Epigenetics and the Cold War

Excerpt from my forthcoming book Epigenetics and Public Policy The Tangled Web of Science and Politics to be released February 2018 by Praeger

Biology in the USSR

Although Russian biology before and after the Russian Revolution had a much different slant than American and even British biology, and was centered more around evolutionary biology, genetics did eventually become an accepted aspect of science in Russia. Notably, this acceptance of genetics began in earnest only during the early years of the Soviet period,[1] and quickly became a strong research program (for example, until 1934, the Soviet Union was second only to the United States in publications in genetics[2]). However, within a decade genetics was almost entirely discredited in the Soviet Union and by the 1940s genetics was replaced by a much different paradigm which incorporated both Lamarckian notions and epigenetic-like ideas, though with some important differences unique to the Soviet circumstances.

One important material factor which influenced the direction of the development of Soviet biology along these lines were the waves of famines experienced in the Soviet Union 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 as offering more immediate means to increase agricultural productivity. These theories were premised on the idea that external modifications to plants (such as grafts) and to seeds (such as vernalization, or soaking them in water) were passed on to subsequent generations via some mechanism of inheritance, suggesting a very limited role for genetic heredity and natural selection in biology.

These Lamarckesque theories also allowed for the politically useful display of immediate, purposive action in the face of crisis. In fact, one of the primary Lysenkoist critiques of genetics during this period was of the length of time required to implement biological change according to genetics, and even just the time it took to select the right varieties for genetics experiments, which could take months if not years.[3] To wit, a government decree in 1931 declared that to warrant continued support government-funded cultivation projects must produce new varieties within 4–5 years, which was half the time required for conventional methods used by the geneticists.[4] That Lysenkoists could promise results in a much shorter timeframe than their counterparts working in genetics only added to their political advantage vis-à-vis the geneticists.

Lamarck and Lysenko

Again, though, although Lysenkoism had both Lamarckian and epigenetics-like characteristics, in many substantial ways it was neither, and thus should not be confused or conflated with either Lamarckism or contemporary epigenetics.

On the one hand, neither Lysenko nor most Lysenkoists referred to themselves as Lamarckians. Instead, they preferred to describe themselves as Darwinists, juxtaposing themselves against the Western Neo-Darwinists. For example, while at this time there were dozens of Russian translations of Darwin’s writings, there were only a couple of translations of the work of Lamarck, and in journal articles of the time Darwin was referred to more than 25 times as frequently as Lamarck.[5]

Further, when Lysenkoists did refer to Lamarck, it was usually just to praise the revolutionary nature of his ideas and not for any scientific purposes. DeJong-Lambert describes how during the watershed 1948 meeting of the All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences of the Soviet Union at which genetics was officially banned in the Soviet Union, one of the speakers observed that “As is known, Lamarck’s theory arose in connection with the ideas of the French encyclopaedists and the French materialists. It reflected the revolutionary epoch of that time,” and that just as “the reaction against the French Revolution also caused a strong reaction against the ideas of Lamarck,” so also were the reactions against Lysenkoism proxies for reactions against the Russian Revolution.[6] Thus, references like these to Lamarck and Lamarckism primarily functioned to cast geneticists in the role of counter-revolutionaries, as “regressive absolutists who feared ‘enlightenment,’” more than to declare a specific filiation of Lysenkoism with Lamarckism.[7]

Regardless, and with the explicit and public support of Josef Stalin, Lysenkoism was sanctioned by the Soviet state as the only correct theory of evolution and biological development,[8] while genetics and Darwinian natural selection were officially discredited as bourgeois and fascist, with many geneticists being imprisoned and perhaps even killed.[9] This ‘housecleaning’ in biology mirrored the purges that were occurring in other domains of Soviet life as well during this time, which were also so often couched in the context of ideological opposition to the West.

Ideology and biology in the West

However, this conflation of biology with ideology was occurring on both sides of the Cold War which was then just heating up, though in much different ways and to different degrees. For example, geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky, one of the premier architects of the Modern Synthesis, identified the motivations of many in the West who were then portraying Lamarckian heredity as part of some sort of “communist plot” in biology as being less about the actual science involved and more about their own particular ideologies.[10]

As to why Lamarckism was being so closely linked with Marxism, Dobzhansky suggested ulterior motives for those who were stoking fears of Marxian biologists hiding “under every laboratory bench” during this time.[11] According to Dobzhansky, by identifying as Communists anyone who did not condemn Lamarckism as an “enemy” doctrine in biology, these alarmists were seeking more to intimidate into silence potential opponents of their own particular research focus, as well as to express their preferred social and political interpretations of that biology, rather than to clarify the actual scientific issues involved.[12]

As will be shown, this politicization of biology in the West before and during the Cold War was to play a significant role in the development of the science of genetics in the West over the subsequent fifty years, particularly in the prejudice against epigenetics—which also helps to explain the recent and seemingly sudden (re)emergence of epigenetics within the last decade or so.

Genetics and the Cold War in the U.S.

In the West, there were at least no official state edicts against epigenetics-like ideas or imprisonments of epigeneticists like Waddington solely for their scientific claims. However, it is also clear that in the chilled and virulently anti-Communist atmosphere of McCarthy-era America, the Soviet support for Lysenkoism and opposition to genetics played a significant role in the prejudice against theories in biology which proposed more interaction with the environment than was allowed by the exclusive gene-centric focus of the Modern Synthesis.

In fact, it is no exaggeration to observe that the scientific discussion of these ideas in the West often mirrored the vitriolic political rhetoric of the time. One historian of this epoch in science characterizes the reactions by many prominent biologists and geneticists in the West to alternatives like Waddington’s epigenetics as “strikingly similar to the tenor and the rhetoric used by Lysenko and his followers” against genetics in the Soviet Union, providing a litany of examples of the “dogmatic,” “derisive,” and at times even “fanatical” opposition to such ideas.[13]

The political and ideological reactions in the U.S. towards epigenetics-like ideas during this time are themselves significant enough for an entire book of their own. However, what is clear is that this connection between the politics and the science of this time left an indelible imprint on the subsequent development of the science of genetics. As such, two examples of the substantial risks to reputation and career which accompanied even just the reluctance to completely denounce unorthodox theories will be presented as demonstrations of the very real chilling effects of Cold War geopolitics on the development of the science of genetics in the U.S., and on the prejudice against epigenetics which endured for decades.

[1] 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.

[2] DeJong-Lambert, W., 2012. The Cold War politics of genetic research: An introduction to the Lysenko affair. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.

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

[4] Roll-Hansen, N., 2005. The Lysenko effect: undermining the autonomy of science. Endeavour 29(4), pp.143-147.

[5] Kouprianov, A.V., 2011. The ‘Soviet Creative Darwinism’(1930s–1950s): From the Selective Reading of Darwin’s Works to the Transmutation of Species. Studies in the History of Biology3, pp. 8-31.

[6] DeJong-Lambert 2012.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Graham, L.R. 2004. Science in Russia and the Soviet Union. A Short History. Cambridge University Press.

[9] 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.

Wrinch, P. N. (1951). Science and politics in the USSR: the genetics debate. World Politics, 3(04), 486-519.

[10] Dobzhansky, T., 1959. Evolution, Marxian biology, and the social scene. Science129, pp.1479-1480.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] DeJong-Lambert 2012.


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