History, Part III: Epigenetics and the Dustbin of History

by Shea Robison

In addition to the reasons discussed here and here, another cause for the split between genetics and epigenetics, and the different trajectories of each, has to do with geography and world events.

As mentioned before, the fields of genetics and embryology – which was where most of the work on epigenetics was being done in the early to mid 20th century – had been gradually separating since the mid-1920s.  This split was in part due to their different emphases on the transmission of hereditary traits (genetics) versus the expression of those traits (embryology).

In addition, as Gilbert notes, the field of experimental embryology was also “a discipline with its soul in central Europe,” as distinct from the centers of genetics in the United States and England. These geographical differences also manifest as cultural and scientific differences. Peter Bowler in his own history of evolutionary thought notes these key differences, writing that “in Germany, where genetics developed in a much less dogmatic form” there was much more interaction between different fields and much more openness to “non-Darwinian mechanisms of evolution” than in America in particular.

However, as the geographic location of the ‘soul’ of embryology was in Germany, some of the tenets of epigenetics were utilized by the Nazis to inform their theories of race and in support of their eugenics programs during the 1930s.[1] As a result of this connection with Nazism, and due to the disruptions of the second World War which practically demolished the infrastructure of this region, from the early 1940s onwards embryology and epigenetics for all practical purposes “ceased to function.”[2]  On the contrary, the soul(s) and infrastructures of genetics, located primarily in Allied countries were largely preserved intact both during and after the war,[3] which allowed for the work in genetics to continue almost unabated.

Likewise, Waddington himself hints at another geopolitical reason for the exclusion of epigenetics from the modern science of genetics when he briefly mentions in his book The Strategy of the Gene that the ideas of epigenetics had recently been revived in the Soviet Union as well.[4]  Waddington does not pursue the implications of this tantalizing lead any further, but the implications of this connection of epigenetics with the Soviet Union provide a strong argument in favor of the disqualification of epigenetics on other than scientific grounds.

Ideological factors definitely influenced the evolution of evolutionary and developmental science in the Soviet Union.  As observed by Burian, in the early twentieth century Russia was actually exceptional for the “intense and productive scientific debates over various Darwinian and non-Darwinian theories of evolution,” and that, in marked contrast to the West, by the end of the 1930s most major Soviet universities had departments of Darwinism.[5]  However, during this same time the dominant assumptions of Darwinian natural selection (i.e., the “bitter struggle for the means of existence” and the lack of cooperation among animals of the same species) were becoming more and more ideologically juxtaposed against the collectivistic tenets of Leninism and Stalinism,[6] as were the atomistic assumptions and the mechanistic experimental methods of genetics.[7]  For example, Lamarckist theories, in contrast to Mendelian genetics, were identified as providing the scientific support for the thesis of Friedrich Engels (the co-father of Marxist thought) that – as with the necks of giraffes – it was the inheritance of characteristics acquired through labor which eventually transformed apes into humans.[8]

The Soviet Union was also experiencing waves of famines during the 1920s and 1930s.  In the desperate quest for relief, the Lamarckian theories of the biologist Vladimirovich Michurin and the agronomist Trofim Lysenko were swiftly promoted to prominence.  These theories, which were premised on the idea that intentional interventions could change the genetic productiveness of crops, promised to immediately increase agricultural productivity and also allowed for the useful display of immediate, purposive action in the face of crisis.  In fact, one of the primary Lysenkoist critiques of genetics was the length of time required to implement change according to genetics, and even just the time it took to select the right varieties for genetics experiments,[9] although Lysenko himself carried the point further and publicly denounced genes as “imaginary.”[10]

Although this ‘Lysenkoism’ was epigenetics-like, it was not very scientific in its application, and was ultimately not successful in its intention to increase agricultural productivity.[11]  Regardless, and with the explicit and public support of Josef Stalin, from the 1940s through the 1960s Lysenkoism was sanctioned by the Soviet state as the only correct theory of evolution and biological development,[12] while genetics and Darwinian natural selection were officially discredited as bourgeois and fascist, with many geneticists being imprisoned and even executed.[13]

Given the deep and often bitter ideological contest between the Soviet Union and the West from the 1920s and through the Cold War, the formal approval of epigenetics as the only legitimate theory of evolution by the Soviet Union – and the blatantly ideological and pseudoscientific methods of Lysenkoism, as well as its ultimate failure – also played a significant role in the discrediting of epigenetics in the West.  In fact, the scientific ‘dialog’ between scientists on both sides mirrored the vitriolic political rhetoric.  One researcher on this epoch in science characterizes the reactions to Lysenko and Lysenkoism of many prominent biologists and geneticists in the West as “strikingly similar to the tenor and the rhetoric used by Lysenko and his followers,” and he provides a litany of examples of the “dogmatic,” “derisive,” and at times even “fanatical” opposition to the Lamarckian ideas of Lysenko.[14]  Although in the West there were no official state edicts against epigenetics or imprisonments of epigeneticists solely for their scientific claims, it is clear that this Soviet support for epigenetics-type theories played a significant role in the Western prejudice against epigenetics, especially in the chilled and virulently anti-Communist atmosphere of McCarthy era America.

I am curious to hear what you think. Leave your comments below and I will respond.

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Next: Epigenetics and Two of its Cold War Casualties

See also: A Brief History of Epigenetics and Epigenetics and the Politics of Science


[1] Bowler, Peter J. (2003). Evolution: the History of an Idea (3rd ed.). California: University of California Press, 244; 304-312.

[2] Gilbert, S. F. (2012). Commentary: ‘The Epigenotype’ by C.H. Waddington. International Journal of Epidemiology, 41(1), 20-23.

[3] Bowler, Peter J. (2003). Evolution: the History of an Idea (3rd ed.). California: University of California Press, 333-338.

[4] Waddington C.H. (1953). The strategy of the genes. George Allen & Unwin, London.

[5] Burian, R. (2005). “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution” (Theodosius Dobzhansky). In The Epistemology of Development, Evolution, and Genetics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 103-120.

[6] Sapp, J. (1994). Symbiogenesis in Russia. In Evolution by association a history of symbiosis . New York: Oxford University Press.

[7] Gaissinovitch, A. E. (1980). The origins of Soviet genetics and the struggle with Lamarckism, 1922-1929. Journal of the History of Biology, 13(1),1-51

[8] Engels, Friedrich. [1876] 2001. The Part played by labour in the transition from ape to man. London: Electric Book Co.; Foster, John Bellamy. 2000. Marx’s ecology materialism and nature. New York: Monthly Review Press.

[9] Carlson, Elof A. 1981. Genes, radiation, and society : the life and work of H.J. Muller. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

[10] DeJong-Lambert, William. 2007. “The Cold War Politics of Genetic Research.” Presented at The7th Annual Havighurst Center for Russian & Post-Soviet Studies International Young Researchers Conference, Miami, OH.

[11] Ferrara, P. (2013). The Disgraceful Episode Of Lysenkoism Brings Us Global Warming Theory. Forbes. Retrieved June 6, 2014, from http://www.forbes.com/sites/peterferrara/2013/04/28/the-disgraceful-episode-of-lysenkoism-brings-us-global-warming-theory/; Medvedev, Zhores. 1971. The Rise and Fall of T.D. Lysenko, trans. I. Michael Lerner. New York: Doubleday and Co.

[12] Graham, L.R. (2004). Science in Russia and the Soviet Union. A Short History. Series: Cambridge Studies in the History of Science. Cambridge University Press.

[13] Wrinch, P. N. (1951). Science and politics in the USSR: the genetics debate. World Politics, 3(04), 486-519; Adams, M. B. (1991). “Through the looking glass: The evolution of Soviet Darwinism.” In New Perspectives on Evolution, edited by L. Warren and H. Kropowski, New York: Wiley-Liss, 37-63.

[14] DeJong-Lambert, William. 2012. “Biological Utopias East and West: Trofim Lysenko and His Critics.” In Divided Dreamworlds? The Cultural Cold War in East and West, eds. Peter Romjin, Giles Scott-Smith, and Joes Segal. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 33-38.

16 thoughts on “History, Part III: Epigenetics and the Dustbin of History

    1. Thank you. I always appreciate finding other people out there who find the history and the politics and the ethics of epigenetics as intriguing as I do. I am gratified that you enjoy my work enough to take the time to tell me. Feel free to comment on any other posts you come across, or ask any questions you might have, or point out any discrepancies you see. My main hope behind this blog was to spur these kinds of interactions, so browse around and let me know what else you like (or don’t like, for that matter).

      Thanks again,



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