37. Evolution in Soviet Russia 1928-1937

In 1928 there was another conflict about how the science of life was applied, when Jack Haldane was invited by the plant geneticist Nikolai Vavilov to visit some of the biological laboratories of the new Soviet Union. Not only was he impressed by the standard of work being undertaken at the new genetical institute run by Vavilov, but he was asked to help organise more experiments to use Mendel’s concepts of gene recognition to breed new varieties of crops. Soviet agriculture had special problems due to the prolonged cold over much of the vast country and Vavilov thought that Morgan’s Mendelian methods that had been developed in New York might help breed new forms.

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Out in the Republics, too, many exciting genetical experiments were underway and they heard that one of them was run by a young agriculture graduate called Trofim Lysenko. When he was 30 years old he had discovered a method to fertilize fields without using the usual fertilizers or minerals. Pravda was excited that a winter crop of peas could be grown in Azerbaijan, “turning the barren fields of the Transcaucasus green in winter, so that cattle will not perish from poor feeding, and the peasant Turk will live through the winter without trembling for tomorrow.”

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Haldane expected that this might even be a mutation that fulfilled one of his mathematical expressions for an unusually rapid rate of evolutionary change. What he didn’t realise was that some of the Soviet political leaders didn’t like to have the support of western biologists because they interpreted facts in very different ways. It was acceptable for them to argue between themselves about the meaning of Mendel and Morgan’s work, but it was an unacceptable basis for an important new research programme in the Soviet Union. Instead, that kind of individualism was to give way to group systems of social organisation with one agreed policy. It was why these Soviet politicians were impressed by the arguments that Lysenko presented, ones that assigned a major role in evolution to the whole population out in the harsh environment. There was particular problem with the Russian environment, much of it being too cold to grow more crops. It also helped promote the well-known claims by Kammerer about the inheritance of acquired characters in midwife toads, to become acceptable again.

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In 1926 it was leaked that the toads Kammerer had taken around Europe and America before the war, to demonstrate a Lamarckian acquisition of pads for mating, were shown to be fakes. These same informants showed that Indian Ink had been injected into the toads to simulate the mating pads. It meant that what were reputedly new adaptations were in fact a hoax. Six weeks later Kammerer committed suicide in Germany.

Inside the Soviet Union this faking of the pads and the way in which Kammerer died were told differently. The Soviet Commissar for Education, Lenin’s old comrade Anatoli Lunacharsky, was excited by the possibilities that Lamarck may have been right all along and Mendelian genetics wrong. It was a good argument against the bourgeois inventions from the west and in favour of comrade Lysenko’s theory, the kind of thing coming from the new Soviet system. Lunacharsky wrote the screenplay for a film glorifying Kammerer and blamed the faking on the reactionary elements in western science.

Later, Arthur Koestler argued this was a Nazi plot to discredit Kammerer’s popular socialism: “the Hakenkreuzler, the swastika-wearers, as the Austrian Nazis of the early days were called, were growing in power. One center of ferment was the University of Vienna where, on the traditional Saturday morning student parades, bloody battles were fought. Kammerer was known by his public lectures and newspaper articles as an ardent pacifist and Socialist; it was also known that he was going to build an institute in Soviet Russia. An act of sabotage in Kammerer’s laboratory would have been in keeping with the climate of those days.”

Through the 1930s the Soviet Union became more isolated from western scientists, but some contact was made. Huxley had known Herman Muller since 1915 when they had worked together in Texas on genetic mutations. They were good memories, so in 1934 they encouraged Huxley to introduce him once again to a new job, this time to help strengthen Nikolai Vavilov’s team at the Institute of Genetics in the Soviet Union. It was a hard, if not challenging, move for the street-wise New Yorker, though Stalin had not yet quite made up his mind how far to encourage Lysenko. At the institute they were working on a very important project, breeding new crops that could better survive the harsh Russian winters. Muller went to the Institute in Leningrad for three half-year terms, brought new mutants from New York and became deeply involved in the work of the institute. It was not easy to bring the latest ideas of western genetics into that group, because of the conflicting support for Mendel and Darwin on one hand and for the opposing views of Bateson on the other. But their differences were insignificant compared to the arguments in Russia between Vavilov and Lysenko. All the time, Lysenko was gaining more power from Moscow, denying proven genetic breeding practices and promising another way to achieve a much more rapid increase in yield than did Mendelism. His theory of mass selection was based on the Lamarckian idea that environments act directly on heredity to cause adaptation, instead of indirectly by selection. He knew that Stalin favoured Lamarck over Darwin.

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Muller suspected that Lysenko’s crosses were hybrids between two varieties, differing in several genes containing a range of new recombinations. If the best of these could be isolated and purified by selection then the new progeny would breed true and succeed. There was nothing he could say to the institute staff that would enable them to change their interpretations and it was becoming clear that the usual exchange of ideas about science was becoming impossible.

One sign that something unusual was afoot came from the sudden cancellation of one of the frequent celebrations of Charles Darwin’s life by different Soviet agencies. Supporters of Vavilov and others at the Academy of Sciences regularly organised ceremonies and meetings to mark some anniversary of the great man’s birth. The hidden agenda of the presentations was that each of the organising groups would be seen giving public declarations of their support of a theory that had strong official approval. Darwin’s self-organised system of natural selection appealed to many in the Party who were promoting the virtues of dialectical materialism, and they argued that it gave a more theoretical underpinning to justify their agricultural policy.

After this cancellation in 1935 came the first public accusations that Vavilov and Muller’s Mendelian breeding experiments were bad science, or in the code of the times “idealist”. Muller himself was in Russia the following year when the authorities cancelled the 7th International Congress of Genetics. He was puzzled by the cancellation because the Party had first toyed with the idea of allowing it to be held. But they insisted that all presentations on evolution and human genetics be omitted from the programme, in spite of the fact that many foreign geneticists had intended to attack the Nazi racist doctrines. Suddenly, evolutionary biology had become a dangerous political issue.

By then, Lysenko had the approval of the authorities to take control and he took full advantage. His methods involved cross-breeding forms from very different habitats. “The nature of crosses, particularly in the first generation, is usually unstable” but then he went on to say that stronger progeny began to develop. Huxley reported that at one of his lectures Lysenko had said: “We know from our own persons that assimilation (or digestion) is not always complete. When that is so, what happens? We belch. Segregation is Nature’s belching; unassimilated hereditary material is belched out.” Huxley couldn’t quite believe that these extraordinary comments came from such a powerful man. He also realised that Lysenko’s “illiteracy” made it impossible to discuss matters scientifically: sometimes Lysenko appeared ignorant of the scientific facts and principles. Sometimes he misunderstood them as in another lecture he said: “There is no organ of heredity; there is no hereditary matter separate from the soma. There are organs of reproduction but no organs of heredity.”

These events were all the more disturbing in the memory of those who had been working in Leningrad ten years earlier, when Darwin’s ideas of evolution and Mendel’s gene recombinations spread across the whole of biology. This was the kind of biology being studied by Vavilov, who contributed a chapter to a later compendium that Huxley called The New Systematics about these earlier applications of plant breeding in the USSR. Just as the book came out in 1940 Vavilov was arrested by the KGB, tried, found guilty of sabotage and sentenced to death. He died of malnutrition in prison in 1943.         220px-Lysenko_with_Stalin     220px-Vavilov_in_prison

That chapter in Huxley’s collection became a fitting memorial to those tragic times. It was a small spark of light in a dark movement that challenged the honesty of scientific method. The catastrophic event of world war was to continue for some time yet and problems wouldn’t be resolved until more fundamental obstacles still facing evolution and the new genetics had been overcome.