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Lysenkoism And Human Evolution

Issues of human heredity entered the furor over Lysenkoism in the late 1930s, when the ideological bureaucracy condemned any interest in the topic as racism, if not Nazism. Even medical genetics fell under the ban until the 1960s, when the field revived in defiance of Lysenko's dismissal of genes. The closest Lysenko himself ever came to issues of human heredity was to brush aside the whole topic: "Man, thanks to his mind, ceased long ago to be an animal." That statement was a caricature of the rule that the emergence of Homo sapiens marks a transition from biological to sociocultural evolution. Major issues in biology and historical sociology are entangled in that rule, as Soviet Marxists discovered in the 1920s. In the 1930s ideological bureaucrats stifled further thought about human evolution and about ideas of progress; lifeless scholasticism served a faith that was withering away.

In any case the common tendency of Marxists, East and West, has been to separate social from biological evolution. The human breed is declared equally gifted in all its races and classes, which need only a suitable environment to show the common potential. A contrary faith ascribes social ranking to inherited experience of rule and submission. But an upper-class master-race bias can also make use of arguments denying that acquired characters are inherited; one need only assume that genes determine place in the social hierarchy. Any way one turns it, ideology shapes beliefs and reasoning about winners and losers.

Genetics actually supports apologists of no nation, race, or class. Precise science favors a vague egalitarianism: individual differences in hereditary capacities are far greater than average group differences may prove to be. Lysenkoism had nothing to say on such issues; it simply ignored them. But ideas of progress drove its claim of practicality, its support by Soviet men of power, and their disillusion and return to faith in world science as worked out by autonomous specialists. The presumptive utility of such science, a major reason for its flourishing, involves a dogma of universality, a belief that claims of knowledge which win out in developed contexts are practically useful everywhere. That dogma is weakly challenged by talk of "ethnoscience" or "indigenous knowledge" as anthropologists try to be respectful in studying, say, rain dancing and belief in its influence on weather. The challenge by Lysenkoism was strong, for proponents seized on its boast of superseding the science of advanced countries.


Hudson, P. S., and R. H. Richens. The New Genetics in the Soviet Union. Cambridge, U.K.: English School of Agriculture, 1946.

Joravsky, David. The Lysenko Affair. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970.

Lysenko, Trofim D. Agrobiology. Moscow: Foreign Language Publishing House, 1954.

Medvedev, Zhores A. The Rise and Fall of T. D. Lysenko. Translated by I. Michael Lerner. New York: Columbia University Press, 1969.

Rossiianov, Kirill O. "Editing Nature: Joseph Stalin and the 'New' Soviet Biology." Isis 84 (1993): 728–745.

Soyfer, Valery N. Lysenko and the Tragedy of Soviet Science. Translated by Leo Gruliow and Rebecca Gruliow. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1994.

Steele, Edward J., Robyn A. Lindley, and Robert V. Blanden. Lamarck's Signature: How Retrogenes Are Changing Darwin's Natural Selection Paradigm. Reading, Mass.: Perseus, 1998.

David Joravsky

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Linear expansivity to Macrocosm and microcosmLysenkoism - The Rise Of Lysenkoism, Criticism, Lysenkoism And Human Evolution, Bibliography