At last, we return to the story of the Soviet creationist theocracy! Other posts in this series can be found under the Darwinism tag, because they focus on Ed’s strange beliefs about Darwin, in addition to his apparent claim that Soviet communists were creationists.
In the book The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov, Peter Pringle tells the story of a brilliant scientist who was persecuted by the Soviet bureaucracy in the early twentieth century. Ed says that this is because the communists hated Darwin and tried to suppress the truth about evolution, apparently because it threatened their creationist theocracy.
Pringle starts out by giving the scientific basis for the controversy over plant breeding methods in tsarist Russia and the early Soviet Union:
In 1900, biologists rediscovered Mendel’s laws of heredity, first postulated in 1865. Mendel’s theory of particles of heredity—later to be called genes—stored in the reproductive cells had been ignored for thirty-five years. But then at the turn of the century scientists confirmed his theories; his paper was “rediscovered” and the new science of genetics was born in Europe and America. Academic institutions began teaching new Mendelian breeding techniques for plants and animals. In Moscow, the premier college for such studies was the Petrovskaya Agricultural Academy, known affectionately as the “Petrovka.” In the fall of 1906, Nikolai Ivanovich [Vavilov] began his studies there. [p. 22]
What about Darwin’s theory of heredity? Ed says that Darwin invented the science of genetics. Is Pringle trying to suppress Darwin, too? No, Pringle brings Darwin in later. You see, the two parts of the Russian (and later Soviet) agronomy establishment were not in disagreement about Darwin; they all agreed on the “fact” of evolution as explained by Darwin. The problem was that Darwin didn’t understand heredity, which is the only aspect of evolutionary theory that has practical significance.
Darwin had left biologists with a puzzle. He had not explained the mystery of inheritance. How were the adaptations that he said were the cause of evolution passed on from one generation to the next?
Darwin had suggested that there might be two types of inheritance: “soft” and “hard.” The soft inheritance theory suggested that organisms would pick up adaptations during their lifetime from the environment, and these adaptations would somehow change the constitution of a plant and would be inherited. The hard inheritance theory suggested a fixed set of factors in the organism that was passed to the offspring generally unaffected by the environment. [p. 26]
The principles of soft inheritance had been outlined by Lamarck years before Darwin, and Darwin still accepted many of them, as described by Ernst Mayr in his introduction to the Harvard edition of Origin of Species. The principles of hard inheritance were outlined by Mendel during Darwin’s lifetime, but completely independently, and few people paid attention to Mendel’s experiments until the twentieth century.
Until theorists succeeded in combining Darwin’s theories with Mendel’s principles of heredity in the late 1930s and 1940s, Mendel’s principles were suspected of being “unscientific,” since they seemed to require the existence of “hidden” biological components (genes) that did not actually evolve.
The rediscovery of Mendel’s work caused a revolution in biology but especially for breeders of animals or plants. [p. 27]
The Origin of Species had been revised by Darwin five times since 1859 and had been thoroughly discussed and dissected by all kinds of scientists. Yet, somehow the “new” knowledge of Mendel’s work caused a “revolution,” even though Ed believes that Darwin had explained genetic theory to everyone in 1859.
When Vavilov arrived at the Petrovka in 1906, Russian biologists, like those in other industrialized nations, were split into Lamarckian and Mendelian camps. Some of the older professors at the Petrovka tended to scoff at the new theories of genetics and genetics did not exist in Russia as a discipline; there were no specialized genetics institutions or periodicals. These older academics considered plant breeding to be an ancient art, a native skill born of observation of nature in the raw, not a scientific discipline based on a complex mathematical theory or ratios of dominant and recessive factors. . . . Picking the best plants had always been the job of uneducated peasants, not learned academics, and some of the older professors thought that was how things should continue. [p. 27]
This is important later, since Trofim Lysenko’s rhetoric constantly referred to the geneticists as “bourgeois intellectuals,” as opposed to the simple proletarians like himself. Both sides in Russia and the Soviet Union completely accepted the “fact” of evolution in the past; their argument was over how to implement man-made evolutionary change. Consequently, Pringle always refers to the debate within Russia as “the Mendel-Lamarck dispute.” Since Darwin partly agreed with Lamarck and knew nothing about Mendel, there is no justification for Ed’s claim that “Mendel” was a secret code for “Darwin” and “Lamarck” was a secret code for “biblical creationists.”
The two types of plant breeder often clashed in heated debates at the Petrovka. . . . Vavilov argued with great passion that in 95 percent of the cases, the peasant farmer did not improve the yield of his crops, or the milk production of his cow, because he was not aware of Mendel’s laws governing the inheritance of characteristics. He had no idea which of the traits he had selected would continue on in future generations and which would simply disappear. [p. 28]
So, was Vavilov trying to educate the Russian peasants about Darwin’s theories? No.
Was it ignorance of Darwin’s theories that kept Russian agriculture from advancing? No.
Was Vavilov desperately trying to spread the good news of Darwin’s genetic theories among the creationist Russian academics? No, even before the Bolshevik revolution, all the Russian biologists accepted evolution as fact, but that had not helped them develop new methods of plant breeding, and Russians were starving. According to Pringle, Darwin’s theories did play a part in Vavilov’s research, but not in the way that Ed believes.