Will Russian nationalism corrupt the country's science program, again?
Opinion: Putin's Russia has seen a resurgence of support for Trofim Lysenko, a Soviet-era scientist who championed the controversial study of epigenetics.
Politics is once again threatening science in Russia, just as it did in Stalin’s time. President Vladimir Putin’s emphasis on nationalism and Russian pride is encouraging some politicians and a few scientists to resurrect an old Stalinist tyrant in biology, Trofim Lysenko, using new developments in epigenetics to strengthen their case. Lysenko did great damage to Soviet agriculture, but his new supporters ignore his faults and try to portray him as a prescient scientist.
Epigenetics is a booming, albeit somewhat controversial, field in biology worldwide. The term is being featured not only in scientific journals but also, often inaccurately, in popular media. The German magazine Der Spiegel several years ago featured epigenetics on its cover with the exaggerated announcement “Victory over Genes!”
According to epigenetics, environmental influences such as nutrition and stress can cause changes in inheritance in animals. This changed inheritance can last several generations, maybe more. Epigenetic changes are not based on alterations of the underlying DNA; rather, genes are marked in such a way that they are turned “on” or “off.” Cells then either do or don’t express these genes in further development depending on how they’re marked.
One of the reasons that epigenetics is controversial is that it postulates genes are marked by experiences during the lives of individual organisms; therefore, it seems to revive the doctrine of “the inheritance of acquired characteristics,” often called Lamarckism. Early 19th-century naturalist Lamarck argued an organism can pass along traits acquired during its own lifetime to its offspring; imagine a bodybuilder who develops his muscles, and then passes on to his sons a heavily muscled physique. Lamarckism was seen as discredited by most biologists in the 20th century – but now has some new supporters.
A particularly infamous exponent of the inheritance of acquired characteristics in the 20th century was Trofim Lysenko, the agronomist who ruled Soviet biology for several decades. “Lysenkoism” was a prime example of the ruinous effects of political rule over science. He denied the importance of genes and denounced to the secret police those geneticists who disagreed with him. Many of them were imprisoned. With Stalin’s support, Lysenko purged the field of his critics.
While researching my forthcoming book on Lysenko, I’ve been following the rebirth of Lysenkoism that’s occurred in Russia in recent years. Dozens of publications have appeared praising Lysenko and claiming that his 1930s views are confirmed by modern-day epigenetics. These publications have titles such as “The Truth of Trofim Denisovich Lysenko is Confirmed by Modern Biology,” and “A Sensation: Academician Lysenko Turned Out to Be Right!”
Most Russian authors, but not quite all, writing such publications are admirers of the old Soviet Union. An example is S Mironin, who says he has a doctorate in biology; he writes that Lysenko was “an outstanding natural scientist” who anticipated epigenetics. He simultaneously says Stalin should be lauded for his policies toward science, which, let’s not forget, included tight police controls over scientists, their institutions and their foreign contacts.
Many Russian geneticists are fighting back, pointing to Lysenko’s incompetence and ignorance of statistical methods. They also often observe, as do many Western biologists, that the true significance of epigenetics is still unknown.
However, in a curious twist of interpretation, a few Russian biologists have tried to turn the tables on the new supporters of Lysenko by using epigenetics against the Stalinist regime that supported him. These critics point to recent US research maintaining that rats can inherit fear of certain smells if those same smells in an earlier generation had been associated with negative experiences, such as electrical shocks. These Russian anti-Stalinists then maintain that the political passivity of Russian citizens and even their toleration of an authoritarian ruler like Putin can be explained by fears inherited from ancestors who endured the Stalinist repressions. The director of Russia’s Institute of Clinical Immunology, Vladimir Kozlov, has recently written that the Russian people have epigenetically inherited “fear for themselves and their families” stemming from Stalinist times.
A sprinkling of leading Russian scientists has joined the Lysenko bandwagon. One of them is Lev Zhivotovsky, a population geneticist in Moscow who has published in international peer-reviewed journals. Recently Zhivotovsky wrote a book in which he maintained that Lysenko’s views were close to modern-day epigenetics. The book is causing intense controversy in Russia, both among other geneticists who disagree with Zhivotovsky’s scientific views and from anti-Stalinists who see a defense of Lysenko as as a defense of Stalin, who supported Lysenko.
The argument that Lysenko anticipated epigenetics is strained, since Lysenko condemned molecular biology, out of which epigenetics grew and upon which it is dependent. But Putin’s revival of Soviet attitudes is bringing back ghosts of the past and, once again, scientific arguments do not always win over political ones.
Little danger exists that Lysenkoism will again take over academic genetics in Russia. Instead, the threat is that public perceptions and perhaps even secondary education will be influenced by the new supporters of Lysenko. Already nationalists have produced a new biology textbook for 10th- and 11th-graders in which these views are represented, and they are pushing for its adoption in local schools.
The conflict between political views and scientific standpoints is not unique to Russia, as debates over evolution and global warming in the United States illustrate, but Russia throughout its history has been particularly vulnerable to the undermining of science by politics.