Trofim Lysenko, a Stalin-era Soviet agronomist, became infamous as a symbol of flawed, politically driven science by embracing the notion that organisms can pass on traits developed during their lifetimes to their offspring—and by then ravaging the field of Russian agronomy by helping purge the country’s most prominent geneticists, who disagreed with him. More recently, however, scientists have discovered that organisms sometimes do pass on “environmentally induced” gene modifications. In this spare, graceful book, Graham, the most distinguished U.S. historian of Soviet science, weighs in on what epigenetics (as the new field is called) is doing to science, particularly in Russia. Graham incisively recounts the long controversy over the heritability of acquired characteristics, and the book shines by uniting a succinct summary of Lysenko’s ideas with a report on where the modern debate stands, including the depressing resurgence of the worst aspects of Lysenko’s thinking in contemporary Russia. Graham finishes, however, with portraits of Russian scientists fighting that trend and who would agree with him that, whatever the merits of epigenetics, Lysenko’s poor science should share no credit.
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