Few scientists have caused more death and suffering than Trofim Lysenko. He was a Soviet botanist whose ideas around genetics (i.e., he didn’t believe in it) led to massive famines across multiple decades when Josef Stalin promoted his ideas across the country. And yet… He’s becoming popular again. Why? Let’s look at it.
Russian famine of 1921–1922 – 5 million deaths
Soviet famine of 1930–1933 – up to 8.7 million deaths
Holodomor – 1932-33 – up to 5 million deaths
Kazakh famine – 1930-1933 – up to 2.3 million deaths
Chinese Great Famine – 1959-1961 – up to 55 million deaths
When I was a kid, there was a saying that my parents would use whenever I was being a picky eater, they’d say, “Eat Joe, you know there are starving children in China.”
Which meant either, “you should be grateful to have someone who can give you this food because some other kids don’t, or something more like, this is food that could be going to a starving kid, and if you don’t eat it, you’re literally taking food out of a starving child’s mouth, you’re killing some kid in China if you don’t eat this.”
In my house, every entree was served with a side order of shame.
How do you like your shame, mashed or au gratin?
But this wasn’t just my house, this was everywhere, that’s the thing parents said when their kids wouldn’t eat – there are starving kids in China – it was even in A Christmas Story.
So my impression of China as a child was this just destitute wasteland littered with starving children.
I imagined them sitting at a dilapidated table slicing up a single bean like that Disney cartoon.
It was only later that I found out there really wasn’t any major food shortage in China, they were fine. So… What was that about?
It was because when my parents were kids, there very much were starving kids in China.
Have you ever looked into the Great Chinese Famine? Because holy crap dude.
It’s estimated up to 55 million people died from starvation in between the years 1959 and 1961.
That’s three quarters the number of people who died worldwide in world war 2. In one country. In three years.
But this story isn’t about the Great Chinese Famine. This is about one of the people responsible for it.
A scientist whose backwards ideas about plants also helped cause the Soviet famine, the Kazakh famine, and the Holomodor in Ukraine.
And a guy who, incredibly, is rising in popularity in some places.
n 1924, after a series of strokes, the founder of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin, died. In his wake, Joseph Stalin stepped in to lead the country.
And by “stepped in,” I mean destroyed the old leadership by charging them with bogus crimes, systematically arresting and executing them.
Along with various bureaucratic shuffling and denunciations.
It became known as The Great Purge, which any event in history described as a “purge” is generally not a good time.
But Stalin had big ideas to reshape the Soviet Union, based on his own nationalistic brand of Marxism he called “Socialism in One Country.”
Basically Lenin was most concerned with spreading communism around the world but Stalin wanted to focus on strengthening the Soviet Union.
At this point, the industrial revolution had been going on for decades but Russia had really fallen behind Europe in that regard, especially around agriculture.
So Stalin started a series of five-year plans to help industrialize the country.
He was worried that if the Soviet Union didn’t modernize, then Communism would fail, allowing its capitalist neighbors to destroy the country.
Which by the way, this 5-year plan thing he started basically continued until the end of the Soviet Union in the 90s. They weren’t all five years, some were four, the longest was seven, but when the Soviet Union fell, they were in the middle of their twelfth plan.
But in many ways, it worked. They saw massive economic growth in coal, oil, and steel productivity. But it was brutal.
Factories had strict goals that were almost impossible to meet. And the punishment if you failed to meet your goal? You didn’t just get fired, you were branded an enemy of the state and imprisoned or executed.
So, like, layoffs are bad… But that’s worse.
And then he wanted to collectivize the farms, that was another big part of his first five-year plan.
He thought that if the country was going to industrialize, he would have a lot of mouths to feed, so he wanted to increase the agricultural productivity, and he thought the best way to do that was turning all the individually owned farms under the authority of the state.
That was the communism talking. The rounding up of millions of farmers and taking their land and labeling them as enemies of the state if they didn’t comply – that was the nationalism talking.
Yeah there was a specific group of wealthier farmers called Kulaks that he focused his ire on. About 5 million of them were deported or disappeared.
Imagine you’ve been running a farm for generations, growing and selling your crops and then the Soviet army shows up all…
But yeah, because of all that, there was a lot of resistance. Some farmers would even kill their own animals and destroy their own crops rather than let the state have them.
That itself caused disruptions in the food supply but far worse was that when the state took over these farms, they changed how they ran them.
Stalin was impressed by the ideas of a prominent scientist named Trofim Lysenko, a man whose policies would lead to waves of famines across multiple countries.
Lysenko was born in Ukraine to a peasant family in 1898. He only learned to read and write at age 13.
His first published papers appeared in 1923. He didn’t know any foreign languages and had to learn everything from translations.
Now, anywhere else in the world, this might have been an issue, that he had limited access to international science developments, but in the Soviet Union at that time, that was considered a plus.
They wanted to promote home-grown scientists and the more underprivileged their background, the better. Because they were all about the working class.
He was sent to a breeding station in Giandzhe, Azerbaijan, in 1925 and worked on legumes.
But it was an article published in Pravda, the Communist Party’s official newspaper, in 1927 that launched his career.
The article covered a paper he had published that year that proposed a new way of increasing plant productivity, called vernalization.
Vernalization is when you artificially expose plants or seeds to cold temperatures to help stimulate flowering or increase seed production.
For example, he claimed in his paper that he took winter wheat seeds and exposed them to cold temperatures, which made them more productive in the spring.
But his research was deeply flawed. It wasn’t done with proper controls or run through statistical analysis.
And it’s not like people didn’t know about this method, Farmers had been using it since the 19th century.
And botanists had studied it for at least 10 years before Lysenko, so he wasn’t groundbreaking or anything – but the Soviet leadership liked his beliefs, and they liked that he was a hardcore communist who hated the West.
So Stalin appointed him director of the Institute of Genetics of the Academy of Sciences of the U.S.S.R. and president of the V.I. Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences.
So he was like, “the guy.”
And as “the guy,” he wielded his power like a good authoritarian, and made an enemy out of anybody who questioned his research.
And what happens to enemies of the state in Stalin’s Soviet Union? They were imprisoned or executed.
Okay, so what were these beliefs? What had the Soviet leadership hung their hat on with this guy?
First of all, he rejected the science of genetics, specifically as developed by Gregor Mendel and Thomas Hunt Morgan.
Probably not great when the Director of the Institute of Genetics… didn’t believe in genetics.
He thought this brand of science was idealistic, impractical, and a product of bourgeois capitalism.
Like Andrew Carnegie decided how genes should be passed or something.
Lamarckianism is named after the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck who theorized in 1809, that physical changes in organisms during their lifetime can be transmitted to their offspring.
This was the early days of evolution, they knew that species changed over time, but they weren’t quite sure why. This was one of the ways they tried to explain it.
Like they would argue that giraffes grew long necks because they would stretch their necks trying to reach the highest leaves and because they stretched their necks so much, their offspring were born with longer necks.
Basically, Lysenko believed that the environment alone shapes animals and plants. So by putting them in a proper setting and exposing them to the right stimuli, you can change them in any way you want.
So as head of Soviet agriculture, he set out to “educate” Soviet crops to sprout at different times of the year. This is why he did things like soaking them in freezing water.
He said that future generations of crops would remember these environmental cues and inherit beneficial traits.
The thing is… That’s impossible.
As Sam Kean wrote in The Atlantic in 2017:
So that we’re all on the same page concerning genetics…
All plants and animals have genes that determine traits passed on to their offspring.
For example, humans have around 25,000 to 35,000 genes. And each gene has a special job that the DNA in it tells it to do inside a cell.
Genes are also in pairs. Each parent has two copies of each of their genes, but each parent only passes along just one copy of their genes.
This makes up the genes you have and helps determine things like your hair or eye color or how tall or short you’ll be.
But Lysenko didn’t believe in genes.
Instead, he believed that you could plant crops extremely close together, and they wouldn’t compete against each other because they were of the same species, or class.
He thought that amount of milk a cow produces was determined by how well the cow was treated and not its genetics.
Oh, and he claimed that cuckoo birds were created by feeding birds hairy caterpillars.
He promised to boost crop yields nationwide through massive farms with crops planted extremely close together, and he said they wouldn’t compete against each other because they were of the same species, or class.
See, that was the thing, his theories echoed the language and ideology of Communism.
Like, growing plants together was the same as class solidarity. Or getting cows to produce more milk because they were treated well was similar to treating workers better.
The result? Almost everything grown according to Lysenko’s methods died or rotted.
He told farmers that planting each generation of seeds closer together than the last would get them used to the reduction in growing room, and then more could be grown in smaller plots of land.
But this caused crops to compete for nutrients and root space. The result was stunted growth.
Farmers were also told to dig really deep into the soil, up to two meters compared to the 10-20 centimeters they previously would dig.
The reason for this was that it would bring up fertile soil. But instead, it buried fertile topsoil, and the crops suffered.
Sure, Stalin is to blame for the famines that killed at least seven million people. But Lysenko’s farming practices prolonged the famines.
Deaths from them peaked from 1932 to 1933. Four years later, there was a 163-fold increase in farmland using Lysenko’s methods, and food production was even lower than before.
During the early 30s, between Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, around 15 million people died.
But then in the late 1950s, China faced its own catch-up moment where they wanted to get as industrialized as the rest of the world. So they used many of the same policies that Stalin did because, again, they were actually kind-of successful. Economically.
Unfortunately, this included Lysenko’s ideas.
And this is kind-of where I started this video. Estimates of the Great Chinese Famine go as high as 55 million people with at least 30 million on the low end, which even that would double what the USSR went through.
And it’s easy to hear a number like that and just tune out but Some of the stories from that time are just horrendous. Some Chinese peasants resorted to eating tree bark, bird droppings, and each other. Cannibalism ran rampant.
Which is why my parents generation all those years later were talking about starving kids in China. It was bad dude.
But other Soviet scientists emerged and started to debunk Lysenko’s claims. And they brought to light how he used his political influence to denounce anybody who criticized him.
Nobel Peace Prize recipient and physicist Andrei Sakharov spoke to the General Assembly of the Russian Academy of Sciences in 1964 and countered Lysenko’s ideas, at one point saying:
“He is responsible for the shameful backwardness of Soviet biology and of genetics in particular, for the dissemination of pseudo-scientific views, for adventurism, for the degradation of learning, and for the defamation, firing, arrest, even death, of many genuine scientists.”
This was the beginning of the end for Lysenko. After this speech, the media started to spread anti-Lysenko articles that caused him to be disgraced. And he was removed from his directorship in 1965. He died in 1976.
And yet… He’s kinda gaining in popularity again.
According to the book Lysenko’s Ghost by Loren Graham, Lysenko’s rehabilitation is due to sympathies to Stalin, the growing influence of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the rise in popularity of modern epigenetics.
As I mentioned earlier, we have thousands of genes. But not all of them are active at once.
Some get turned off or on inside cells, and the study of these changes is called epigenetics.
One thing that turns a gene off or on is environmental cues. And these environmentally driven changes can even pass from a parent to its offspring.
In other words, the way you live your life, the choices you make, can actually affect what genes you pass on to your kids.
That sounds exactly what Lysenko was saying. And to some people, this is validation of his ideas.
But if you look at his work, it shows that he didn’t predict epigenetics in any important way. In fact, he claimed that genes didn’t exist. The whole basis for epigenetics is that they do!
Plus, epigenetic changes that pass from parent to offspring, tend to disappear after a few generations. They’re not permanent, which is the opposite of what Lysenko believed.
But the main reason Lysenko’s ideas are becoming popular again is because Lysenko was extremely anti-West. And Russia is in a very anti-West phase right now.
Since science is a bedrock of Western culture, Lysenko is presented as a hero to Russians because he stood up to Western science.
Which, I mean, I get that but isn’t there somebody else you can look up to who didn’t contribute to, you know, mass cannibalism?
Now to be fair to Lysenko, he didn’t personally kill 70 million people, and the famines that did weren’t all his fault, there were mountains of bad ideas and mismanagement that led to those disasters. His were just some of them.
But is it fair to call him the worst scientist of all time? In terms of body count, possibly – you’d be hard pressed to find a scientist whose ideas have killed more people, but worst in terms of doing a bad job of being a scientist? YES. Definitely.
He started with a conclusion and changed the facts to fit what he wanted and then suppressed the peer review process, that’s like, how science works. He stopped science from working.
And he based his science on his political beliefs, I mean he claimed that genetics was too capitalist – what does that even mean?