Meet Trofim Lysenko, a Soviet biologist who crushed dissent, jailed scientists, and starved 30 million people

Mr. Lysenko’s tragic story is the ultimate history lesson and cautionary tale about the dangers of state-sanctioned science and the need for open debate.  America today is not Soviet Russia 75 years ago, but this doesn’t mean there aren’t disturbing parallels as the US government teams up with social media and telecommunications providers to censor content and suppress dissent.

Meet Trofim Lysenko, a Soviet biologist and agronomist who was spectacularly wrong about everything, but had the power to jail and execute scientists who disagreed, leading to the deaths of millions of people.  Mr. Lysenko was born into a peasant family of Ukrainian descent on September 29, 1898; at the time, the town was known as Karlivka, Poltava Governorate, now it’s Poltava Oblast, Ukraine.  He took an early interest in agriculture, particularly the impact of temperature on wheat production, a subject of much interest in Russia after many crops failed during the extremely brutal winters.

At 29 years old, Mr. Lysenko was working at an experimental agricultural station in Azerbaijan, conducting research that would lead to a 1929 paper on a subject called “vernalization.”  The goal was to treat winter wheat seeds so they could grow in the spring.  Normally, winter wheat is planted in the fall, grows partially in the winter months, and only fully emerges the following year.  Conditions in Russia could be so forbidding, however, even winter wheat couldn’t survive, resulting in famine.

Mr. Lysenko developed a process called “Jarovization” that treated winter seeds with cold and moisture, enabling them to grow successfully when planted directly in the spring, alleviating the need to risk a crop in the colder months.  Technically, the process had been known to farmers since at least the 1800’s, but Mr. Lysenko’s work still captured the attention of Joseph Stalin.  Ultimately, he became director of the Institute of Genetics at the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic’s  Academy of Sciences in 1940, a powerful and influential post he would hold for more than 20 years.  The only problem was:  He was wrong even about his own achievements.  Mr. Lysenko believed the “Jarovization” process was inheritable, meaning seeds treated with cold and moisture would grow in the spring and then produce seeds of their own that would just as easily grow in the spring.

This is because he rejected the work of the greatest biologists of the 19th century, Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel in favor of completely flawed scientific “theories.”  Mr. Lysenko believed that evolution worked via a long-disproven method, known as Lamarckism, named after Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, a French naturalist.  In 1809, Lamarck proposed an early evolutionary theory known as the “inheritance of acquired characteristics,” meaning an organism passed on traits they developed during their lifespan.  Thus, if you are a bodybuilder, you pass on the big muscles you built to your offspring and a giraffe got its trademark neck by stretching, stretching, stretching, and passing the result of all that stretching onto the next generation.

This “theory” rejected the role of heredity in evolution (and ultimately genetics).  To be fair to Lamarck, genetics wasn’t even an idea in the early 1800’s.  Darwin himself was unaware of how organisms inherited traits, even as he correctly ascertained that heredity was one of the driving forces of evolution as opposed to acquired characteristics.  It was the Augustinian friar and abbot Gregor Mendel who established the early rules of inheritance, and hence, early genetics when he published his work in 1866.  Mendel was a true Renaissance man in the classical sense of the term, a meteorologist, mathematician, and biologist in addition to his duties running St. Thomas’ Abbey in Brno. Modern genetics was born thanks to his experiments on the humble pea between 1856 and 1863.

Mendel studied seven characteristics of the plants, things like height, shape, color, and flower position, breeding them over generations.  For example, he demonstrated that breeding a yellow pea with a green pea always resulted in yellow peas in the first generation, but in the next generation green peas would reappear, one for every three yellow.  This prompted him to conclude that inheritance was a binary process with discrete traits passed on by both male and female parents.  Previously, biologists had believed traits were simply blended together, as if we were mixed drinks with our parents as the ingredients.  Mendel also identified traits as being dominant and recessive, yellow is dominant in the example we used, familiar to any life sciences student completing what became known as a Punnett Square.  

Mendel himself never heard of a gene, however, calling them “factors.”  The common term today would not be coined until 1909, almost two decades before Mr. Lysenko completely rejected these well-established ideas.  Instead, he embraced many a false and odd notion, believing that any body once alive somehow obtained heredity and that the entire body was the unit of heredity.  “The organism and the conditions required for its life are an inseparable unity. Different living bodies require different environmental conditions for their development. By studying these requirements we come to know the qualitative features of the nature of organisms, the qualitative features of heredity. Heredity is the property of a living body to require definite conditions for its life and development and to respond in a definite way to various conditions.”

Mr. Lysenko also believed that farmers should plant seeds very close together, according to the “law of the life of species,” plants from the same species didn’t compete with one another.  Even more bizarrely, he claimed a cuckoo was created when another species of bird fed hairy caterpillars to their young and that it was possible to create living cells by mixing egg yolk and other substances, basically another form of spontaneous generation.  In short, he was a pseudo-scientific quack if not a complete kook, about as qualified to lead a genetics institute as a witch doctor from the dark ages.

In a free society, Mr. Lysenko wouldn’t have been able to do much damage, but in Soviet Russia, his position at the Institute of Genetics and his favor with Stalin allowed him to wreak havoc on the entire country, causing extreme famines and food shortages.  In addition, his techniques were adopted in neighboring China in 1958.  All told, some 30,000,000 people died of starvation in both countries.  In the Great Chinese Famine between 1959 and 1962, some 15,000,000 died over the course of just three years.

Of course, Mr. Lysenko had his critics.  These atrocities weren’t actually occurring in the dark ages with real witch doctors.  By 1953, Watson and Crick had already published their paper unlocking the secrets of DNA and how heredity and genetics worked on a molecular level.  Outside of the Soviet Union, he was heavily criticized.  For example, the British biologist S. C. Harland said the obvious, Lysenko was “completely ignorant of the elementary principles of genetics and plant physiology.”

Inside the Iron Curtain, however, he had Stalin’s support and an almost unlimited power to silence dissent.  Fellow Russian scientists who refused to renounce genetics were targeted.  The lucky ones were simply fired from their posts and left to scrape out a destitute existence.  The unlucky ones were rounded up and sent to mental institutions, prisons, and some were even executed. Nikolai Vavilov starved in jail.  In total, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of scientists were treated as enemies of the state.  Mr. Lysenko remained in his position until 1965, though his power and influence waned after Stalin’s death in 1953.  Still it would be several years before Russian scientists found the courage to renew their dissent and Mr. Lysenko wasn’t completely discredited until the early 1960s.  He wielded power over Russian science for over 30 years, casting a shadow that took decades to repair.

Of course, the United States in 2021 isn’t Soviet Russia 75 years ago, but this doesn’t mean there aren’t disturbing parallels or lessons for our own age regarding the essential importance of free and open debate.  The calamity that befell Russia and China would never have happened if other Russian scientists were not silenced or jailed.  Anyone can be wrong, but anyone who can crush others who disagree can become dangerous.  Over the past 16 months of the coronavirus pandemic, we have witnessed a never-before-seen campaign to silence critics of preferred establishment policies.  Although lockdowns and related restrictions had never been tried before and had no proven track record of success, indeed were the product of a high school science experiment in the early 2000’s, their efficacy was assumed and those who disagreed were censored on social media, restricted from publishing studies, and vilified in public.

Last November, Jeanne Lezer and Shannon Brownlee published an article in Scientific American detailing why “Shutting down scientific debate is hurting public health.”  As they explain, “In today’s COVID-19 wars, the global scientific divide leans heavily in favor of active, and sometimes even draconian, public health interventions, including widespread locking down of nonessential business, mandating masks, restricting travel and imposing quarantines. On the other side, some doctors, scientists and public health officials are questioning the wisdom of this approach in the face of massive unknowns about their efficacy and in light of the clear and growing evidence that such measures may not be working in some cases, and may also be causing net harm. As people are thrown out of work as a direct result of lockdowns, and as more and more families find themselves unable to cover their rent or food, there have been sharp increases in domestic violence, homelessness and illegal drug use.”

For example, John Ioannidis is an epidemiologist and professor of medicine at Stanford University.  He was one of the earliest skeptics to question the fatality rate of the virus and our resulting response to it.  Though he had authored some of the most cited journal articles in history and was named by The Atlantic as “one of the most influential scientists alive,” he was savaged, harassed, and even investigated simply for sharing his expert opinion.  As Ms. Lezer and Ms. Brownlee described it, “We read some of the obscene and defamatory e-mails that were sent to Ioannidis and his administrators and colleagues at Stanford. Numerous misleading claims were advanced in the press, including the charge that he had a financial conflict of interest related to a study of the prevalence of COVID-19 that he co-authored.”  Ultimately, Dr. Ioannidis was proven more right then wrong when the CDC and the WHO revised their fatality rate downward, very close to his estimate.

Dr. Ioannadis was not an isolated instance, either.   Stefan Baral, an epidemiologist and associate professor at Johns Hopkins couldn’t even find a publisher for his work, a problem he has never had before, saying “it was the first time in my career that I could not get a piece placed anywhere.”  Likewise, Thomas Lars Benfield was the lead investigator on a study of the effectiveness of masks, in fact the only randomized controlled trial of masks effectiveness against COVID-19 including some 6,000 residents of Denmark.  The study, which showed that masks were not effective or had very limited effect, went unpublished for months.  As Dr. Benfield said, it would be published “As soon as a journal is brave enough to accept the paper.”  When the study was finally published in the Annals of Internal Medicine on November 18, five months after it was completed, it was accompanied by an odd apology from the editors.  Even as they admitted the impact of masks was “small,” meaning they endorsed the study, they pondered, “With fierce resistance to mask recommendations by leaders and the public in some locales, is it irresponsible for Annals to publish these results, which could easily be misused by those opposed to mask recommendations?”

A British Journalist, Laurie Clarke, couldn’t even get dissenting scientists to go on the record for interviews, one informed her via email “putting your head above the parapet is a dangerous thing to do at the moment.”  Ultimately, Ms. Lezer and Ms. Brownlee conclude, “The net effect of academic bullying and ad hominem attacks has been the creation and maintenance of ‘groupthink’—a problem that carries its own deadly consequences.”  Ironically, as if to make their point for them,  Scientific American disavowed its own article, posting a note claiming “This article was originally published on November 30, 2020 with a number of errors and misleading claims.”  They proceeded to refuse to print Ms. Lezer and Ms. Brownlee’s response to these claims as well as a supporting letter from a former dean of Harvard Medical School.

This suppression in scientific circles has been accompanied by bans of social media and vilification in the press.  Martin Kulldorff, an epidemiologist at Harvard, partnered with Jay Bhattacharya from Stanford and Sunetra Gupta of Oxford to call for a more focused approach to dealing with the pandemic, one that directed energy at protecting vulnerable populations.  Their plan was called the Great Barrington Declaration and tens of thousands of scientists signed on, expressing their support.  For their efforts, the mainstream media claimed they were “agents of misinformation” and “Covid-deniers,” promoting an “ethical nightmare.”  Google provided only criticisms of their approach on the first page of their search results, and Facebook shut down the authors’ pages for a week.

There are, of course, dozens, hundred, perhaps even thousands of similar stories, and, incredibly, instead of collectively realizing the dangers of state-sanctioned, politicized science, it now seems likely to get worse.  Social media and telecommunications companies are actively partnering with the Federal Government and the Democratic National Committee to root out “misinformation,” that is conclusions, research, and opinions they don’t like, whether or not they come from experts.  Rather than making a stand for Freedom of Speech and Expression, the Biden Administration is actively bragging about the program.  “Within the Surgeon General’s Office, we’re flagging posts for Facebook that spread disinformation,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki explained. “We’re working with doctors and medical professionals to connect medical experts with people, who are popular with their audiences, with accurate information and boost trusted content. So, we’re helping get trusted content out there.” “It’s important to take faster action against harmful posts,” she added. “As you all know, information travels quite quickly on social media platforms. Sometimes it’s not accurate, and Facebook needs to move more quickly to remove harmful violative posts.”

This is incredibly ironic given that the establishment themselves have often found themselves the purveyors of misinformation, whether intentionally or not.  The near-sainted Dr. Fauci himself has lied to the American public on at least two occasions, once when he claimed there was no need to wear masks, supposedly he said that only to protect supplies for healthcare workers, and once when he stated that the herd immunity threshold was 70-75% instead of significantly higher because he didn’t want to scare us with too large a number.  He has made misleading claims on the origin of the virus and also differing private statements on the efficacy of masks.  I do not bring up these points to criticize the good doctor, though I personally believe criticisms are warranted, but only to ask:  Why does he get a free pass?  Why is it that he and others can be wrong, spread misinformation, and lie with impunity while those who disagree with them are stifled, vilified, and censored, even when they prove to be right?

Debate in America is not supposed to work this way.  I understand many will feel my comparison with Soviet Russia is an exaggeration and surely there is some truth to that.  I’m using it to illustrate the maximum damage that can be done if you continue down the road of state sponsored and sanctioned science with the silencing of dissent.  At the same time, it’s not like lives aren’t at stake.  For example, drug overdoses spiked in 2020, from 72,151 in 2019 to 93,331, an unfortunate trend many have attributed to the emotional strain of the lockdown.  Suicides also increased by close to a thousand.  Other research suggests deaths from cancer and heart disease also increased, although the final numbers are not available yet.  Student’s educational lives have been disrupted, some perhaps permanently, businesses have been destroyed, workers have lost jobs, domestic abuse has increased, along with other psychological disorders.

In summary, there have been serious consequences for the policies we have implemented and that the government and private companies have enforced.  Again, I don’t mention this points to impugn the motives or question the good faith efforts of public health experts, only to suggest that the same good faith should be imparted to those who disagree.  Everyone should have the benefit of the doubt or no one does. As the tragic tale of Mr. Lysenko clearly illustrates, science requires open debate and the freedom to speak without fear of reprisal, especially when the stakes are high and lives are on the line.

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