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Lysenkoism: The Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics

One of the major delusions of the neo-feudalistic social system known as Marxist-Leninism is the notion that the authorities have the power to change nature. This is manifested in the field of biology in the notion that genetic change can be forced; i.e., if all of a number of generations are physically given some characteristic the subsequent generations will inherit that characteristic. To the world outside of the Communist Bloc this false idea was known as Lamarckism, after the 18th century French scientist, Jean Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, Chevalier de Lamarck. Because of Lamarck's aristocratic background it could not be called Lamarckism in the Soviet Union. Instead it was identified with the Russian, Ivan Mitchurin, and the man who most actively promoted it, Trofim Lysenko. Lysenko had the sanction of Joseph Stalin so the ideas he promoted became official dogma.

In the West the matter of whether acquired characteristics can be inherited was strongly contested. There were some anomalous cases where the question did not have a clear cut resolution. One such case was a salamander which lives in lightless caverns. It is blind but it apparently descended from sighted salamanders which were trapped in such caves eons ago. The young of such salamanders had vestigial eyes which subsequently disappeared. There was some evidence that the development of such salamanders could be influenced by subjecting them to light at the early stages of their development. It was a special case which did not support the general validity of Lamarckism but at the time the role of genetics and mutations was not understood and so Lamarckism appeared to be a defensible theory.

A German scientist, Paul Kammerer, got deeply involved in the debate. There is a type of toad, the midwife toad, that lives and mates out of water but the male after incubating the eggs takes them to water so the hatched tadpoles have an opportunity to survive and develop. Obviously the midwife toad is descended from some ancestral species of toad that live and mated in the water. Kammerer reported that he was able to induce the midwife toad to revert to living and mating in the water. The midwife toads have vestigial thumb pads which are useless when toads mate on land but have a utilitarian value for toads mating in water. These thumb pads were called nuptial pads. Kammerer reported that when he induced midwife toads to mate in water the nuptial pads became reactivated and darkened.

Kammerer also reported on experiments with a salamander which has black skin with yellow splotches. It is called a fire salamander. This coloration functions to warn potential predators that it is poisonous. It is the opposite of camouflage coloration. Kammerer reported that by raising generations of these salamanders on black soil he was able to increase the area of blackness and reduce the area of yellowness. He claimed he was able to produce a pure black salamander. This was persuasive evidence for Lamarckism.

Other scientists requested permission to view the evidence for the results Kammerer was reporting. For about seven years he kept them at bay, but in 1926 Kammerer permitted another scientist to examine a preserved specimen of a midwife toad with nuptial pads. The scientist reported that the specimen did indeed have nuptial pads but they were created with injections of India ink. Kammerer sent a letter to the Moscow Academy of Science acknowledging that the specimen's nuptial pads had been "improved" with India ink but that he did not know that occurred. Shortly after writing the letter Kammerer committed suicide. Other scientists speculated that perhaps a research assistant tried to enhance the evidence. An American scientist who knew Kammerer felt that Kammerer was responsible for the falsification but had not consciously intended to fabricate the evidence. According to this scientist's view Kammerer thought he had the evidence but that it simply had to be made a little more definite.

In the Soviet Union where the inheritance of acquired characteristics was state dogma the Kammerer story was viewed differently. The man responsible for motion picture production in the Soviet Union was the Lunatcharski, the Commissar of Education. He decided to make a movie of the story. The story takes place in a "central European university town." The professor is a young man who devotes all of his spare time to helping the common people. His research with salamanders provides proof of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. The bishop of the cathedral of the town hears of the professor's research that proves the inheritance of acquired characteristics and realizes that this proof will mean -- the end of the power of the church. The bishop summons a royal prince for a meeting to deal with this crisis. It happens that the actual heir to the defunct German crown was working for Henry Ford. Thus the nefarious elements of the church, aristocracy and capitalism were tied together in a conspiracy to suppress the proof of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. The prince meets with the bishop and arranges for the prince to be appointed as the research assistant to the young professor. The movie goes on to show the prince and the bishop sneaking into the professor's laboratory at night to inject India ink into the toad's thumb pads. At the public presentation of the professor's research the thumb of the toad bleeds India ink when it is dipped into water. The professor is humiliated and dismissed. He ends up begging on the street accompanied by a Rhesus monkey that he had used for research. Now the movie gets realistic. A former student of the professor arrives from the Soviet Union. The part is played by none other than the wife of the Commissar of Education Lunatcharski. She sees the poverty of her former professor and takes a train immediately to the Soviet Union to seek help from the authorities. She is immediately able to see the Commissar of Education who gives an order to save the poor, young, courageous professor. The student arrives back at the university town just in time to save the professor from suicide. She takes the professor back to the Soviet Union where he is met by peasants declaring the Soviet Union is the land of freedom.

It was only later that the inheritance of acquired characteristics is identified with Trofim Lysenko. There was an official declaration that Soviet scientists, by growing fruit trees farther and farther north, would eventually have varieties of oranges growing at the Arctic Circle.

Trofim Lysenko

Lysenkoism in China

Under Mao Zedong and the Great Leap Forward China went through the greatest famine in human history. Thirty million people died. The major reason was that productive effort was diverted away from food production into projects that ultimately failed. In addition to the decline in food production due to the diversion of effort away from agriculture there were losses in food production because of the erroneous policies promoted by the State. One of these idiocies was close planting. If two plants are set too close to each other there is not enough nutrients in the soil to feed both and both die. The State promoted close planting of grain to increase productivity. The initial growth of a plant derives from the nutrient stored in the seed itself. With close planting the initial germination produces spectacular results, but when the growth of the plant has to depend upon nutrients drawn from the soil the close planting produces failures. During the Great Leap Forward there developed a competition for creating the most striking demonstrations of close planting. The record was probably the case which produced a famous photograph of children standing on top of a wheat field that could hold their weight. Jasper Becker, in his history of the Great Leap Forward era Hungry Ghosts tells that an interviewee revealed to him that the picture was faked. There was a bench hidden in the wheat below the children's feet that supported them.

Jasper Becker in Hungry Ghosts traces the foolishness of close planting to the fraudulent science of the Soviet Union. T.D. Lysenko was a quack who got the support of Joseph Stalin and ruled over Soviet genetics for twenty five years. Among the many erroneous notions promoted by Lysenko and which had to be accepted in Marxist countries was his Law of the Life of Species which said that plants of the same species do not compete with each other but instead help each other to survive. This was linked to the Marxist notion of classes in which members of the same class do not compete but instead help each other survive. So Marxist ideology seemed to support the notion that the denser grain is planted the better it is for the grain. But in reality this close planting led to withering of the plants after the initial germination phase. Lysenko was responsible for many other foolish notions most based upon the precept that environment not genetics determine plant characteristics. Lysenko argued that if you grew plants a little farther north each year they would adapt to the climate and eventually you would be able to grow oranges in the arctic. All of the Lysenko nonsense had to be accepted in the Soviet Union and promoted in propaganda as scientific truth. The Marxists in China apparently believed it was the truth. The reality was that this nonsense resulted in diminished production of food under conditions of bare survival.

Trofim Lysenko


Willy Ley, Salamanders and Other Wonders: Still More Adventures of a Romantic Naturalist, The Viking Press, New York, 1955.

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