Lysenkoism Then and Now
A cautionary tale of censorious social norms
This is an essay, in full, prepared by Catherine Salmon and myself for an edited volume tentatively titled The Free Inquiry Papers on free speech, academic freedom, and open inquiry. It is presented in full.
Catherine Salmon is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Redlands in Southern California and a founding member of SOIBS, the Society for Open Inquiry in the Behavioral Science. Her research interests include parental investment/sibling conflict, male and female sexuality, particularly as expressed in pornography and other erotic genres, and human-animal interactions.
Lysenkoism then and now: A cautionary tale of censorious social norms
Catherine Salmon, University of Redlands and Lee Jussim, Rutgers
While many believe science to be free of political and ideological contamination, those who know history know better. The tale of Trofim Lysenko’s catastrophic effect on agriculture in Soviet era Russia should serve as a cautionary tale. When scientific truth-seeking processes have been unduly infected by ideological requirements and censorious social norms, it leads to widespread belief in falsehoods and, in the extreme, preventable human-caused disasters. Revisiting those events can function like a lighthouse, warning of dangers that may not be apparent, but which might be avoided by those who are alert to them. We do not suggest that America is on the verge of a Lysenko-like disaster, but we do believe that ideological support for censorious social norms is eroding free inquiry and, downstream, scientific validity and credibility, in a wide range of areas. (Here we address social science, see Satel, in this volume, on medicine).
Who was Lysenko?
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Lysenko became the preeminent agronomist of Stalin’s regime by promising that he could increase crop yields at a time when there was a significant agricultural crisis in the aftermath of the Russian Civil War. His ideas dovetailed perfectly with the Marxist ideology of the day. Just as any person could play any role in society (individuals were less important than the collective and elites were regarded with suspicion), so too could plants and animals cooperate for the greater good and be molded as Lysenko wished. The core idea of Mendelian genetics, that genetics determined many of the characteristics of living things, was rejected as “western science.” Lysenko argued that plants could be “trained” or “educated” to develop traits that they would pass on to the next generation, and thus grow abundantly under all conditions. Plants could be taught to bloom in winter: the will of the people could master nature itself!
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