The nadir of genetics in the Soviet Union

A fascinating excerpt in Slate from How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog), :

This skepticism of genetics all started when, in the mid-1920s, the Communist Party leadership elevated a number of uneducated men from the proletariat into positions of authority in the scientific community, as part of a program to glorify the average citizen after centuries of monarchy had perpetuated wide class divisions between the wealthy and the workers and peasants. Lysenko fit the bill perfectly, having been raised by peasant farmer parents in the Ukraine. He hadn’t learned to read until he was 13, and he had no university degree, having studied at what amounted to a gardening school, which awarded him a correspondence degree. The only training he had in crop-breeding was a brief course in cultivating sugar beets. In 1925, he landed a middle-level job at the Gandzha Plant Breeding Laboratory in Azerbaijan, where he worked on sowing peas. Lysenko convinced a Pravda reporter who was writing a puff piece about the wonders of peasant scientists that the yield from his pea crop was far above average and that his technique could help feed his starving country. In the glowing article the reporter claimed, “the barefoot professor Lysenko has followers … and the luminaries of agronomy visit … and gratefully shake his hand.” The article was pure fiction. But it propelled Lysenko to national attention, including that of Josef Stalin.

Sometimes it is easy to believe that the period in the Soviet Union under Stalin or in China under Mao or in Germany under Hitler, to name a few, were aberrations. But I think that’s the wrong way to look at it. The story of how Lysenko became influential hooks into so many historical tropes and psychological instincts of our species that we should be wary of it.

There have been great scholars without requisite qualifications. Ramanujan and Faraday come to mind. But great scholars are exceptional people. They are not average.

8 thoughts on “The nadir of genetics in the Soviet Union

  1. Were not many of Faraday’s scientific discoveries the result of deductive hands-on experimentation and mechanical manipulation of materials as much as they were from inductive mathematics where as Ramanujan’s mathematical discoveries were entirely from abstract reasoning? And do not these modes of discovery delineate the difference between science and mathematics?

  2. The hard left who are are taking over the American universities now are perfectly capable of doing the same things that Stalin did.

  3. Not really. Getting your career destroyed is nothing like dying in a labor camp.

  4. “The hard left who are taking over the American universities now are perfectly capable of doing the same things that Stalin did.”

    Most people are perfectly capable of doing a Stalin or a Hitler, except for the seizure of power part.

  5. “The hard left who are taking over the American universities now are perfectly capable of doing the same things that Stalin did.”

    Most people are perfectly capable of doing a Stalin or a Hitler, except for the seizure of power part.

    I think what he means is that the kind of people who engage in this type of behaviors on campus today, if they were to rise to power, would do Stalin-esque things.

    I agree. Some of the mob antics that have been reported (e.g. the Christakis affair at Yale) look like the Red Guards berating and persecuting their elders as insufficiently revolutionary or even counter-revolutionary.

    See: http://www.johndclare.net/images/China-CulturalRev2.jpg

    https://1.bp.blogspot.com/-cDwj3V6Knqk/VzlYeKdQsdI/AAAAAAAAMoQ/9mVtR3FSZ6YW1iaVS5RJPJHXh03EGFS0QCLcB/s1600/cultural-revolution-pinterest.jpg

  6. I think what he means

    Thanks, I thought that was what he meant as well.

    What I meant was:

    The fact that it is coming from the left is not the salient feature.

    Intolerance of outgroups is not predicated on left or right politics. There are numerous examples of both, as well as benevolent, or somewhat tolerant regimes from the right and left.

    Why some groups in power proceed to extreme intolerance is not clear to me. The perceived threat to their power is often given as one of the main reasons, and it seems to make sense to me. Another one is that the closer that orthodoxy gets to reigning supreme the more likely it is to go after the lesser heretics, mainly because the prominent ones have been destroyed.

    Read Ryszard Legutko’s The Demon In Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations In Free Societies to see how former communist ideologues in Poland, not only did not miss a beat when switching allegiance to the new liberal hysteria, but absolutely thrived.

    He also posits that the breadth and depth of the Catholic religion in Poland was the reason the first successful resistance (Solidarity) occurred there. I don’t know if this is true, but I do think that individuals do not fare well in opposition to powerful groups.

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