Mendelian genetics and subsequent evolution of Neo-Darwinism were not comfortable to Marxist theoreticians and this had deeper roots which can be traced back to Engels’ acceptance of the inheritance of acquired characters resulting in superior European races and inferior non-European races. The Soviet love for Lamarckian theory that all inherited characters are acquired was also because this also meant that by the manipulation of environment a new human being can be created according to the whims of polit bureau.

Trotsky had predicted that in the socialist utopia human species would decide the characteristics of its offspring. Soviet eugenic movement was not above aping the German eugenic movement. For example the Soviet Eugenic Society established a special commission to study the ‘Jewish Race’ and explicitly modeled its frameworks in terms of racial categories. The society also frequently reviewed German eugenics books establishing the guidelines of race hygiene and the Soviet reviewers often were highly impressed by these German doctrines.

Though initially Soviet biologists, like everywhere else at that time, were a mixed bag of Mendelian geneticists and Lamarckians, Stalin had a definite preference for Neo-Lamarckism. As early as 1906-7 Stalin had claimed that neo-Darwinism was yielding place to neo-Lamarckianism.

According to historian Prof. Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal, Stalin thought that Neo-Lamarckianism “was compatible with the Bolshevik emphasis on planning; Darwinism was anarchistic because mutations occur spontaneously.” But even before Stalin came to power, giving Marxist orientation to scientific research had become a compulsion. Scientists had to declare their faith in the creed of dialectical materialism. Lenin had decreed thus in 1922:

…it must be realised that no natural science and no materialism can hold its own in the struggle against the onslaught of bourgeois ideas and the restoration of the bourgeois world outlook unless it stands on solid philosophical ground. In order to hold his own in this struggle and carry it to a victorious finish, the natural scientist must be a modern materialist, a conscious adherent of the materialism represented by Marx, i.e., he must be a dialectical materialist.

The Communist Academy was created to monitor scientific developments and make sure that they did not deviate from the Marxist ideological frameworks. The mouthpiece of the academy ‘Under the Banner of Marxism’ started issuing stern warnings to those scientists whom it considered as being heretic to Marxist theology. In autumn 1922 about two hundred “idealist” scholars, previously criticized by ‘Under the Banner of Marxism‘ were exiled from the USSR.

Subsequently the ideological high priests of Marxism entrenched in the thrones of power in Soviet Union started promoting neo-Lamarckism over Mendelian genetics in a systematic and steady manner. At that time Paul Kammerer, a very brilliant Austrian scientist, was championing the Lamarckian cause. His work with salamander-tadpoles through which he claimed to have proved decisively Lamarckian mode of inheritance of acquired characters, was greeted with skepticism by Lamarckian enthusiasts. In 1924 Paul Kammerer wrote the book ‘The Inheritance of Acquired Characters’. He explicitly extended his theory to humanity and with teleological overtones which were music to Marxist ears he dismissed the rival theories in science:

If acquired characteristics cannot be passed on, as most of our contemporaneous naturalists contend, then no true organic progress is possible. Man lives and suffers in vain. Whatever he might have acquired in the course of a lifetime dies with him. His children and his children’s children must ever again start from the bottom. … If acquired characteristics are occasionally inherited, then it becomes evident that we are not exclusively slaves of the past -slaves helplessly endeavoring to free ourselves of our shackles – but also captains of our future, who in the course of time will be able to rid ourselves to a certain extent, of our heavy burdens and to ascend into higher and ever higher strata of development.

As can be seen from the above passage, Kammerer extended his Lamarckian views to human society. He supported Steinach operations- a questionable means to restore sexual potency and prolong life in aging men. In his book he used obviously retouched before-and-after photographs and emphasized that the operated individuals had renewed enthusiasm for work. Nevertheless Kammerer was not a racist and thought that through the manipulation of the environment races can be improved over generations. By opposing and labeling Mendelian genetics as ‘racist’ and pitting their own scientifically unsound Lamarckian speculations against genetics, Marxists also unwittingly helped the pseudo-scientific Nazi racism acquire a scientific sheen. Soviet geneticists were becoming aware of this problem. Actually Marxists had a real scientific edge in denying the fixed biological types upheld by racists and many western scientists but with their dogmatic adherence to Lamarckianism Marxists squandered away that advantage and were rabidly becoming anti-science. Historian of science Loren Graham explains:

In one of the first comprehensive and critical analyses of the eugenics movement, Vasilii Slepkov’s article, “Human Heredity and Selection: On the Theoretical Premises of Eugenics” (which appeared in April 1925 in the major Bolshevik journal of Marxist theory), pointed out that the eugenists were emphasizing biological determinants of human behavior to the total neglect of socioeconomic determinants…. As a criticism of their naive and one-sided biologism much of Slepkov’s castigation of the eugenists was appropriate; but, by placing so much emphasis, on the inheritance of acquired characteristics, Slepkov praised antique biology in order to humanize modern biology. …Not only the eugenists with their arrogant programs for the biological reform of society but also the more sober and scientific geneticists interested primarily in animal and plant heredity were beginning, nevertheless to meet stiff opposition from radical students in Soviet universities. One biologist with a political commitment to the new regime , B.M.Zavadovskii, wrote that each year , when he gave lectures at the Sveddlow Community University, the radical students reacted with hostility to his discussion of heredity; they called genetics “a bourgeois science” which contained implications unacceptable to the proletariat. Voices in favor of Lamarckianism were becoming “louder and stronger,” he wrote in 1925, as was the belief that genetics contradicted Marxism and the social policy of the Communist Party. “This point of view was receiving support in the psychology of the masses,” he commented, “whose first reaction to genetics is negative.”

The Communist Academy offered a laboratory to Kammerer in 1925 and Kammerer accepted the offer. However, accused of alleged fraud in one of his minor experimental results, Kammerer committed suicide under tragic circumstances. Soviet flirting with eugenics continued. Aleksandr Serebrovskii a Marxist geneticist favored a Soviet eugenics program which proposed large-scale artificial insemination of Soviet women with the sperm of outstanding men. The Soviet government also went to the extent of establishing in Moscow German-Soviet Laboratory for Racial and Biological Research which functioned from 1931 to 1938.

In parallel Soviet agriculture too was undergoing similar metamorphosis. Soviet commissars had discovered a plant breeder and invented a scientist out of him. I.V.Michurin was a moderately successful plant breeder who boasted that US Department of Agriculture offered him a job with an annual salary of $32,000 (while the maximum allowed annual salary in USDA for the corresponding period was only $40000).

Despite such tall tales Michurin did produce varieties through his work which were valuable for experimentation. Soviet propaganda made him a folk hero like Louis Burbank of US. But otherwise harmless cranky old plant breeder was positioned by the Soviets as an iconic figure of scientific theory. Michurin harbored a great hatred for professional scientists in general and Mendelian geneticists in particular. “Mendel’s laws and other doctrines of recent times”, Michurin wrote to Soviet geneticist Vavilov in 1922, “… cannot have great significance for later on they will probably be corrected by other workers.”

The confrontation attained a critical mass the very next year. In 1923 at the First All-Russian Agricultural Exhibition, genuine scientists expressed doubts regarding some of the hybrids exhibited by Michurin which also included an alleged hybrid of melon and squash. When geneticists pointed out that grafting which was the main technique of Michurin could not effect any change in germplasm, Michurin was furious. He accused the “forces of enemy camp and their weak side in the sense of ignorance of practical matters” and sent a leaflet entitled “Mendel’s Law Is Not Applicable in Fruit Breeding”.

Though this outburst did not cut much ice with scientific community, Marxist journal Izvestiia sided with Michurin and gave a prominent headline stating that ignoring of Michurin by Soviet geneticists and scientific establishment might allow US to use and benefit from the techniques of Michurin. Soon Michurin became a hero of science. He was projected as a scientific forerunner of a school of thought which was outright Lamarckian and baptised as Michurianism.

Then on the seventh of August 1927 Pravda published an article about a ‘barefoot scientist’ who could solve scientific problems on a ‘little old slip of paper’. This young ‘barefoot scientist’ aged twenty nine was not studying ‘hairy legs of insects’ in isolated laboratories but he was going to the ‘roots of the problem’ working in the lab. The young ‘barefoot scientist’ was Trofim Denisovich Lysenko, a minor functionary in a plant breeding station at Azerbaijan. Impressed by the way he was portrayed by Pravda, Nicholai Ivanovich Vavilov who was then director of the All-Union Institute of Agricultural Sciences at Leningrad took an interest in this young field-worker. While Vavilov was open to all new ideas and stressed the scientific methodology in evaluating claims made by Lysenko, Lysenko resented the biologists as his enemies.

In 1928 Lysenko claimed that he had ‘invented’ vernalizaton – a new technique of using humidity and low temperature to make wheat grow in the spring. But this technique was neither an original innovation by Lysenko nor was it very useful. In 1929 when he presented his theory of vernalization, he was rebuffed in a genetic conference as ignorant of basic principles of science by geneticists. According to an apocrypal story Communist ideologue and lawyer I.I.Prezent, who would later become a lifelong companion of Lysenko, met him in this 1929 conference and suggested to him that he should associate his theory of vernalization with the name of Darwin in order to gain acceptance in scientific community. Lysenko in reply queried Prezent who Darwin was and where he could meet him. The story might have its roots in facts as Lysenko himself had stated that he had never read Darwin and relied on Prezent for the interpretation of Darwin to him.

1929 also saw the next development in Marxist conquest of science – its Stalinaization. That year Stalin announced the great break with all things old. Attacks on genetics were renewed by party magazines. In 1930 Lysenko’s questionable technique of ‘vernalization’ of wheat seeds was projected by Pravda as an answer to vital agricultural problems facing the nation. By 1932 Lysenko acquired his own journal – Bulletin of Vernalization which would later become an important weapon in his war against genetics. Interestingly, Vavilov, who had sensed Lysenko’s deep rooted antagonism against biologists in general and geneticists in particular, still hoped to win over him by being open to him and help him rise in the biology establishment. Vavilov proposed him for membership in the Academy of Sciences of Ukraine in 1934 and years later for corresponding membership in the All-Union Academy in Moscow.

H.J.Muller, geneticist and Nobel laureate who had actually worked at the Institute of Genetics in Moscow between 1933 -37, later provided a detailed description of the steady building up of Marxist inquisition against geneticists during this period:

In 1933 or thereabouts the geneticists Chetverikoff, ferry and Ephroimson were all, on separate occasions, banished to Siberia and Levitsky to a labor camp in the European Arctic… in 1936, the Communist geneticist Agol was done away with, following rumors that he had been convicted of ‘Menshevik idealism’ in genetics… it is impossible to learn the real causes of the deaths of such distinguished geneticists as Karpechenko, Koltzoff, Serebrovsky and Levitsky. Certain is however that from 1936 on Soviet geneticists of all ranks lived a life of terror. Most of them who were not imprisoned, banished, or executed were forced to enter other lines of work. The great majority of those who were allowed to remain in their laboratories were obliged to redirect their researches in such a way as to make it appear that they were trying to prove the correctness of the officially approved anti-scientific views. During the chaotic period toward the close of the war, some escaped to the West. Through it all, however a few have remained at work, retained as show pieces to prove that the USSR still has some working geneticists.

The nightmare had only begun for the scientists in the realm of Marx created by Lenin and governed by Stalin.

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Aravindan Neelakandan

Co-author of acclaimed book "Breaking India", Aravindan Neelakandan has worked for the past decade with an NGO in Tamil Nadu serving marginalized rural communities in sustainable agriculture. He is also a popular science writer in Tamil and is part of the editorial team of highly popular Tamil web portal

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