Epigenetics and Two of its Cold War Casualties

by Shea Robison

The highly political and ideological history of epigenetics discussed here and here and here helps to explain why epigenetics has only just now emerged as a signficant field of scientific research, as well as why epigenetics has such a mixed reception even today.

Below are two examples of the chilling influence of world politics on the acceptance and development of epigenetics in the mid-twentieth centuries. Although the McCarthyism of this era has long since dissipated, the ideological struggles between the Soviet Union and the West before, during and after World War II have had a long-lasting influence on the acceptance of epigenetics as a valid description of biological and genetic processes.

Ralph Spitzer. The case of Ralph Spitzer, a professor of chemistry at Oregon State College who was fired for supposedly advocating the epigenetics-based theories of Trofim Lysenko discussed here, is one such example.  Spitzer had been initially hired in 1946 primarily upon the glowing recommendation of the two-time Nobel Prize winning scientist Linus Pauling.  In January of 1949, Spitzer wrote a short letter to the editors of Chemical and Engineering News titled “Let Time Tell” in response to a previous editorial which criticized Soviet science in general and dismissed Lysenko’s work as “State Science.”  Spitzer suggested that rather than this “smug editorial,” the editors would have better served the readers of the journal if instead they had published “a summary of Lysenko’s historic paper ‘The Science of Biology Today’ with perhaps a summary of the experimental claims of the Lysenkoists and the actual decisions of the Soviet geneticists,” thereby allowing their readers to debate the merits of the evidence offered by the Lysenkoists.  Spitzer also chastised the timing of this “editorial self-righteousness,” coming as it did “at a time when American scientists have been increasingly subjected to ‘loyalty’ tests and investigations and are being hounded out of their jobs for suspicion of holding unpopular or unconventional social or political views.”[1]

As if in affirmation of Spitzer’s concerns, this short article was cited by the president of the Oregon State College as evidence of Spitzer’s “party line compulsion,” and as a demonstration that “beyond question [Spitzer] was devoted to Communist party policy regardless of evident truth.”  This lack of scientific objectivity, according to the president, provided the justifiable grounds for the dismissal of Spitzer.[2]  In his defense, Spitzer responded that:

I did not support Lysenko in my letter; in any case, it is absurd to reason that agreement with a Soviet scientific theory is evidence of adherence to a party line….I did not stir up controversy, but rather commented on an editorial on Soviet genetics. The editorial was by a chemist, in a chemical journal, and was discussed by two other chemists in the same issue,[3]

but to little effect.  Pauling also communicated extensively with the OSC president and others in support of Spitzer, but in the end none of Spitzer’s or Pauling’s efforts were successful.  The OSC Faculty Committee concluded that – despite the explicit words of the OSC president to the contrary – the decision to not offer reappointment predated any questions about Spitzer’s political affiliations, and as Spitzer was an as yet untenured faculty member the president had acted within his administrative rights in the dismissal of Spitzer.

L.C. Dunn. Likewise, the case of L.C. Dunn provides perhaps even stronger evidence of the ideological pressure against epigenetics during this pivotal formative period.  Dunn was a highly respected full professor of developmental genetics at Columbia – the ostensible heart of genetics research in the 1920s and 1930s.  Dunn was also a close friend and colleague of Theodosius Dobzhansky (described here as one of the seminal figures in the Modern Synthesis of evolutionary thought), and actually helped Dobzhansky secure a position at Columbia in 1940, but Dunn’s reputation was irretrievably mangled due to his associations with Soviet geneticists and his curiosity about epigenetics.

Before all his academic success and subsequent controversy, while in graduate school Dunn served as a U.S. Army officer in Europe in World War I.  This experience was pivotal in his life as, in his own words:

A long standing interest [of mine] has been in improving relations between nations and cultures, using scientific collaboration as a bridge. This probably originated in disappointment with the results of political and military arrangements during and after World War I.  As an army officer returning from Europe in 1919 I entered into correspondence with agencies for cultural relations with the Soviet Union, helping to provide scientific and technical literature useful in the new state which arose from the revolution in October 1917. This seemed to be the chief political event of my generation.[4]

In fulfillment of this deep interest in improving international relations through science, just prior to his appointment at Columbia in 1927, Dunn visited Russia; afterwards, he collaborated extensively with the top Russian geneticists for many years.  Because of these personal and professional connections, Dunn helped to found the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship and was later president of the American-Soviet Science Society.  Also, in the mid-1920s Dunn co-authored a textbook on genetics that became one of the most widely used genetic textbooks in the world, and was particularly popular in Russia.  In fact, until it was outlawed by the Soviet government in the 1940s, more copies of the Russian translation were published than of the original English version.[5]  However, despite his best intentions at building bridges between nations through scientific collaboration, his involvement with Russia and science in the Soviet Union would have unpleasant consequences for him, in large part because of the controversy associated with epigenetics.

During World War II, even as Dunn led protests against the institution of loyalty oaths at Columbia, he again participated in the U.S. war effort contributing to a genetics-based propaganda pamphlet in support of the Allied war effort at the request of the U.S. Public Affairs Department.[6]  After the war, Dunn and Dobzhansky collaborated to translate and publish one of Lysenko’s works, Heredity and Its Variability.[7]  Their stated intention, much like that of Spitzer, was not to promote Lysenko’s ideas per se but ostensibly to “give an opportunity to readers not familiar with the Russian language to form their own judgment on the merits of the controversy,”[8] although their actions around the publication of this translation belie the scientific detachment of this rhetoric.  For example, Dunn penned a mostly negative review of Lysenko’s book and also solicited other prominent scientists to write negative reviews, while Dobzhansky was strident in his denunciations of both Lysenko and of Lamarckism, referring to Lysenko’s text as “excrement” and to Lysenko himself as a “son-of-a-bitch.”  Dobzhansky also stated that translation of the book was such an odious task that he would never have been able to do it for money but “only for a cause” – the cause in this case being the portrayal of Lysenko as a scientific charlatan.[9]

Though Dunn and Dobzhansky did secure a number of negative reviews of their translation of Lysenko’s book, these efforts by Dunn, Dobzhansky and others to discredit Lysenko and Lysenkoism were not regarded as entirely ethical or appropriately scientific by everyone they solicited.  One respondent replied that while he thought Dobzhansky had done a useful service by providing access to Lysenko’s book as “a useful example of unscientific methods,” he did not see the point – other than ideological ‘axe-grinding’ – of using this book as a platform from which to mount an attack on the whole of Soviet science as “there are plenty of indigenous examples” of unscientific methods that could be used demonstrate this point, and he saw “no advantage to Russian-American relations in choosing one from Russia.”[10]

This reaction was actually reflective of Dunn’s overall stance towards Russian science. Dunn’s decidedly unscientific actions in this particular endeavor appear to have been primarily focused on discrediting the ideas of Lysenko in particular, but even then Dunn was not vituperative towards Lysenko or Lysenkoism.  DeJong-Lambert catalogs a number of instances of Dobzhansky strenuously encouraging Dunn to come out more forcefully against Lysenko and Lysenkoism, which Dunn repeatedly declines.[11]  Dunn explained that one reason for his refusal to completely denounce Lysenkoism was his perception that the Lysenkoists were at least correct that orthodox geneticists had neglected the study of development, which is where his interests were at the time and which made him receptive to the potential for progress in the field – although he also acknowledged that ultimately Lysenko gave no new insights.[12]  Dunn also wrote about the difficulty of actually proving acquired characteristics are not inherited, which would require demonstrating a universal negative; because of these epistemological difficulties, and because there is always a finite chance of exceptions, true scientists, according to Dunn, are or at least should be “rather tolerant of any heresy” in such situations.[13]

For these reasons, Dunn also regretted his contribution to Conway Zirkle’s compendium Death of a Science in Russia.[14]  As a historian of science, Zirkle already exhibited a longstanding hostility towards Lamarckism and even Lamarck himself.[15]  In his editorial comments in Death of a Science in Russia, Zirkle’s unapologetic hostility towards Lamarckism dovetailed neatly with his anticommunism, resulting in the same caricatures of Lysenko and Lysenkoism as of Lamarck and Lamarckism in his previous work.  In retrospect, Dunn observed, Zirkle’s antagonism towards Lysenko and Lysenkoism had more to do with Zirkle’s overarching anticommunism than with any concern about the scientific content of Lysenkoism,[16] and Dunn regretted his association with the book.

Regardless, Dunn could not escape the opprobrium associated with not completely rejecting and denouncing the Lamarckism associated with Lysenkoism.  In the journal Science Dunn disputed a review of his translation of Lysenko’s book which cast aspersions on the whole of Soviet science by noting that “one should no more view the whole of Russian science through the lens of Lysenko than one should view American science through fundamentalist writings on evolution,”[17] only to be labeled a Soviet apologist in a subsequent article.[18]

Dunn’s past history with Russian science and scientists, and his association with the translation of Lysenko’s book, and his reluctance to dismiss epigenetics out of hand resulted in his increasing identification as a Communist sympathizer or even a crypto-Communist.  Although Dobzhansky characterizes any such accusations of Dunn as “absurd” to anyone who knew him well at all,[19] eventually Dunn – but not the Russian-born Dobzhansky – was investigated by the U.S. State Department multiple times, with unpleasant repercussions.  For example, just after the war Dunn had been invited to serve as the official U.S. scientific attaché in London, but during the first State Department investigation of him the money budgeted for this position suddenly became unavailable; however, a couple of months later when another professor was selected as scientific liaison the money suddenly became available again.  In 1953, as the result of another investigation Dunn’s passport was not renewed because according to the State Department the Communist Party exerted too much dominance and control over Dunn.  Dunn wrote personally to the Secretary of State asking if all the books and articles on genetics he’d written which had been publicly denounced and banned in the USSR could be counted as evidence of his lack of adherence to a party line, but he received no reply.[20]  Dunn’s passport was eventually reinstated, and he continued to work at Columbia until his retirement in 1962, but his once-promising reputation was never recovered.

Ultimately, as Dobzhansky writes, “the attacks on [Dunn’s] truly selfless and idealistic activities were an unexpected and therefore more bitter disappointment,” which caused Dunn to all but withdraw from the public sphere.[21]  As an example of the extent of Dunn’s alienation, when he finally retired from Columbia after over thirty years, there was no formal acknowledgement by the university of his service or his career.[22]  That the promising academic career of one of Lysenko’s primary critics in the U.S. would be essentially ruined in large part through his contact with Lysenko’s work is, in the words William DeJong-Lambert, “sadly ironic,”[23] but is also indicative of the dogmatic nature of the opposition to epigenetics.  While these ideological associations with epigenetics were likely not maintained past this particularly acute moment in history, the repercussions of these associations were likely manifest throughout the subsequent development of genetics as second-hand and third-hand aversions to the topics of epigenetics passed through academic patronage.

In the end, while a more in-depth analysis of the effects of geography, history and academic and political ideologies on the prejudice against epigenetics would be of tremendous interest and value, this work will have to wait.  Rather, the relevant point of the preceding is that there are any number of reasons – both science-based and non-scientific – that epigenetics has been rejected by the modern theory of genetics for so long, as well as for why epigenetics is just now emerging as a viable field of research, and why epigenetics constitutes such significant challenges to the discourses and policy narratives of both genetics and rationality.

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

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[1] Spitzer, Ralph. 1949. “Let Time Tell.” Chem. Eng. News 27(5): 306–307.

[2] Strand, A.L. 1949. “Strand and Spitzer Issue Statements on Spitzer’s Dismissal.” Chem. Eng. News 27(13): 906-909.

[3] Oregon State University Special Collections & Archives Research Center (OSU SCARC). “Spitzer: The Aftermath.” http://paulingblog.wordpress.com/2012/03/28/spitzer-the-aftermath/ (June 13, 2014).

[4] Dobzhansky, Theodosius. 1978. Leslie Clarence Dunn 1893—1974: A Biographical Memoir. National Academy of Sciences.

[5] Dobzhansky, Theodosius. 1978. Leslie Clarence Dunn 1893—1974: A Biographical Memoir. National Academy of Sciences.

[6] Alland, Alexander. 2002. Race in mind: race, IQ, and other racisms. New York: Palgrave.

[7] Lysenko, T. D. 1946. Heredity and its Variability. Trans. Theodosius Dobzhansky. New York: King’s Crown Press.

[8] Dobzhansky, Theodosius. 1946. “Translator’s Preface.” In Heredity and its Variability. 1946. T.D. Lysenko.. New York: King’s Crown Press.

[9] 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, 42.

[10] 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, 43.

[11] 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.

[12] DeJong-Lambert, W. 2012. The cold war politics of genetic research an introduction to the Lysenko affair. Dordrecht: Springer, 168.

[13] 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.

[14] Zirkle, Conway. 1949. Death of a Science in Russia: The Fate of Genetics as Described in Pravda and Elsewhere. University of Pennsylvania Press.

[15] Gershenowitz, H. 1984. “Professor Conway Zirkle’s Vitriolic Attack on Lamarck.” Indian Journal of History of Sciecne 19(3): 261-71.

[16] DeJong-Lambert, W. 2012. The cold war politics of genetic research an introduction to the Lysenko affair. Dordrecht: Springer, 167.

[17] Dunn, L.C. 1944. “Science in the USSR: Soviet Biology.” Science 99(2561): 65-7.

[18] Sax, Karl. 1944. “Soviet Biology.” Science 99(2572): 298-9.

[19] Dobzhansky, Theodosius. 1978. Leslie Clarence Dunn 1893—1974: A Biographical Memoir. National Academy of Sciences.

[20] 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.

[21] Dobzhansky, Theodosius. 1978. Leslie Clarence Dunn 1893—1974: A Biographical Memoir. National Academy of Sciences, 87.

[22] 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, 50.

[23] 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, 49.

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