Re: Definition of Race
Arun Gupta (email@example.com)
Sat, 18 Feb 1995 19:32:28 GMT
In article <firstname.lastname@example.org> email@example.com (Jennifer Mansfield-Jones) writes:
>Gould is silent at interesting points. One might expect that someone
>with his interests in genetics and history would be in an excellent
>position to offer a scathing analysis of Lysenkoism. I'm not aware
>of any such, though I may have missed something.
The ABI/Inform magazine database lists one article by Gould related to
Lysenko between 1981 and 1987. This appeared in Natural History, Vol 90,
April 1981, in Gould's column "This View of Life". The title is "A Most
The article is more about the ideas of Nikolai Vavilov, one of Lysenko's
victims, than about Lysenko. Quoted here are some of the parts related
In 1936, Trofim D. Lysenko, struggling to reform Russian agricultural
science on discredited Lamarckian principles, wrote : "I am not fond
of controversy in matters concerning theory. I am an ardent contro-
versialist only when I see that in order to carry oout certain practical
tasks I must remove the obstacles that stand in the way of my scientific
As his practical task, Lysenko set ou to "alter the nature of plants in
the direction we desire by suitable training". He argued that previous
failure to produce rapid and heritable improvements in important crop
plants must be laid to the bankrupt ideology of bourgeois science, with its
emphasis on sterile academic theory and its belief in Mendelian genes which
do not respond directly to the prodding of breeders but change only by
accidental and random mutation. The criterion of a more adequate science
must be success in improved breeding.
"The better we understand the laws of development of plant and animal forms",
he wrote, "the more easily and quickly will we be able to create the forms
we need in accordance with our wishes and plans." What "laws of development"
could be more promising than the Lamarckian claim that altered environments
can directly induce heritable changes in desired directions ? If only Nature
worked this way ! But she does not and all Lysenko's falsified data and
vicious polemics budged her not one inch.
If Lysenko's "obstacles" had been disembodied ideas alone, the history of
Russian genetics might have been spared some of its particular tragedy.
But ideas emanate from people and the obstacles designated for removal were
necessarily human. Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov, Russia's leading Mendelian
geneticist and director of the All-Union Lenin Academy of Agricultural
Sciences centered in Leningrad, served as a focal point for Lysenko's attacks
in 1936. Lysenko castigated Vavilov for his general Mendelian views, but
any geneticist might have served equally well for such generalized target
practices. Lysenko singled out Vavilov for a more specific and personal
theory (and the subject of this column)--the so-called alw of homologous
series in variation.
Twelve years later, following the devastation of the war, Lysenko had
triumphed. His infamous address, "The Situation in the Biological Sciences",
read at the 1948 session of the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences,
contains as the first statement of its summary what may well be the most
chilling passage in all the literature of twentieth-century science.
The question is asked in one of the notes handed to me, "What is
the attitude of the Central Committee of the Party to my report?"
I answer: The Central Committee of the Party has examined my
report and approved it. [Stormy applause. Ovation. All rise].
Following another ten pages of rhetoric and invective, Lysenko concludes :
"Glory to the great friend and protagonist of science, our leader and teacher,
Comrade Stalin! [All rise. Prolonged applause.]"
Nikolai Vavilov was unable to attend the 1948 meeting. He had been arrested
in August 1940 while on a collecting expedition in the Ukraine. In July 1941,
he was sentenced to death for agricultural sabotage, spying for England,
maintaining links with emigres, and belonging to a rightist organization.
The sentence was commuted to ten years imprisonment and Vavilov was moved
to the inner prison of the NKVD in Moscow. In October he was evacuated to
the Saratov prison where he spent several months in an underground death
cell, suffering from malnutrition. He died, still a prisoner in January 1943.
Vavilov's ideas are discussed, and if you are interested, I refer you to
the column. Returning to Lysenko :
Unfortunately, in the deepest sense, Vavilov had left himself open to
Lysenko's polemical attack. The law of homologous series provided Lysenko
with important ammunition, and Vavilov's overextended chemical analogy
deepened his troubles. Lysenko caricatured Vavilov's law in 1936 by
presenting ridiculous examples involving species too distantly related
to present parallel series in Vavilov's system: "In nature we find apple
trees with rounded fruit, hence there must be or can be trees with round
pears, cherries, grapes, etc."
Lysenko's ideological attack was more vicious. He made two major changes
involving both parts of that catchword for official Soviet philosophy --
dialectical materialism. Vavilov's law, he claimed, was undialectical because
it located the source of organic change within the genetic systems of organisms
themselves and not in the interaction (or dialectic) between organism and
environment. Secondly, Lysenko charged that the law of homologous series
was "idealist" rather than materialist because it viewed the evolutionary
history of a species as preconfigued in the unrealized (and therefore
nonmaterial ) capacity of an inherited genetic system.
Evolution, Lysenko charged, is almost an illusion in Vavilov's scheme. It
represents a mere playing out of inherited potentials, not the development
of anything new. It expresses the bourgeois penchant for stability by
depicting apparent change as a superficial expression of underlying constancy.
According to Vavilov's law, Lysenko charged,
New forms result not form the development of old forms, but from
a reshuffling, a recombination of already existing hereditary
corpuscles ... All the existing species existed in the past, only
in less diverse forms; but every form was richer in its potentialities,
in its collection of genes.
Madness often displays a perverse but cogent reason in its own terms : and
we must admit that Lysenko did identify and exploit the true weakness in
Vavilov's argument. Vavilov did underplay the creative role of environment
and his chemical analogy did betray a belief in prefigured potentiality as
the source of later, and in some sense illusory, change. But Lysenko, who
was both a charlatan and a cruel polemicist, was equally undialectical (
despite his protestations to the contrary) in viewing plants as putty before
a molding environment.
Further discussion of Vavilov is omitted.
The content of ideas of Lysenkoism is known to be false with no ifs, ands or
buts. Lysenko is characterized as both a charlatan and a cruel polemicist,
a producer of falsified data and vicious polemics.
Is any more scathing analysis really necessary ?