Box 3 | The Lysenko affair

From the following article:

Cyril Dean Darlington: the man who 'invented' the chromosome

Oren S. Harman

Nature Reviews Genetics 6, 79-85 (January 2005)


In the 1930s, Trofim Denisovitch Lysenko, an unschooled and charismatic plant breeder from the Ukraine, began to formulate new theories of heredity. These were intended to complement what he claimed were his revolutionary practical successes in increasing agricultural yields in the Soviet countryside. Lysenko's theories were a variant of the Lamarckian doctrine of the inheritance of acquired traits, combined with a total rejection of classical Mendelian genetics and of the existence of the gene. Lysenko astutely marshalled the Marxist 'two-camps' philosophy of science, contrasting Mendelian genetics (Western, bourgeois, idealist, exploitative) with Soviet agronomy (revolutionary, materialist, proletarian, practical), a position that helped him to climb the ladder of the Soviet scientific bureaucracy. At a time of massive land collectivization and terrible famine, Lysenko mounted an attack against Soviet academic genetics, calling the Drosophila melanogaster researchers in Leningrad and in Moscow "fly-lovers and people-haters", and castigating them for practising 'pure' as opposed to 'practical' science. After a protracted battle between Lysenkoist agronomy and classical genetics, which was accompanied by terror and political bullying, Lysenko was named head of agricultural sciences in the Soviet Union in 1948. Genetics was banned in Russia, and continued to be so until the 1960s. As rumours in the early 1940s of the disappearance of Soviet geneticists, including the great biologist Nikolai Vavilov, reached the West, Darlington became a vociferous critic of Lysenko and of the Soviet subordination of science to politics and to ideology. He did this in the face of a powerful scientific left in Britain, headed by men such as the mathematical geneticist J. B. S. Haldane and the crystallographer John Desmond Bernal, who became apologists for Lysenko. In opposing Lysenko, he was also going up against the mainstream Western sentiment that steered clear of attacking the ally that had helped Britain to win the war against Germany (this was before the creation of the 'Iron Curtain'). Darlington's response to Lysenko reflected a life-long commitment against totalitarianism and the pollution of science by political agenda. The latter, as is evidenced by Darlington's later books on humanity, was a standard that even he, ultimately, failed to match31.

Cyril Dean Darlington: the man who 'invented' the chromosome