The discredited Soviet scientist Trofim Lysenko is enjoying a reappraisal in Russia these days. Lysenko was once the Soviet Union’s top agricultural mastermind, supported by Joseph Stalin himself. Even at the height of his power, however, Lysenko’s controversial theories on how plants and animals genetically adapt to their surroundings were dismissed by most of his peers. Yet Lysenko’s political influence was so great that he managed to have many of his rivals killed. His pseudoscience thus dominated Soviet academia for decades—causing profound damage to Russian research and agricultural production.
Former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev first allowed scientists to criticize Lysenko in 1958, but kept him in power despite his detractors. But when Khrushchev was deposed in 1964, Lysenko lost his political benefactor, and was deposed as the director of the Russian Institute of Genetics the next year. Now, however, a wave of Russian activists and scientists has begun to reevaluate his legacy. These supporters claim that the new field of epigenetics, which studies how environment can alter the expression of genetic traits, is validating much of Lysenko’s research. They also accuse the West of deliberately tarnishing Lysenko’s legacy in order to diminish Russia’s contributions to the study of genetics. In fact, it is these activists who are damaging Russia’s contribution and reputation, as well as its understanding of its own Soviet past. Desperate to wean Russia from its reliance on foreign technology, President Vladimir Putin hopes to turn Russia into a research haven. He’ll never succeed, however, unless he prevents his countrymen from playing politics with science.
Lysenko’s scientific career began in 1921 in Ukraine, at the Kiev Agricultural Institute, where he studied the effects of temperature variation on the life cycle of plants. Lysenko was able to boost crop outputs through a process he called vernalization, which caused plants to grow faster due to exposure to cold temperatures. Vernalization, however, was neither new nor revolutionary, as German scientists had employed the
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