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.