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May 26th, 2017

Insight

Annals of pseudoscience from Lysenko to climate changers

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published June 24, 2016

Trofim Lysenko dominated Soviet "science" for two whole generations, from the 1920s to the mid-1960s. His basically screwy but highly pretentious theories about the inheritance of acquired characteristics came to dominate Sovgenetics even if they flew in the face of the long accepted, tried-and-proven Mendelian kind. But if communism could invent a New Man, why couldn't this favorite of Stalin's invent a new science?

Sovscience proved as reliable as the rest of the Soviet system, which would all come tumbling down -- but not till the mid-'90s. Now, 20 years later, it's staging an impressive comeback under a new Stalin named Vladimir Putin, and there are those who would make Lysenko a hero again. The more things change in Russia, the more Russian it stays, more's the pity. So it was only to be expected that Comrade Lysenko, one of the great frauds of the past, should now be staging a comeback under Russia's new but eerily familiar leader.

It was back in 1928, just after another five-year plan had proven a five-year bust, that Trofim Lysenko first came to the grateful attention of the Party by borrowing an old trick of the simplest Russian peasants: Make winter wheat sprout in the spring by exposing its seeds to the cold. They'd been doing it for centuries, but Comrade Lysenko gave that traditional technique a new and scientific-sounding name, vernalization, and made it sound like a scientific breakthrough. He backed it all up with charts, graphs and illustrations as neat as those double hockey sticks the climate-changers used to impress the gullible in our own time. But like them, Lysenko was just practicing politics, not science. Much like those who believe that if hundreds of political appointees endorse climate change, it must be real. As if scientific truth were determined by majority vote.

Comrade Lysenko's phony agronomics is reminiscent of the just as phony but highly popular movement dubbed eugenics, the belief that human beings could be bred as selectively as cattle or chickens. Much like climate change now, eugenics won the enthusiastic support of the best and brightest of its day: George Bernard Shaw, Harold Laski, H.G. Wells and even John Maynard Keynes, who was a great economist but just as likely to be swept away by an intellectual fad as anybody else. Everybody who was anybody was soon hopping aboard the eugenics bandwagon, among them the professional geneticists at the Rockefeller Foundation, the Carnegie Institution and leading members of the faculty at one university after another. If you didn't believe in improving the human race by selective breeding, that just proved what a diehard reactionary you were.

The solution to all our problems was quite simple: All that had to be done to produce a better race was to assemble a gene pool of "the most transcendentally superior individuals" -- like Nobel Prize winners -- and make sure they went forth and multiplied. All of which struck one Nobel laureate, George Wald, as both arrant and errant nonsense. If the aim was to collect superior sperm, he suggested, the people in charge of this grand project shouldn't come to him but to the poor tailor who'd fathered him. He himself had produced just a couple of guitar players of no particular note. For eugenics wasn't just nonsense but nonsense on stilts. (Sound familiar? It should.)

Intellectual fads may come and go, but people's gullibility remains constant. In every field from economics to nutrition, there will always be cranks with their own pet theories, devoted following and cherished delusions. If you doubt it, just look around today.

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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