Today, we join an unhappy wedding of science and
politics. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
The Cold War broke out while
I was in college. All around me teachers lost their
jobs for talking about Marx, Engels, and a Soviet
agronomist named Lysenko. Those were bad days. The
name Lysenko still makes me uncomfortable.
But any search for the inventive mind has to take
account of this terrible anti-hero of creative
thought. The young Lysenko surfaced during the
Soviet agricultural crises of the 1930s.
The mechanism of evolutionary change had been under
debate for some time by then. Mendel's theory of
genetic change was starting to win out over
Lamarck's theory of adaptation.
Lamarck had thought evolution was a direct
adaptation to nature. The people who followed
Lamarck went further. They said you could inherit
acquired traits. A giraffe's neck is made long by
generations of stretching to get fruit.
It was a harsh debate, but still an honest one. It
was still question-driven. Then Lysenko came along.
There was no question in his mind. He wed Lamarck
to communist theory. A change of environment, cried
Lysenko, can shatter the heredity of an organism.
Change is revolution by all the cells in a body.
The drama of October 1917 plays out in every plant
Lysenko did little systematic science. The
experiments he did do were inept. But he sang
Stalin's song with wild-eyed oratory. Stalin paid
him by wiping out his Mendelian opponents.
By 1950 Lysenko dominated Soviet science. His power
corrupted him completely. He used slander and
murder. Power carried him to the edge of insanity.
In the right environment, he claimed, a wheat plant
can produce rye.
By the time Khrushchev took over, Lysenko had
become a national embarrassment. First Khrushchev
sanctioned articles that criticized Lysenko. Then
he traveled to Iowa to find out why we did so well
at growing corn.
So I learned about Lysenko in the McCarthy years.
Americans who'd once joined the old Lamarck/Mendel
debate lost their jobs. The mere mention of Lysenko
in a classroom meant big trouble. The Russians had
given us a terrible lesson in scientific
repression, all right. But we'd let ourselves learn
Science grows vulnerable to this sort of thing when
it seeks truth through combat. Combat opens the
door to people like Lysenko and McCarthy. We have
to find less aggressive roads to understanding.
Science will do badly whenever it's driven by
anything other than questions. Only one master
serves true learning. And that is our own delicious
sense of curiosity.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Gould, S.J., The Panda's Thumb. New
York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1980.
Gardner, M., Fads and Fallacies in the Name
of Science. New York: Dover Publications,
You should also check your Encyclopaedia
For more on Lysenko and the problems of Stalinist
biology, see the website,
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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