The Murder of Vavilov-2

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.

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6 thoughts on “The Murder of Vavilov-2

  1. Fascinating review. How can one get so much wrong in so few lines?

    What about Darwin’s theory of heredity?

    Darwin’s theory of heredity? You’ve discovered something else he theorized? Explain. You’re the first to observe this.

    Ed says that Darwin invented the science of genetics.

    Really? Can you quote me on that? I think you’re confusing conversations from several months ago — in any case, that’s not what I said.

    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.

    I’d love a quote from the book that says that. I don’t think any other history would support such a claim, that the Soviets “agreed” about Darwin. That’s contrary to what Lysenko wrote, and said, and contrary to the way the Stalin-led government acted. Why would they “agree” and then act contrary? This claim makes no sense, and I’ll wager you’ve misinterpreted something.

    The problem was that Darwin didn’t understand heredity, which is the only aspect of evolutionary theory that has practical significance.

    Darwin knew what he didn’t know — that’ different from misunderstanding. Darwin noted that there must be something like what we now call genes. Is that misunderstanding? Seven years prior to Mendel, 51 years prior to the rise of the science of genetics, that’s prophetic, not “misunderstanding.”

    Six sentences, four whopping errors.

    Instead of railing against things I didn’t say, why don’t you just tell us what the book itself says? Offer quotes. Use citations. Make this a learning experience for others, and not just a rant.

  2. Sorry Ed–I’m not going to go back over all the ground we covered before. That’s why I referred you to the tag.

    I. This was an ironic statement. You wrote that Mendel only observed what Darwin had already postulated. The only thing that Mendel wrote about was heredity. Therefore, you were claiming that Darwin had a theory of inheritance.

    You were wrong. Mendel proposed something that Darwin knew nothing about: specific rules for how traits are conserved. The people who didn’t like Mendel were against those rules, not against the idea of evolutionary change.

    II. This was also an ironic statement. I know that you believe that it is impossible to accept evolution and reject genetic science, as if genetic science were somehow a part of Darwin’s theories. Yet, many scientists in the early twentieth century accepted evolution and rejected genetic science, precisely because they saw no evidence of it in Darwin’s writings.

    III. Pringle clearly states that the substance of the argument was soft vs. hard inheritance, not evolution vs. creationism or evolution vs. fixity of species. All of Lysenko’s biographers that I cited in previous posts say the same exact thing.

    Pringle writes, on p. 217:

    “The Lysenko forces now proposed that the immutability of the gene, as put forward by Mendel, was incompatible with Darwin. Mendelian genetics, by suggesting genes could be passed unchanged from one generation to the next, denied progressive biological evolution and lent itself to the idea of producing a superior race. In this simplified construction, geneticists were anti-Darwin, and racist.”

    What is Pringle saying that Lysenko has against geneticists?

    1. Their theory is incompatible with Darwin.
    2. Their theory denies progressive biological evolution.
    3. They are anti-Darwin.

    So, Pringle (like all of Lysenko’s biographers) says that Lysenko hates people who are anti-Darwin, who have theories that are incompatible with Darwin, and who deny progressive biological evolution.

    No, I don’t have an exact quote. Pringle is an evolutionist, and he says that the argument was about inheritance. Are you claiming that Pringle is glossing over the real controversy?

    You know, I really don’t care if the Soviets were not evolutionists, because I do not believe that their ideas about evolution caused them to do stupid things. Let them be evolutionists, creationists, or proponents of any other theory of origins, and that will not change the basic problems with their politics. (In fact, that is true for everyone, everywhere, because all politics is essentially about rhetoric and manipulation, and has nothing to do with truth.)

    However, for you to claim that they were not evolutionists is so extraordinary, that I simply must take exception with it. It is common knowledge that Soviet communists supported progressive biological evolution specifically because they despised religion, and they thought that progressive biological evolution proved all religious beliefs about origins to be false.

    You have recommended several books to me that supposedly supported the idea that the Soviets were against progressive biological evolution. Yet, each time I actually obtained the books, they did not say what you claimed. When I have pointed this out to you, you have fallen silent.

    IV. “Darwin knew what he didn’t know — that’s different from misunderstanding.”

    I pointed out to you previously that Darwin knew anything he wrote on the topic was speculative. For a scientist to admit that he is being speculative, it means that he doesn’t understand it.

    “Darwin noted that there must be something like what we now call genes. Is that misunderstanding?”

    Yes. He didn’t know how it worked.

    “Seven years prior to Mendel,”

    Darwin’s speculation was seven years prior to Mendel’s actual observations and description of workable principles.

    “51 years prior to the rise of the science of genetics, that’s prophetic, not ‘misunderstanding.’ ”

    Prophecy is not a principle of inductive logic. If you are claiming that Darwin intuitively understood biological evolution, and that he thought that someday someone would understand heredity enough to make it a scientific discipline, I would agree. If Darwin had understood heredity and had written about what he knew, then others could have used that knowledge in 1859. Darwin didn’t express such an understanding, so science was not advanced, and neither was biotechnology.

    Forty-one years later, some others read Mendel and proved his principles experimentally. From that, they developed genetic science and biotechnology. Darwin’s theories were attached as an afterthought; they did not actually contribute to scientific understanding of heredity, genes, or biotechnology.

  3. You wrote that Mendel only observed what Darwin had already postulated. The only thing that Mendel wrote about was heredity. Therefore, you were claiming that Darwin had a theory of inheritance.

    Well, if you’re writing fiction, you should label it so.

    Nowhere did I say Darwin had a theory of genetics. But if you read Darwin, you’ll see that Mendel’s work doesn’t contradict it. Claims that Darwin and Mendel were somehow at odds is an old creationist canard, not supported by their work, by their publications, nor by any other evidence.

    If you can conflate my noting that Darwin said there must be some way that characteristics can be transmitted as preserved rather than diluted in a population, to a claim that I said Darwin had a separate theory, why should I put stock in anything else you write?

    You say you don’t want to revisit old discussions. In science, making sure we have it right often requires going over the old stuff. Take a more charitable, scientific view of this stuff, you’ll find it’s neither so contentious as you claim, nor is Darwin the bad guy you claim.

  4. Darwin and Mendel are not at odds. Julian Huxley clearly states this, and I previously cited him.

    “Darwin said there must be some way that characteristics can be transmitted as preserved rather than diluted in a population”– This was his speculation. Either he understood the science or he did not. He did not understand how traits were preserved. This, however, became the basis for genetic science. Therefore, his opinions were irrelevant to the development of genetic science.

    I am revisiting old discussions. I am not going to repeat what I already told you, though. Go back and read what you wrote before on my site.

    Darwin is not “bad,” and I have never said he was. I have repeated to you over and over, that anyone who assigns blame to Darwin for anything that happened after he died is an idiot, a raving idiot. Vox Day, Ben Stein, Kent Hovind, Ken Ham, or anyone else that you hate: they are all wrong. All of them are WRONG when they assign blame to Darwin. NO ONE “causes” bad things to happen after they die. Get over your persecution complex when you visit my site, because I am not one of those people.

  5. Pingback: Recent Links Tagged With "genetics" - JabberTags

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