The Soviet agronomist Trofim Lysenko became one of the most notorious figures in twentieth-century science after his genetic theories were discredited decades ago. Yet some scientists, even in the West, now claim that discoveries in the field of epigenetics prove that he was right after all. Seeking to get to the bottom of Lysenko’s rehabilitation in certain Russian scientific circles, Loren Graham reopens the case, granting his theories an impartial hearing to determine whether new developments in molecular biology validate his claims.
In the 1930s Lysenko advanced a “theory of nutrients” to explain plant development, basing his insights on experiments which, he claimed, showed one could manipulate environmental conditions such as temperature to convert a winter wheat variety into a spring variety. He considered the inheritance of acquired characteristics—which he called the “internalization of environmental conditions”—the primary mechanism of heredity. Although his methods were slipshod and his results were never duplicated, his ideas fell on fertile ground during a time of widespread famine in the Soviet Union.
Recently, a hypothesis called epigenetic transgenerational inheritance has suggested that acquired characteristics may indeed occasionally be passed on to offspring. Some biologists dispute the evidence for this hypothesis. Loren Graham examines these arguments, both in Russia and the West, and shows how, in Russia, political currents are particularly significant in affecting the debates.
The ways that politics, religion, cultural norms, and ideologies of all kinds distort science is at the heart of Lysenko’s Ghost. Those ideologies can alter our interpretation of facts and reshape our understanding of natural events.
Graham has delivered an account of one of the most infamous and important, yet least-known episodes in twentieth-century science—one on which he is the leading scholar.
This book adds valuable new insights into the current debates concerning elements of the newly emerging field of epigenetics and its connections to the older debates about the inheritance of acquired characteristics, especially in the context of Russia and the theories of Lysenko. Graham is in command of the materials throughout and in many cases he is one of the few who knows the materials at hand.
A thoughtful, historically grounded, and engaging commentary on current Russian perspectives on Lysenko and his legacy in the context of recent developments in epigenetics and Russian politics and culture.
Graham’s book is a timely and important antidote to the idea that everything that is not mainstream heredity is Lysenkoism.
[Graham’s] survey of the terrifying milieu in which Lysenko thrived includes a discussion of the eugenics movement in the Soviet Union, and the short book thus encompasses two major types of threat to the integrity of scientific inquiry: institutional interference from without and political infection from within. The latter threat, in particular, is ever present…Graham’s survey of Lysenkoism and eugenics in Soviet Russia contains important lessons about threats to the health of science.
Graham offers a sweeping history of the concept of inheritance of acquired characteristics as it shaped, and was shaped by, philosophy and politics in the 19th and 20th century. The book highlights how the scientific process can be imperiled when political objectives—here, Lysenko’s goals for demonstrating that environmental conditions can induce heritable biological change—are prioritized over experimental design and data analysis.
- 224 pages
- 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
From this author
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