Tuesday, July 29, 2014

"Health Ranger'"-like Science Cleansing in Stalin's Russia

Sometimes history repeats itself.  Sometimes history repeats itself in remarkable irony.

Last week Mike Adams (the Natural News ‘Health Ranger’), a highly public figure in natural foods and magical thinking,  made a less than veiled call to arms.  Citing references to Nazi propaganda, he almost directly instructed the assassination of scientists and journalists that exhibited favorable viewpoints on transgenic (GMO) technology.   Much has been written about his rants onsocial media, along with his tenuous claims that scientists and journalists are dangerous corporate pawns with a mission to poison the planet.

Adams’ deplorable viewpoints caused quite a hiccup, followed by a backpedal.  Even anti-GMO's darling Vandana Shiva lovingly posted Adams' science-Nazi rants, until even she realized that he is insane and probably bad for $40,000 speaker engagements.  They have since been pulled from her website and live on only in screenshots for use another day.

Inciting harm to scientists that fail to comply with a popular social myth is nothing new.  We can point to The Inquisition, to Pope Urban IV and Galileo, and many others. 

Adams’ call for the murder of scientists and reference to Nazi imagery brings to mind the story of Nikolai Vavilov.  Vavilov was a brilliant scientist and gifted geneticist, years before genetics was even a discipline.  His tireless collections of plant species, incredible observations and excellent science were decades before his time.  His collections of seeds are among the world’s greatest and his botanical tenets remain underpinnings of modern crop biology.

Nikolai Vavilov, brilliant botanist and plant collector.  He was murdered for his science that was not accepted by those that held "alternative" views in science. 


Here’s the punch line.  Vavilov would be arrested and tried by the Stalin regime for his views on science.  He would die in prison for his science.  He remains to this day a hero among academics in plant breeding, and a martyr of science.

Nikolai Vavilov was born in 1874.  He attended fine academies and quickly found himself among Russian luminaries of science.  In 1917 he became a professor at Saratov University, and quickly gained attention as one of the world’s foremost experts in plant biology. 

He attained this distinction because of his expeditions and collections.  He traveled the globe, identifying new species and trends of diversification within plant populations.  He traveled into uncharted areas of the world to better understand plant biology and plant diversity. During his travels he documented skirmishes with bandits, and bouts with malaria and typhus.  Throughout his career he traveled to 64 countries understanding plants, taking massive collections (160,000 cataloged under his direction), careful documentation and generating huge amounts of data.  He wrote many books and scholarly papers, spoke fifteen languages, and introduced ideas that were revolutionary in a time where the concepts of the gene were just bubbling to the fore. 

He would rise to the position of Deputy Director of the Soviet Bureau of Applied Botany.  At the peak, the institute was home to over 20,000 scientists and 400 research laboratories.  Some concepts, such as the Law of Homologous Series of Variation (1920) are still taught in contemporary breeding and evolution classes, and as far as traits go, typically hold up to modern molecular scrutiny.

Vavilov lived during the transition to Stalinist Russia.  Lenin died in 1924, and Stalin took charge of the country.  With this change came a frank denial of Darwin and his fundamental principles.  Vavilov, being a scientist and witnessing living examples consistent with Darwin’s ideals, held views consistent with the emerging concepts of genetics.

T.D. Lysenko claimed that species changed because the environment "trained" next generations. His data were limited, he was criticized by scientists worldwide, but those in charge in his country accepted and lauded Lysenko and his "science" because it fit communist ideology better than Darwinian ideas. 

Coincident with as Vavilov’s ascendance, a young scientist named T.D. Lysenko began working under his direction.  Lysenko examined vernalization, the process of inducing flowering by subjecting plants to cooler temperatures.  This is an important agricultural trait to understand, as it governs when food will be produced.  Lysenko became a prominent voice in plant science, and was appreciated by the Soviet government because his ideas of Lamarckian evolution fit the government’s preferences over Vavilov’s Darwinian slant.

Lysenko had narrow training and rejected Mendelian genetics and Darwinian evolution. He was opposed to the use of hybrid maize, a concept that was gaining acceptance at the time.

The contrast was becoming more clear.  Lysenko pushed a concept that conditioned changes could be inherited.  His hypotheses were based on a single plant, and he was seriously criticized by the wider scientific community.   On the other hand, Vavilov adhered to Darwinian concepts, indicating that traits were inherited and predictable in populations.  (Sound familiar in the modern context?)

Meanwhile, Vavilov invited American-resident Russian scientist Georgi Karpechenko to return to his home country.  Karpechenko was well known for his studies of speciation in plants, particularly in examination of polyploids (plants that possess too many sets of chromosomes). In 1940 Karpechenko eventually returned to Russia.  

Science of inheritance and chromosomes discussed by Vavilov and Karpechenko did not resonate well with Stalin-regime leaders. They were described as "Mendelist-Morganist enemies of the people".  Lysenko’s ideas of nurture being more powerful than nature matched well with the communist doctrine, as they found the idea that change could be installed to be consistent with their philosophy.  Stalin’s government then would dictate the rules of biology, and how they were applied.

During the late 1930's, on a Mike Adams-like roundup, geneticists were arrested and tried.  Many of them were murdered for their acceptance of Darwinian evolution.

Among them would be Vavilov and Karpechenko.


Vavilov was the director of a prestigious scientific institution, so his arrest would bring great public attention.  He was invited to an excursion in what is today western Ukraine, and in 1940 he was arrested.   The collecting excursion was designed to get him into a place where there would be little news, little controversy when arrested.  Vavilov was returned to Seratov where he was tried and convicted.  He was supposed to have been executed by firing squad, but he was spared to twenty years in prison.

Arguably the greatest scientist of the time and one of the best plant scientists ever was then incarcerated in the Seratov Prison, a hideous gulag where he suffered in horrendous conditions, sustaining himself on moldy flour and cabbage.  

He died 2.5 years later in 1943 of cardiac failure at the age of 55, malnourished and wasting in solitary confinement.

Fellow scientist Kapechenko, along with some of his colleagues, were arrested and executed by firing squad in 1941 for practicing forbidden sciences of genetics

*****

During his confinement, Vavilov stood by his science, stood by his understanding,  eventually to his demise. He wrote, with reference to The Inquisition, "We shall go to the pyre, we shall burn; but we shall not retreat for our convictions."

To stand in the cross hairs of Adams' violent motivations is not to compare to Nikolai Vavilov.  He sits aside Borlaug and few others in his scientific stature and in his impacts on modern plant science.  

The point is to compare where ideology violently over-rules science.  It is relevant again as we witness a new war of anti-scientific ideas, along with an orchestrated call for harm to scientists and the journalists that support science.  Adams creates an insidious parallel between scientists and Nazi criminals, and parallels between the death of over six million innocent people and modern agricultural practice.

In times of such faulty rhetoric, it is reasonable to review the instances in history where ideology made irreversible errors that harmed innocent stewards of science, and without question slowed progress in the future of food. 

11 comments:

Mary M said...

I have known parts of the Vavilov story, but I would really like to get a good biography on him. Do you have a favorite? I should check with @AgroBioDiverse too, I bet they have a suggestion. Do you follow @NIVavilov too?

cosmicaug said...

To make a great understatement, I'm no poet. Nevertheless, I wrote the following limerick while in high school:
«A man named Lysenko believed.
Evolution's Lamarckian indeed.
"Communism fits in", he said to Stalin.
Soviet Science was since then screwed indeed.»

Channapatna Prakash said...

A good biography or rather the only one available now is http://www.amazon.com/Murder-Nikolai-Vavilov-Peter-Pringle/dp/1906217912

Cairenn said...

Have others noticed that there is an element of Lysenkosism in the anti GMO movement? All the concern about GMO DNA being found in blood or breast milk.

Of course now we do have knowledge of epigenics and that fits in with Lysenko to them.

Mike Lewinski said...

I was reading on Vavilov just last week, and this passage from his wikipedia entry stood out:

The son of a Moscow merchant who'd grown up in a poor rural village plagued by recurring crop failures and food rationing, Vavilov was obsessed from an early age with ending famine in both his native Russia and the world.

His entry is worth reading in full. While he was starving in a gulag, his colleagues in Leningrad were guarding the world's largest seed collection which he'd assembled there in a seedbank. Several of those scientists also starved to death protecting the seeds.

I first heard of him in the context of Vavilovian mimics, or as I like to call them "heirloom superweeds".

The Decemberists mention him in the song "When the War Came", in the context of the scientists who starved guarding his seed collection:

We made made our oath to Vavilov
We'd not betray the solanum
The acres of asteraceae
To our own pangs of starvation


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CD3fCVPBgcQ

Cami Ryan said...

Brilliant. Thanks for sharing, Kevin.

hawaiifarmersdaughter.com said...

Unbelievable how history indeed repeats itself over and over. The fact that intimidation has entered the scene tells the truth about where these peoples' values lie. They basically have none and will do anything get their way. Lies, misinformation, and threats are just fine in their book. I won't stand by that nonsense.

Matthew said...

I agree with most of what you say but Lysenko was definitely not an anti-Darwinian.

He did reject the primary theory of neo-Darwinism but that was because it fused Darwin's theories with Mendelian inheritance.

The conflict was not between evolutionism and creationism but between Mendelism and Lamarckism.

cosmicaug said...

Mathew wrote:
«I agree with most of what you say but Lysenko was definitely not an anti-Darwinian.»

Mathew, while not creationism (I don't think anyone here mentioned creationism), Lamarckism (technically, lysenko would have considered himself a Michurinist and I ignore the precise way in which this would have differed from Lamarckism) is also not Darwinism pretty much by definition. While both Darwinism and Lamarckism involve descent with modification, Darwinism is not, and has never been, descent with modification by the transmission of acquired traits.

Mary M said...

Thanks Channapatna--ordered.

And Cairenn: um, yeah, I one time accused John Vidal of having similarities to that....

Val said...

Mary/all -- Pringle's book si IMHO the best bio of Vavilov out there. But the best overall portrait of the perversion of science under Lysenko/Stalin is David Joravsky's The Lysenko Affair http://www.amazon.com/The-Lysenko-Affair-David-Joravsky/dp/0226410315