The Lysenko effect

Remember the Cold War – those lazy, crazy days of mutually assured destruction? Funny to think that some in Whatsitland are too young to ever have contemplated the idea that the Soviets or that Ronald “nut-job” Reagan might one day just say, “The heck with it!” and lob a few thousand nukes eastwardly or westwardly, respectively. And believe me kids, you’re not only lucky in having avoided the neuroses that came along with the fear of nuclear annihilation, you also got to miss hearing Sting sing about it – those were dreadful times indeed.

Of the many lessons we might learn from this era, one that actually has it roots in the pre-Cold War ideological struggle between Marxism and capitalism seems significant to our recent discussions on global warming: the political credibility given to Lysenkoist agriculture by Joseph Stalin.

As I understand it, the story is relatively straightforward. (But be forewarned, I’m no biological-scientist, and much less of an authority on Soviet history than at least three GW contributors.) Anyway, the story goes that along with the creation of a Leninist/Marxist state, the Soviet Union needed to separate itself from many of the previous scientific discoveries and theories that it understood as either informed by or informing capitalism. The study of genetics stood as a prime example of such a science.

From a political standpoint, the reasoning behind this dubiousness makes perfect sense: the culmination of genetics and capitalism led directly to social Darwinism, which was (and still is for some) a scientific excuse for the perpetuation of wealth by the few and the lower economic station of the many. (It also led to the creation of the eugenics movement, which inspired the Nazis, and informed the forced sterilization of thousands of Americans, but that’s a story for another day.)

From a Marxist point of view, a scientific theory of inherited traits that justified capitalism should, clearly, be countered with an equally plausible scientific theory. (This war of science went both ways during the Cold War. For example, the US backed the social scientific theory of behaviorism as a way to combat Marxism.)

This is where Trofim Lysenko comes is. Lysenko developed a theory of non-genetic trait-inheritance called Michurinism, named after the Soviet biologist, Ivan Michurin. Actually, Lysenko’s work was far removed from Michurin’s, and was more in line with the theories of a 19th century Frenchman named Jean-Baptiste Lamarck.

Lamarck, who was a well-respected scientist in his day, argued that characteristics (that later came to be understood as genetically inherited) were actually acquired through external factors. For example, he famously argued that the length of a giraffe’s neck is explained by the animals’ continual stretching to reach the leaves on which they feed. Moreover, according to Lamarck, giraffes would pass on their oversized neck to their offspring. Another way to understand the theory is that a bodybuilder’s child will naturally have larger muscles than an accountant’s child, even if neither offspring ever lifts weights.

Lamarck’s theory may sound a little weak now, but many of us still have a Lamarckian understanding of inherited traits. For example, it’s a popular belief that one day our little toes or appendixes will disappear because we don’t use them anymore.

Anyway, inspired by Lamarck, Lysenko set forth the theory that wheat can be made heartier by freezing its seeds and packing them in snow before planting, or that one could extend the planting season by exposing seeds to moisture.

If one looks at the social structure of the USSR, Lysenko’s theory has greater implications. Not only does it counter the idea that capitalism is based on the human genetic makeup, it also creates a positive model to justify the huge social experiments undertaken by Stalin’s government, like the massive levels of new industrialization or the communization of agriculture. In other words, the Lysenko model dictates that if we force people to become welders, farmers, or scientists, they will naturally give birth to welders, farmers, or scientists, and everyone will be happy, healthy, and productive.

The problem, however, was that – regardless of how one feels about capitalism or Marxism – Gregor Meldel had it right when it came to the genetics of plants – which is also to say that Lysenko had it wrong. If we were just talking about lab experiments here, it might not seem like that big of a deal, but a real problem arose when Stalin bought whole-hog into Lysenko’s theories. This led to much lower crop yields for the Soviet Union in good years and crop failures in bad years.

At this point, one might rightfully ask why the USSR didn’t just change courses and go with other agricultural strategies? The reason is that Stalin was completely committed to Lysenko. The scientist’s critics were ousted from their posts, Lysenko was named head of the Academy of Agricultural Sciences, and his techniques were perpetuated into the early 1960s.

Where I see this story intersecting with the US’s current dilemma over global warming policy is through the creeping-in of political influence regarding science, which is too important to become politicized. For example, if the people who fall on the side of global warming as being human-induced are right, we are wasting incredibly valuable time arguing the validity of their data. If, on the other hand, global warming is a hoax perpetuated by eco-terrorists, we are looking at the scientific justification for implementing unnecessary policies that will potentially have a serious drag on the American economy.

To my mind, if one does a simple cost-benefit analysis, the answer is clearly to error on the side of the former rather than the latter group. The cost of doing nothing if the first group is right means serious peril, while the cost of acting as if they are wrong seems somewhat benign by comparison. Seriously, is a world filled with people bicycling to the market, canvas shopping bags in tow, that horrific? To oil companies, auto manufacturers, and a host of other industries, it sure is.

By taking macroeconomics into account, one can look at the problem another way: the US doesn’t have a comparative advantage in heavily polluting industries any longer. It would therefore be better served by switching to other types of industries, like the research and development of greener technologies. Of course, by committing to post-industrialism, many Americans would lose relatively well-paying manufacturing jobs, but through the globalization of production, that’s going to continue to happen anyway (you Hillary supporters have her lovely husband to thank for this one).

A somewhat simplistic way to look at the global warming debate, specifically Bush’s feet dragging regarding the issue, is that he’s looking out for his oilmen-buddies who got him elected. This may be true to a point, but the story of influence in politics is likely a little more complicated. That said, when one reads stories about attempts by the Administration to control scientific data on global warming collected by NASA scientists, one could see some of Joe Stalin in our own Joe Sixpack executive.

What did Ronald “nut-job” Reagan, the brashest of cold warriors, dub the Soviet Union? Oh yeah, it was the “evil empire.” I’m just thankful that we’re so different.

8 responses to “The Lysenko effect”

  1. Dave says:

    Loved this post.

    A number of writers have suggested that what we’re doing as we de-industrialize the US economy in favor of overseas manufacturing is exporting our polluting, in particular our carbon emissions. Exporting some kinds of polluting works fine for a single country — if we don’t have the PCBs fouling our own watersheds, do we really care if they’re poisoning vast swathes of India and China? But carbon emissions are bad because they cause a global problem no matter where, locally, they are produced.

    So while there’s a lot to be said for the US making reductions in carbon emissions, especially because it would boost international efforts towards global carbon controls, in the end it’s the global reductions that matter. While I was reading your last few paragraphs, I was reminded of the Drug War, particularly the international side of it. We blame the Colombians for growing the coca that goes up the noses of Americans. I can see us blaming the Chinese for burning the coal to make the cars, iPods, etc. that we Americans feel entitled to.

  2. Waker N. Baker says:

    …I was reminded of the Drug War, particularly the international side of it.

    Not to mention the fact that if it wasn’t for American, subsidized produce flooding foreign markets, farmers in Mexico, Colombia, Afghanistan, and so forth, might have other options, economically, than growing illegal substances.

    Hey wait a minute, I like illegal substances! What the heck am I doing giving advice to drug-warriors? I must be stoned!!

  3. Godfree says:

    Yes Dave, I couldn’t agree with you more. This in one the big problems created through the globalization of production on the one hand, and the preservation of the sovereign power to pass environmental regulations on the other.

    A game theorist might see the scenario as a perfect “prisoner’s dilemma” in which no (manufacturing) country is willing to pass environmental regulations because others would benefit, first, by attracting the business that the regulating country loses, and second, by benefitting from lower carbon emissions globally. This is ultimately why solutions that don’t tie all nations to the same environmental standards cannot work.

    However, in my post (and I thought it was getting a little long so I reeled myself back in) I hoped to convey that if the US did focus on alt-fuel and green-tech R and D, the world would benefit from the exportation of such technologies. This I see as a way to potentially beat the “prisoner’s dilemma” without having to get everyone together on environmental regulations.

  4. Dave says:

    Speaking of exporting green technologies: “It must be very strange to be President Bush. But yes, you’re right.

    The real problem, of course, is capitalism.

  5. Godfree says:

    Wow! How weirdly refreshing to read positive words about our Jackass in chief. That was for real, right?

  6. Dave says:

    Yeah, but it’s Powerline. The pituitary gland of Internet crazy.

  7. swells says:

    I love watching Scott and Dave go.