In American Academia, Lysenkoism Makes a Comeback

David Acevedo

CounterCurrent: Week of 10/31

“Although it’s impossible to say for sure, Trofim Lysenko probably killed more human beings than any individual scientist in history.”

So begins a 2017 Atlantic article by Sam Kean, a noted writer on the history of science, language, and music. In the piece, Kean tracks the life and work of the infamous Trofim Lysenko, the Soviet agrologist whose spurious theories of agriculture led to the starvation of tens of millions in Stalin’s USSR and abroad. Lysenko worked hard to put the “pseudo” in pseudo-science—he denied the existence of genetics outright and rejected the use of mathematics in biology, instead pursuing research that he claimed would permanently alter plant and animal species based solely on their environment. Needless to say, it didn’t work.

Lysenko’s rise to power was decidedly not fueled by his scientific acumen, but rather by “his hostility toward the West, and his mistrust of Western science,” writes Kean. “Lysenko believed wholeheartedly in the promise of the communist revolution. So when the doctrines of science and the doctrines of communism clashed, he always chose the latter—confident that biology would conform to ideology in the end.”

Because of his fierce commitment to communism, Lysenko was eventually put in charge of Soviet agricultural policy. Those who questioned his policies (now known as Lysenkoism) quickly incurred the wrath of the Kremlin. At best, they were fired. At worst, such as in the case of botanist Nikolai Vavolov, they were sentenced to death. Millions in the USSR starved to death either directly or indirectly due to Lysenkoist agriculture, and as if the domestic carnage wasn’t enough, Lysenko’s theories were exported to China via Mao’s Eight Point Charter of Agriculture, a 1958 document which led to the starvation of millions more.

Why do I mention all of this? Lysenko’s life and work are an extreme example of how subordinating disinterested scholarship to ideology can have disastrous consequences. And while today’s American academicians are not producing work that so quickly puts lives at risk, they are just as willing to engage in the “ideology first, research second” malfeasance of Lysenko, while dutifully canceling those who challenge their predetermined conclusions.

That’s why Minding the Campus (MTC), the National Association of Scholars’ sister publication, has launched the Trofim Lysenko Award for the Suppression of Academic Speech (a Lysenko Award, for short). In this week’s featured article, MTC columnist Louis K. Bonham introduces the award and announces our first “winner,” Williams College Professor Phoebe Cohen. He writes,

The moral of Lysenko is that suppressing academic debate and dissent for political reasons yields bad science, bad scholarship, and inevitably bad results. It can even lead to the collapse of nations. The genius of the scientific method and Western academic culture is that you get closer to the truth by subjecting all theories and ideas to rigorous testing and debate. When you frustrate this process because you are afraid the results might prove politically inconvenient, uncomfortable, or “triggering,” the ghost of Lysenko smiles.

And what, you ask, did Cohen do to deserve such a (dis)honor? Recall the recent Dorian Abbot incident, in which Professor Abbot was disinvited from delivering MIT’s prestigious Carlson Lecture after internet activists raised a ruckus about his past critiques of DEI policies. MIT quickly caved and canceled the lecture—also canceling Abbot in the process. When interviewed by the New York Times, Prof. Cohen was asked about the potential effects the Abbot affair would have on academic freedom. Her answer: “This idea of intellectual debate and rigor as the pinnacle of intellectualism comes from a world in which white men dominated.” As Bonham writes, “Lysenko would be pleased.”

Congratulations to Prof. Cohen for winning MTC’s inaugural Lysenko Award. If you have nominations of your own, feel free to send them my way ([email protected]). This award goes further than just shaming individuals—it exposes the worst cravings of certain academics who would subordinate the pursuit of truth to ideology.

CounterCurrent is the National Association of Scholars’ weekly newsletter, written by Communications & Research Associate David Acevedo. To subscribe, update your email preferences here.

Image: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

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