity and all other organisms predates Darwin and will still be around when Darwin is completely forgotten: Darwin, Lysenko, and Stalin are all just transient blips in the history of this idea. Indeed, most biologists seem to already ignore Darwin, as indicated in a recent article by Olivia Judson.
Secondly, Ed showed that he didn’t actually know much about the history of the development of evolutionary theory when he made his claims. He thought that Darwin understood inheritance mechanisms, when every modern evolutionist acknowledges that Darwin and his contemporaries in the scientific community did not understand the mechanisms of heredity at all. Ed also didn’t know anything about the early-20th-century controversies among evolutionists leading to the Modern Synthesis. This is rather distressing, considering that Ed is supposedly a history teacher.
Ernst Mayr was an extremely well respected biologist and evolutionary theorist who has shown that Darwin’s ideas about heredity were in retrospect false, from his ridiculous “pangenesis” theories to his belief in the inheritance of traits based on their use or disuse. See Mayr’s book The Growth of Biological Thought (1982), pp. 689–693, and his introduction to the 1964 Harvard edition of On the Origin of Species, pp. xxiii–xxvii.
Mayr also firmly states that acceptance of evolution is distinct from acceptance of any particular mechanism of evolution, which may be invalidated by experiment (Growth of Biological Thought, p. 360). This is in full agreement with modern biological thought and late-20th-century marxist philosophy. However, it contradicts the assertions of certain contemporary materialists, who claim that the acceptance of evolutionary theory is based on knowledge of the precise mechanisms of evolution, or that evidence of any particular mechanism is proof of evolutionary theory. Such assertions are totally illogical, since they are not supported by the history of scientific thought. The process of induction cannot lead to certain truth, and a broad theory cannot be definitively proven with transient particulars.
Science and Philosophy in the Soviet Union (1971) was written by Loren Graham, an American who was completely loyal to the cause of Soviet communism. Graham is quite clear about all of Lysenko’s scientific and philosophical errors, because by the 1960s communists were anxious to distance themselves from him while trying to maintain the integrity of marxist ideology.
Graham compares Lysenko’s concept of hereditary “particles” to Darwin’s “gemmules” and finds that the main difference is in their historical timing. Darwin’s theories, although not unique, were innovative in form (Mayr, Growth of Biological Thought, p. 693–694) and “explained phenomena that otherwise could not be explained” at the time (Graham, p. 224). Darwin also acknowledged the speculative and provisional nature of his theories. Lysenko, on the other hand, was scientifically retrogressive and actively resisted better theories that were available at the time.
Graham identifies four philosophical disputes that framed Lysenko’s ideas about heredity (p. 231):
- the question of the mutability of the gene
- the question of the isolation of the genotype
- the question of the union of theory and practice in genetics
- the question of probability and causation
The most popular aspect of evolutionary theory has always been the idea that by understanding how organisms change, humans could direct the natural processes by which humans and other organisms change. There was great resistance to any implication that humans might not be able to develop a “technology” that would enable them to control natural processes.
At the bottom of the discussion there existed a tension between two opposite, but not necessarily incompatible, tendencies, that of heredity and that of evolution. Heredity is a conservative force that tends to preserve similarities. Evolution is a process that depends upon differences. If heredity conserved perfectly, there could be no evolution. The striking characteristic of the gene (named in 1909 by Johannsen), as it seemed to the early geneticists, was its stability over many generations. It seemed a threat to the common-sense (and dialectical materialist) notion that everything changes, and to the scientific concept of evolution. (Graham, p. 231)
In fact, the stable gene “seemed reminiscent of the fixity of the species favored in past centuries by the Church” (p. 231). Therefore, it seemed obvious that genetic theory had to be rejected by anyone who believed in progress and sought the improvement of human nature. The gene could apparently not be observed or manipulated, but the environmental conditions external to the organism could be.
Not until 1927, when Muller showed that mutations could be induced by radiation, did it seem possible to affect the genes by any environmental action. Before that time the gene seemed to be unapproachable by external stimuli. (Graham, p. 233)
However, the ideologues in Soviet science were not interested in newer empirical evidence that contradicted their preconceived notions of evolutionary processes.
Genotype and Phenotype
Until the full development of genetic theory, hereditary traits were considered to belong to the body as a whole, as in Darwin’s pangenesis. The gene was seen as distinct and separate from the organism’s body itself. This contradicted the Stalinist understanding of dialectical materialism, in which “there are no impassable barriers in nature” (Graham, p. 234).
Eventually, scientists discovered how the gene and the organism interact. Again, however, Lysenko and the ideologues did not keep up with developments in genetic science:
Lysenko continued to insist that Mendelism was based on “an immortal hereditary substance, independent of the qualitative features attending the development of the living body, directing the mortal body, but not produced by the latter” (Graham, p. 234; from T.D. Lysenko, Izbrannye sochineniia, Vol. II, Moscow, 1958; quote is also found in Trofim Lysenko, The Science of Biology Today, 1948, p. 15).
Theory and Practice
While geneticists had proved by 1927 that genes could be influenced by external stimuli, they could not obtain specifically desired changes in this way. This uncontrollability of induced mutations was a major issue in the third ideological issue of the Lysenko affair, the question of the union of theory and practice. Michurin and his followers emphasized that every experimenter with plants should be a conscious transformer of nature. The formal geneticists, however, emphasized not only the extreme stability of the gene, but also the undirected character of those mutations that did occur. Thus, the Lysenkoites were able to portray the formal geneticists as having nothing of immediate value to the Soviet economy, while they, with their close ties to the soil and their commitment to socialized agriculture, were working constantly to strengthen the Soviet state. (Graham, p. 234)
This charge of the uselessness of genetic science was not challenged until the development of hybrid maize in the United States in the 1930s. As a matter of national pride, the Soviet ideologues did not want to admit the failure of their methods.
Technology is only developed from actual science, not from a speculative theory; this also distinguishes genetic science from the useless Theory of Common Descent.
Probability and Causation
The unpredictability of induced mutations was compared to the unpredictability of a molecular quantum jump, leading to the charge that genetic science denied basic principles of causality and relied instead on statistical probability. Although this is now a familiar problem for physicists, biologists were uncomfortable with it, and the mathematically deficient Lysenko pounced on the probabilistic uncertainties associated with genetic mutations:
Unable to reveal the laws of living nature, the Morganists have to resort to the theory of probabilities, and, since they fail to grasp the concrete content of biological processes, they reduce biological science to mere statistics. . . .
Mendelism-Morganism is built entirely on chance; this “science” therefore denies the existence of necessary relationships in living nature and condemns practical workers to fruitless waiting. There is no effectiveness in such a science. With such a science it is impossible to plan, to work toward a definite goal; it rules out scientific foresight. (Lysenko, p. 59)
Of course, statistical probabilities can agree with principles of causality, but Lysenko was not capable of understanding them. The suggestion that genetic science could not yield predictable results would have caused major concern for anyone directing a planned, centralized economy, as the Soviets tried to do.
In conclusion, there is no evidence that Lysenko’s opposition to genetic science was caused by ideological opposition to evolutionary theory.
I have not attempted to show why Lysenko or any other communist or marxist accepted evolutionary theory. Marxist theory is far too boring for me spend that much time on. Lysenko’s biographers cannot agree on his motivations, but they agree that he was very ambitious and not very bright.
Lysenko definitely had ideological differences with Darwin, as did Marx and Engels; they primarily objected to certain Malthusian and “non-materialistic” aspects of Darwinian theories. Likewise, the Nazi obsession with eugenics made that aspect of evolutionary theory very unpopular with Soviet communists (Graham, p. 236–237).
Since the publication of the Origin of Species, however, many people have objected to specific aspects of Darwin’s theories without being labeled “anti-evolutionist.”
Most notably, every modern evolutionary biologist could find parts of Darwin’s work that would be unacceptable for teaching evolution today, having been disproven by later findings. That does not falsify Darwin’s work, but it shows that rejection of any particular aspect is not equivalent to rejection of the whole.
Moreover, modern genetic science, biotechnology, and medicine have no use at all for Darwin’s original text, much less the Theory of Common Descent. That might lead one to assume that modern science is itself “anti-evolutionist,” as suggested by the fearmongering ideologues who claim that the US will plunge into the Dark Ages if genetic and medical science are taught without Darwinism.
As to whether Darwin’s theories “caused” Soviet communism and Stalinism, I must disappoint everyone by saying that it is impossible. No idea has ever “caused” someone to be cruel or murderous, much less to die. It is quite pathetic that the superstition common among Enlightenment romantics, that an abstract idea can act in the material world and manipulate human wills, has infected the so-called “reality-based” communities of left-wing science fetishists and right-wing business fetishists. I reject such beliefs completely.
Lastly, since Ed has difficulty obtaining printed books to read, I offer here links to transcriptions of a couple of Lysenko’s most infamous works:
Soviet Biology (same as The Science of Biology Today, cited above)
NOTE: Edited for clarity on 7/14/08. Feel free to let me know if any of the changes seemed to make a difference in substance.