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Special tip of the hat to Cleetus whose comment on a piece in The Federalist got me looking into Lysenkoism. I may be late to the party in knowing about this, but I offer today’s post for anyone else who doesn’t know this important historical figure.


Meet Trofim Denisovich Lysenko, born 1898 in what today is the Ukraine to peasant parents.  He obtained a doctorate in agricultural science at the Kiev Agricultural Institute in 1925 and rejected Mendelian genetics, the kind most of us know today as the  classical genetics of inherited biological features, in favor of pseudo-scientific hybridization theories. In short, he believed that species and environment were entwined in such a way that, given the proper environmental conditions, any species could be changed, e.g. a wheat plant could produce rye seed under the right conditions. He was beginning his working career just as the Soviet Union was suffering a terrible famine while Stalin was in power. The famine was greatly due to Stalin’s collectivists policies which had confiscated farms from the peasants, took seed stock for future plantings and used it as feed stock, and cause many of the peasants to retaliate with poor quality work. The Communist Party was desperate for a savior to step forward with a solution from science. Enter Trofim Lynsenko.

The short version of his meteoric rise and fall comes from Wikipedia (and is confirmed in other sources, but copied here for expedience.)

“Lysenko emerged during this period by advocating radical but unproven agricultural methods, and also promising that the new methods provided wider opportunities for year-round work in agriculture. Lysenko proved himself very useful to the Soviet leadership by reengaging peasants to return to work, helping to secure from them a personal stake in the overall success of the Soviet revolutionary experiment.

Lysenko’s theories did produce some increased crop yields but nothing close to what he had predicted. However, in a time of crisis those kinds of details can get lost. More importantly, the Soviet Union was using American inspired propaganda theory to promote the party’s ideology.  The party actively sought out peasants who they could promote as rising stars in the communist party due to their own ability or intelligence and Lysenko fit the profile perfectly. Isaak Izrailevich Prezent promoted Lysenko to the Soviet mass-media as a genius who had developed a new, revolutionary agricultural technique.

“Lysenko’s widespread popularity provided him a platform to denounce theoretical genetics and to promote his own agricultural practices. He was, in turn, supported by the Soviet propaganda machine, which overstated his successes and omitted mention of his failures. This was accompanied by fake experimental data supporting Lysenkoism from scientists seeking favor and the destruction of counter-evidence to Lysenko’s theories. Instead of performing controlled experiments, Lysenko claimed that vernalization increased wheat yields by 15%, solely based upon questionnaires taken of farmers.”

 At this point, since this is an education blog, is anyone seeing any parallels with what we are currently doing with education reform? We have a crisis, more fiction than Soviet famine fact, and have education reformers with dubious credentials writing education theory backed by a zealous press who is working to support a political administration. They are predicting phenomenal results from this theory, though so far the actual results have been lack luster. Still, the propaganda machine is working overtime to convince us that what we are doing with centralized control of education, a uniform set of standards with aligning curriculum and tests is going to produce high yields of uniformly college and career ready students.

Now we need to look at what happened as a result of this combination of pseudo-expert, political will and a complicit press in the Soviet Union.

“Ultimately, Lysenkoism failed to deliver on its promises in agricultural yields and even had unfortunate consequences such as the arresting, firing, or execution of 3,000 biologists due to attempts from Lysenko to suppress opposition to his theory. The president of the Agriculture Academy was sent to prison and died there, and overall, scientific research in genetics was effectively destroyed until the death of Stalin in 1953. Due to Lysenkoism, crop yields in the USSR actually declined as well.”

Lysenkoism wasn’t limited to the Soviet Union. It became the dominant theory in other countries as well, like Japan. Most importantly, the wide spread belief in his theories caused research money for other theories, like classical genetics, to dry up. If you weren’t going to look at ways to prove Lysenkoism right, you weren’t going to get funded. The same is true today with global warming and with embryonic stem cell research. From Cleetus’s comments.

“In the field of research using cell lines from aborted fetuses, there has been little progress as compared to other avenues of research. What progress has been made has resulted in treatments that require all sorts of additional treatments in order to counter the rash of complications brought about the original treatment. On the other hand, research using stem cells from adults has result in progress that is far superior. Treatments not only outperform many of the same functions without all the side reactions, but the progress has been substantially greater.”

For those in the 1930’s and 40’s Soviet Union, following a different scientific line of inquiry meant literal death. For scientists in other countries it meant professional death.

Those who want to pursue different standards or curriculum from common core are currently experiencing professional death. Uncontrolled experiments that look at raw data to arrive at predetermined conclusions get funded. Controlled studies that produce results contrary to the desired policy get buried.

Take the 21st Century Learning Centers that were in NCLB and now also ECAA. The CLC’s provide before- and after-school activities and summer programs. The purpose of the programs was to provide enrichment opportunity, especially in poorer communities, with the belief that such programs would improve academic scores. A controlled experiment was conducted which randomly assigned students to the CLC’s. The result?

“This study finds that elementary students who were randomly assigned to attend the 21st Century Community Learning Centers after-school program were more likely to feel safe after school, no more likely to have higher academic achievement, no less likely to be in self-care, more likely to engage in some negative behaviors, and experience mixed effects on developmental outcomes relative to students who were not randomly assigned to attend the centers.”

Good research showed that the program did not deliver the academic yields it promised and actually created more behavioral problems in students. Is the Senate or the press paying attention to this research? No, because it does not match the desired policy which sure sounds good, enrichment programs for underserved populations. We are going to stick with educational Lysenkoism.

It took four decades of poor results, starvation, and literal executions before the Soviet Union (and other countries) were able to escape from Lysenkoism. Can we not learn something in this country from history  to spare us a extended period of chasing weak theory when we could be making real advances?

Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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