In Defense of Lysenko

Exerpted from Genetics in the Soviet Union from Science Advances ppg 220–226 (1944), but probably originally published earlier in The Daily Worker.

J. B. S. Haldane [1]

It is somewhat difficult to get an objective view of the state of science in the Soviet Union. On the one hand, along with genuine records of fine achievements, exaggerated stories of Soviet discovery and invention are put about. Typical communist success stories, did you say? We Europeans are often amused to read newspaper cables from the U.S.A. claiming credit for American discoveries which had actually been made in Europe some years earlier. And no doubt Americans have their laughs at similar stories from capitalist Europe.

As against this, we are told that science is at a very low ebb in the Soviet Union. No research is encouraged except what is thought to be of immediate value to industry, agriculture, or war. No theory may be published which does not conform with the canons of dialectical materialism. The intellectual liberty which is an essential condition of scientific progress is completely absent. And so on. One of the most important and successful lines of German propaganda in preparation for the present war was the spreading of such views as the above, with the object of preventing any co-operation of the British and French ruling classes and the Soviet Union which could have prevented the outbreak of the war.

As a matter of fact some branches of science are highly developed in the U.S.S.R., and others rather poorly. Thus physical chemistry is making great strides. Semenov’s work on gas reactions is of the first importance. On the other hand, research along the lines of classical organic chemistry is less important, in spite of the good work of pre-revolutionary Russian chemists such as Reformatsky. In mathematics very little is being done on such favourite American topics as finite group theory, but in the study of probability the Soviet Union seems to be ahead of America. It is easy, for propaganda purposes on either side, to pick on the bright or dark patches. In a general way Russian science resembles American science forty years ago. Many of the leaders are training students in a number of different subjects rather than concentrating on one line of research. So many new institutions are being opened that a larger number of second-rate men and women are obtaining posts than in England before the war, or America today, where expansion is or was much less rapid. We may look for a gigantic flowering of Soviet science in another generation, corresponding to that of America in the last fifteen years, but on a considerably larger scale, since the opportunities for education are more widespread.

Nevertheless, even today the Soviet Union is leading the world in certain branches of science. In geography the Soviet arctic explorers have taken the lead which was held by such men as Peary and Amundsen. In cryology (the study of cold) Soviet scientists are ahead of the rest of the world in methods of separating gases from mixtures by liquefaction and fractional evaporation. Their work on soils and their transformation is superior to
that of other countries, though here it must be admitted that Glinka laid the foundations before the revolution; and so in many other branches. In the rest of this article I shall deal with Soviet genetics, my own branch of science, of which I naturally know most.

Now let us look at the credit side. Under the guidance of Vavilov [2] an immense mass of data on the genetics of cultivated plants has been accumulated. His school has also studied the related wild plants not only in the Soviet Union, but as far away as Abyssinia and Peru. This work has led to some very important results. Vavilov was the first to formulate the law of homologous variation in related species, now confirmed and extended by Sturtevant and other workers in America. He determined the places of origin of our more important cultivated plants. This was done under the direct stimulus of Marxist theory, according to which the domestication of these plants was a far more important historical (or rather prehistorical) event than the wars and other political happenings with which written history is mainly concerned. Special attention was paid to the evolution of weeds. These may evolve into cultivated plants. Thus rye is a weed in the wheat crop in warm climates, forms a mixed crop with wheat in primitive agriculture at intermediate temperatures, and replaces wheat in the north or on mountains.

A vast amount of detailed observation of plant chromosomes was done by Levitsky, Navashin, and others. This was necessary for Vavilov’s work, and has put the whole question of crop plant hybridization on a more scientific basis. A number of very remarkable hybrids, for example, between wheat and couch grass, are now being tested out.

In the field of fruit genetics we may notice Rybin’s synthesis of the plum from the hybridization of the wild cherry-plum and sloe; There can be little doubt that our cultivated plums originated in this way. On the other hand, Soviet geneticists have done little or nothing on the genetics of ornamental plants such as the sweet pea, the poppy, and the various Primulas, which have led to important theoretical results elsewhere. They have concentrated on economically important plants, though their studies of them have been very thorough, and have included problems of no immediate economic importance.

In animal genetics Soviet workers on poultry such as Serebrovsky have covered much the same field as those of other lands; but as regards sheep, cattle, camels, and other larger animals, they are in a class by themselves. For example, Vassin is now mapping the genes on sheep chromosomes. The large scale of Soviet animal husbandry makes artificial insemination on a vast scale possible. A single ram or bull may have several thousand children available for study. A particularly interesting line is the study of the biochemical differences between and within breeds. For example, the blood chemistry of race-horses and cart-horses is compared, and also that of efficient and inefficient members of the two breeds. Nothing of this kind is being done elsewhere.

“Formal genetics,” as it is called in Russia, received a great impetus from the visits of C. B. Bridges and H. J. Muller, two leading American geneticists, who introduced Drosophila to the Soviet Union. This little fly gets through thirty or more generations a year, and you can grow four hundred in a milk bottle, so it is uniquely suited for the study of inheritance. Russian workers took it up enthusiastically, but much of their work was inspired by Muller, and was of the same general character as similar work done in the U.S.A. However, one group took up the genetical analysis of populations, which had been started by Soviet poultry and cattle geneticists, and applied it to Drosophila populations. It turns out that although the flies look alike, large numbers of them carry concealed recessive genes. So when their offspring are inbred, a great variety of abnormal insects is produced. This line of work was started by Tsetverikov, but carried on on a vast scale by Dubinin and others. It has been confirmed on a smaller scale in the U.S.A. and Britain, and has led to new perspectives both of evolution and of human congenital disease.

Let us now look at the criticisms against this background of solid and often brilliant achievement. Dobzhansky and Timofeeff-Ressovsky got good jobs abroad [3] , as dozens of British scientists have done in the last twenty years without any suggestion that British science is persecuted. Tsetverikov was a serious loss to research. The other two dismissed workers had not done work of great originality. But several good British geneticists have recently lost their posts, one for marrying a Chinese wife, another for trying to expose corruption in an institute, and a third for disproving one of his professor’s pet theories. Similar events have occurred in America.

Lysenko’s attack on genetics is much more interesting. The public in the Soviet Union is intensely interested in biological problems, and Lysenko’s attacks were widely reported in the daily newspapers. Now such attacks are not uncommon. Professor Jeffrey of Harvard has attacked genetical science much less temperately and on much flimsier evidence than Lysenko. So has Professor MacBride in London. But such attacks are not hot news in New York or London, because the publics of those cities are much less interested in genetics than is that of Moscow. Some of Lysenko’s points are, I think, valid against genetics as often taught, rather than against the theories held by competent geneticists. He was quite right in saying that so-called pure lines of plants are generally mixtures, and that an exact three to one ratio in accordance with Mendel’s law is very rarely obtained. He also stated that in tomatoes and related plants a number of characters described as hereditary can be propagated by grafting. In just the same way Little, Bittner, and other workers at Bar Harbor, Maine, found that the tendency to breast cancer in mice, formerly regarded as hereditary, was largely transmitted through the mother’s milk. Lysenko further pointed out that a great deal of successful animal and plant breeding is carried out without any reference to the results of genetical research in the last forty years, and that geneticists have made exaggerated claims for the economic value of their science. In both cases he was right, though the economic value of genetics is greater than he thinks.

I am convinced that he went much too far both in his attack on the chromosome theory, and in his claims concerning the possibility of transferring characters by grafting. But what has been the result of his attacks? Vavilov was their chief target. Vavilov still directs research on a vast scale. [4] So far from having been muzzled for his alleged anti-Darwinian [5] views he communicated seventeen papers on genetical topics to the Moscow Academy of Sciences between January 1st and April 10th of I94O. (Vavilov’s name is now less prominent, but up till June 1941 the output of genetical work showed no sign of abatement.)

Lysenko attacked “formal genetics,” that is to say genetics which is concerned with such questions as locating genes in chromosomes, rather than in finding out how they act in the development of an individual, or arise and spread during the evolution of a species. It may be that under the stimulus of so brilliant a teacher as Muller, an unduly large fraction of the younger Soviet geneticists had occupied themselves with formal genetics. However that may be, formal genetics goes on in the Soviet Union, and the output of work in this field is a good deal larger than in England, even before the war.

In the controversy between Vavilov and Lysenko, I would personally give Vavilov best on most points. Nevertheless, I welcome the controversy, and wish that similar debates elsewhere were given equal publicity. I have little doubt that when I taught genetics (owing to the war I no longer do so) I made a number of misleading statements. I should be a better teacher if these were pointed out in a public debate to which I could reply. But in England things are done differently. Five years ago there were two professors of genetics in England. Now there is none. These chairs were not suppressed as the consequence of a public debate, but in all probability as a result of some old gentlemen talking the matter over privately after a good dinner. If my science must be attacked, I prefer the democratic Soviet method. I think the position of genetics is fairly typical of that of Soviet science in general. Large-scale work, so far as possible, is concentrated on organisms, substances, or processes, which may be of economic importance, but a great deal of latitude is allowed. Anyknowledge about cows, coal, gas explosions, or arctic ice, may be of value some day. So there is no restriction on what aspect is investigated. If basic principles can only be worked out on economically unimportant objects such as Drosophila, then these are used. In all research the historical angle is stressed so far as possible, whether it be a question of human history as in the case of Vavilov’s work on crops, or of changes in insect populations, as in Dubinin’s. This latter tendency, along with a distrust of over-mechanical theories, is no doubt an effect of dialectical materialism, and to my mind a desirable one.

But as dialectical materialism is a method of thought and action, not a dogma, it is hard to see how it could influence decisions on such controversies as this, except indeed by suggesting that certain possibilities should be explored, even were every Soviet scientist compelled to adhere to this philosophy, which is, of course, not the case. Anyone who studies the record of the genetical controversy recently published in Under the banner of Marxism, and particularly of the interruptions, will certainly realize that thought on scientific topics is pretty free in Moscow.

I must confess that the genetical theory of racial inequality, widely held not only in Germany but in the U.S.A. and Britain, which has played its part in bringing about such events, seems to me considerably more important than those which are now being disputed in the U.S.S.R. And I could wish that those of my European and American colleagues who have taken up the cudgels on behalf of Vavilov, who is not incapable of self-defence, would transfer some of their energies to an attack on this doctrine. [6]

Editorial comments

[1] Darwin Medalist and co-founder of the Modern Synthesis, along with Julian Huxley and Fisher.
[2] Haldane knew Vavilov personally.
[3] They fled the Soviet Union.
[4] Around the time this article was written, Vavilov was in the Gulag.
[5] This is the opposite of the story we are usually told. If you inquire about this historical event, people will tell you that Vavilov was thrown in the gulag because he believed in evolution.
[6] Haldane doesn’t mention that he was a member of eugenical societies. It is typical marxist strategy; one can say it is often their only strategy when facing accusations of communist wrongdoing and oppression, and that is to accuse their critics of being nazis, racists, etc.