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Utter Nonscience

In 1832 a Virginia farmer by the name of Edmund Ruffin published a book called An Essay on Calcareous Manures, in which he described his experiments in improving the crop yield of his farm by the use of lime, fertilizers, crop rotation, and other techniques. The book proved very popular and made Ruffin one of the most notable citizens of the South (so much so that thirty years later, then living in Charleston, South Carolina, he was given the honor of firing the first shot on Fort Sumter, beginning the American Civil War). Ruffin has nothing to do with this tale except to illustrate the state of agriculture before the modern era. There was a body of traditional practice -- much of it just maxims, customs, rules of thumb -- that was the accumulation of centuries of experience with various crops in various climates and soils, and there were a few individuals who tried to systematize that practice in the hope of raising productivity. Understanding of why this or that practice worked or didn't, or worked in these conditions but not in others, lay in the future. Advances in chemistry and in biology through the remainder of the 19th century would lay the groundwork, but real agricultural science was to be a 20th century achievement.

By the 1920s much had been accomplished. Perhaps the most exciting work was being done in the infant science of genetics. Some general principles of the heritability of characteristics in living things had been known from earliest times, and farmers had worked out rough guides for the breeding of livestock and selection of crops. But the work of Gregor Mendel, T.H. Morgan, and others began to reveal what was really going on behind the practice. A hypothesis that there are physical units in the organism that carry heritable characteristics gained experimental support from many sides. A debate over how change occurs in organisms -- most specifically over the question of whether adaptive changes undergone by an individual can be transmitted to offspring, a view now mainly identified with the French naturalist Lamarck -- was being won by those who held that heredity is exclusively governed by the hypothetical units, dubbed genes, which may from time to time undergo changes, or mutations, that cause offspring to differ in some specific way from parents. How and why such mutations occur was unknown, but it had been shown that they could be induced by, for example, exposure of the organism to ionizing radiation.

An understanding of how genes behave, assuming there were such things, promised to put the production of superior organisms, especially livestock and crop species, on a firm, predictable basis. In order for the agriculturists of any nation to make use of such knowledge, however, a certain level of development -- economic, technical, and social -- would be required. This level was absent in the Soviet Union, a political entity even younger than genetics. Until the 1930s agriculture there remained a feudal system of estates, serfs, and hidebound tradition, while the larger polity, under the dictatorships of Lenin and then of Stalin, gradually developed what we now recognize as the characteristics of a totalitarian state: arbitrary policies executed by a self-serving bureaucracy and enforced by terror.

From these circumstances emerged in the late 1920s one Trofim D. Lysenko, a minor worker in an agricultural test station. He had little knowledge of or patience with the requirements of science -- testing, modification of hypotheses, more testing -- but a native talent for self-promotion. Beginning with a technique called "vernalization," by which he claimed to have increased the yield of winter wheat, and with the help of sympathetic journalists, Lysenko commenced a meteoric rise to power. At a time when raising the productivity of Soviet agriculture was a desperate necessity, and when the nation similarly needed native heroes to prove the value of the Communist system, Lysenko was quickly taken up as the man of the hour, soon to become the man of the century. Under the circumstances, such facts as that "vernalization" was nothing new, had been tried many places for a century and had been found to be of little value, that the greatly increased yields claimed by Lysenko were not verified to begin with and never later materialized, were ignored. Once endorsed by Stalin himself, Lysenko and his teachings were immune to criticism, and those who dared to doubt him found themselves out of work, imprisoned, exiled, or worse.

As part of his battle with critics and in order to create an institutional base for himself and to solidify Stalin's support, Lysenko developed the view that genetics was only a "pseudoscience," one created and promulgated by a capitalist society to justify its evil ways. In journal articles and in the popular press, Lysenko and his growing corps of allies -- that role being the only available alternative to being his enemy -- attached to genetics and to geneticists a variety of adjectives that, in arcane Soviet usage, were damning: formalistic, idealist, reactionary, metaphysical, barren, menshevizing. In place of this "bourgeois biology" they undertook to create an entirely separate biology, "agrobiology," that would be properly materialist, dialectical, Marxist.

By 1948 Lysenko ruled absolutely over the conduct of biological and agricultural research in the Soviet Union, and he held that power, little diminished, until 1964, by which time the bourgeois geneticists in the West had demonstrated the existence of the gene, had discovered its structure and mode of operation, and were beginning to decode its language. Lysenko's agrobiology, meanwhile, led to such "discoveries" as the transmutation of species (such as wheat into rye, cabbage into rutabaga, fir into pine) and the "law of species life," according to which individual organisms (such as sapling trees planted in a cluster) would decide to sacrifice themselves for the good of the species. These and other discoveries were arrived at by a kind of practical intuition, and the formal, time-consuming process of verification insisted upon by plodding bourgeois scientists was utterly disdained. When Lysenko's last protector, Khrushchev, fell from power, the Soviet Union rivalled the United States in space science but still was burdened by a backward, unproductive agricultural system.

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