Book Review: Lysenko’s Ghost

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.

lysenkos ghost

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.

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7 thoughts on “Book Review: Lysenko’s Ghost”

  1. “they hope in some small way to rehabilitate Stalin”

    Stalin needs no rehabilitation, because no one presecuted him, and then judged guilty of anything – anti-Sovietist wet fantasies notwithstanting..

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  2. From what I get, epigenetics is alive and well in Russia.

    Do you have any particular question concerning Epigenetics? The thing as a whole is actually not very difficult, if one does not get caught up in particulars.

    Basically, most organisms that arent relatively primitive bacteria have a lot more genes then they, generally speaking, express. The regulation process is, without going into details, quite simple actually.

    1: Plant asks itself, am I feeling OK? If yes, continue what you are doing, if no, proceed to “2”.
    2: I am not OK, do I have a specific response to the stressors I am experiencing? If yes, go to 2a, if no, go to 3.
    2a: Does running my specific response to the stressor make me feel better? If yes, continue running that response, if no, go to 3.
    3: Is it really bad? If yes, go to 4, if no, go back to 1 and readjust your definition of “feeling OK”.
    4: OK, I am in deep shit, lets search our really old archives for a solution, and try that somewhat randomly. This is still better then dying for certain. Did this work? If yes go to 5, if no you are dead.
    5: Yay, survival by epigenetics!

    Basically, there is something akin to a genetic memory that has been acquired from earlier points of a species life. If species X migrates to a different biome, and that biome later changes to a biome they already knew, species X has the capacity to switch back to the configuration they had in the earlier biome.

    Plants cannot move much, and thus tend to be somewhat more “epigenetically responsive” (they typically have more genes they arent currently expressing, as a “just in case” thing. Animals can migrate more easily, and are a bit less likely to deal with something via epigenetics because especially unspecific epigenetics is quite a crapshoot, compared to migrating to greener pastures.

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  3. It seems to make sense, in an indirect way, because the ability to acquire a characteristic might be itself a genetic trait…
    Also, when you expose seeds to cold, some might die and those that survive might turn out more cold-resistant, no? Probably not exactly what Lysenko had in mind, but still…

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    1. Generally speaking, acquiring happens mostly via inheriting, with some recombinations as well.

      Simple bacteria can straight out acquire Plasmids (circular genetic information) from other bacteria, including iirc dead bacteria in some cases (Plasmids can encode information for how to resist antibiotics), but complex animals and plants generally have a huge amount of genetic information with them, and mix and match, but they dont go around doing totally new things.

      Amusingly enough, latent Virus/Bacteriophages are on of the few ways with which complex organisms can get actually new genetic information.
      A virus can mess up his own infusion in such a way that he add his information, which may in some cases include information from a third organism, but not adds enough of his own information to make him capable of taking over the cell.

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  4. Lysenko is in my opinion perhaps the very best single encapsulation of that specific fusion of stupidity, brutality, and arrogance that characterized “sovok.”

    Incidentally, epigenetics (as understood in popular discourse) is mostly balderdash.

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  5. The main reason for Soviet opposition to genetics was the role of individual mutations which was not acceptable from marxist point of view where highly collectivist “objective laws of history” were the main driving force. Lysenko’s success was just result of his dialectical flexibility and ability to shape the “science” to match the ideological demand. The same pattern emerges even nowadays especially in conservative and “Christian” circles in the US (where it’s marginalized) and Russia where it’s not so marginalized due to the official state support for the “convervatist” stance. It has its obvious contradictions and inconsistencies of the observed results – for example it’s difficult to explain how GLONASS could work from “conservative science” point of view – but that has been never a problem for these folks 🙂

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