Monday, November 14, 2016

Let's Hope Lysenko Stays Dead

Isaac Asimov, one of the most brilliant science writers (or writers, period) of the twentieth century, had something to say that is particularly relevant right now about how the outcome of the elections may influence the future of science and education. This quote, in fact, illustrates a fundamental weakness of democracy. He said something to the effect that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.

I fantasize that there could be a society in which well-educated people who understand the world and care about it could make the decisions in the best interests of everyone else. But of course this is impossible. If a scientific elite ruled a society, evil demagogues would soon displace the scientists and create a dictatorship far worse than any democracy could ever be.

The list of scientific things that the new Trump team has totally wrong—despite having their errors explained to them—goes far beyond the ones most people already know about: global warming, evolution, and endangered species. According to this article, Trump has also bought into anti-science hoaxes such as the belief that vaccination causes autism, that there never was anything wrong with the ozone layer, that environmentally-friendly light bulbs cause cancer, that wind farms will make you sick, and that ebola can spread just by being around Africans.

The Trump team attacks on science affects me personally in three ways. First, one of my major pieces of ongoing research shows that tree buds are opening earlier each year, which is evidence of global warming. Do I need to suppress or alter my results to fit in with Trump’s views? Second, I teach and write books about evolution. Will I be suppressed from doing this? Third, another major research and conservation effort in which I am involved is saving an endangered species (the seaside alder Alnus maritima). Does this make me an enemy of the state?

I used language that was a little bit exaggerated in the previous paragraph, such as enemy of the state. Surely the Trump team cannot actually ban the teaching of, and research on, evolution, global warming, endangered species, etc., can they?

As you are probably not surprised to discover, the answer is yes and no. No, they cannot do so directly. But they can use the power of federal money to do so. Suppose—and at this point it is just speculation—that the federal Department of Education, soon to be run by creationist Ben Carson, announced that no federal funds can be used at educational institutions in which evolution is taught? This would include student scholarship money. If they did this, my university would face an immediate crisis: the president would have to tell me to not teach evolution, for if I did so, it would cause the university to close. Such an action could be challenged in the courts, but this would take years.

In case you think this cannot happen, I need to remind you of the story of Trofim Lysenko, who had an utterly wrong theory of genetics but one which Joseph Stalin liked. Lysenko’s utterly wrong theory of genetics became the doctrine of the Stalinist USSR. The world-famous geneticist Nikolai Vavilov opposed Lysenko. Stalin did not kill Vavilov, but let him die in prison. The Trump team would not take any steps against people like me as Stalin did against Vavilov. They would not have to. I will not starve in prison. But I might find my job description changed overnight. I might turn overnight from a science teacher into a teacher who must be silent in order to not be a creationism preacher.

A more recent example was a George W. Bush era director of the Fish and Wildlife Service who told FWS scientists that they would not discover, in their research, that there were any endangered species. Period.

The federal government can in fact strangle science. I remain vigilant against any first steps in this direction. You say Trump would never do this? I hope you are right.

Here is my summary of Lysenkoism, from my Encyclopedia of Evolution:

Lysenkoism Lysenkoism is the doctrine of agriculturalist Trofim Lysenko, who dominated Soviet biological science during the Stalinist era. The early years of the Soviet state were plagued with social upheaval and, in the early 1920s, poor harvests. Wheat was usually planted in the autumn, when it produced leaves; after overwintering, the wheat plants would reproduce in the spring for an early summer harvest. The Russian winters frequently killed the overwintering wheat. Lysenko, a plant breeder in Azerbaijan, demonstrated that if the wheat seeds were stratified (kept in cool moist conditions for a few weeks), they could be sown in the spring and would reproduce in time for an autumn harvest. Stratification is now known among plant physiologists as one of the standard ways of influencing the germination and developmental characteristics of seeds. If Lysenko had stopped here, he might today be revered as the man who helped to save Soviet agriculture. But he went further. He claimed that this stratification process actually changed the seeds in a way that could be inherited. Stratify the first generation, he said, and all the subsequent generations would have the new, convenient trait. His genetic theory was essentially the same as that of French biologist Jean Baptiste de Lamarck, which had been discredited years earlier by most scientists.
What happened next is an illustration of a government imposing its philosophy on science and on its technological application. Lysenko’s Lamarckism happened to resonate well with Soviet philosophy, which claimed that individuals and whole societies could be changed if forced to change, and the change would be permanent. If humans, why not all species? Moreover, Lysenko adopted just part of the Mendelian view as European and American scientists understood it at that time: that heritable changes could occur by big, sudden leaps (mutations). This also pleased the Soviet authorities, still proud of their Bolshevik Revolution that appeared to them to have, in the single year of 1917, propelled Russia from the Middle Ages into the modern world. Lysenko’s doctrine was proclaimed to be truth; evidence to the contrary was suppressed, and experimental results were forced to fit into a Lysenkoist interpretation.

The principal Russian scientist to disagree with Lysenko was geneticist Nikolai Vavilov. (Due to secrecy imposed by Soviet authorities, scientists outside Russia knew scarcely anything about what was happening there.) Vavilov had done extensive research regarding genetic variation in crop species (local varieties and wild relatives), and provided great insights into the processes of domestication that had produced these crops. The thing that emerged most clearly from his research was that in order to breed crops, and in order to save them from disease, it is necessary to save the genes. The researcher must travel extensively, gather seeds or other plant reproductive parts (such as potato tubers), and keep them alive. One cannot just grab some seeds, like Lysenko, and force them to change into what one needs them to be. Vavilov spent time in prison for his beliefs. He died during the Nazi siege of Leningrad (now once again St. Petersburg). Some of his fellow geneticists starved within reach of bags of potatoes, which they were saving for the future of agriculture. Vavilov was one of the small number of scientific martyrs.

After Stalin’s death in 1952, Soviet leadership had to rethink many things about domestic and external policy. While they never openly repented for their Lysenkoist errors, the Soviet political and intellectual leadership moved away from Lysenkoism and adopted the same kind of genetics that was proving successful in the west—particularly with the breakthrough the next year by Watson and Crick in demonstrating the structure, and genetic efficacy, of DNA.
Further Reading

Gould, Stephen Jay.  “A Hearing For Vavilov.”  Chap. 10 in Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes.  New York: Norton, 1983.

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