The name of Trofim Denisovich Lysenko conjures up images of fraudulent science and Stalinist repression. Lysenko is best known as a supporter of the theory of ‘inheritance of acquired characteristics’, which holds that characteristics which a plant or animal has acquired during its life can be passed down to future generations. Lysenko denounced Soviet geneticists who claimed that genes, not environmental factors, determined characteristics. As a direct or indirect result of Lysenko’s denunciations, many of the Soviet Union’s leading geneticists were arrested and the development of Soviet genetics was held back for years.
For decades, geneticists rejected the theory of inheritance of acquired characteristics. However, as American scientist Loren Graham points out in his recent book Lysenko’s Ghost, discoveries in the relatively new field of epigenetics suggest that ‘the effects of an organism’s life experiences can in some instances become inheritable.’ According to epigenetics, ‘modifications to the DNA molecule that do not affect its sequence (such as the attachment of certain chemical groups) can affect gene activity, for example, by turning genes “on” or “off”. These modifications can be environmentally induced, and in some instances, they can be passed on to subsequent generations.’ For instance, grandchildren of women who were pregnant during the wartime famine in the Netherlands suffer from a range of medical problems which appear to be the result of chemicals which attached themselves to their grandmothers’ DNA during the famine.
All this prompts Graham to ask, ‘Was Lysenko right after all?’ To answer that question, Graham examines the history of the theory of inherited acquired characteristics, analyzes Lysenko’s work, and then puts it into the context of epigenetics.
Graham’s answer is categorical: ‘Lysenko was not right after all.’ Lysenko, says Graham, ‘was actually a very poor representative of the concept of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Other scientists, both in Russia and elsewhere, did a far better job.’ Modern epigenetics is based upon genetic theory and molecular biology. Lysenko rejected both, saying ‘we have never used and are not going to use any ideas and methods of molecular biology.’
‘Lysenko was a very poor scientist’, Graham writes. He examines Lysenko’s efforts to turn winter wheat into spring wheat using a method called ‘vernalization’, which involves exposing seeds to cold. Lysenko claimed that in this way he could turn one species of wheat into another. But as Graham shows, Lysenko’s research ‘was incredibly lacking in rigor.’ His samples were far too small to draw scientifically valid conclusions; he did not use control groups; and he ignored alternative explanations for his results. Consequently, those results could not be repeated. Simply put, ‘Lysenko’s scientific work was shoddy and unsubstantiated.’
This has not stopped some Russians from trying to rehabilitate Lysenko. In Chapter 8 of his book, Graham shows how various Russian conservatives have tried to use epigenetics to show that Lysenko was right. Their purpose is political – by rehabilitating Lysenko, they hope in some small way to rehabilitate Stalin or (somewhat paradoxically) to promote Creationism. This, says Graham, has had a negative effect on research into epigenetics in Russia: scientists are reluctant to study the subject lest they be seen as endorsing Lysenkoism. In this way, Lysenko’s ghost continues to haunt modern Russia.
I can’t say that I fully understood all the scientific explanations in this book. Nonetheless, I found it very engaging. Only 144 pages long, Lysenko’s Ghost is a quick read which I recommend to anybody interested in Soviet history and/or contemporary science. Graham – who once met Trofim Lysenko and has read all his published work – has done an excellent job showing why claims that Lysenko was right lack any foundation.