Daily Bulletin


Daily Bulletin

The Conversation

  • Written by The Conversation
imageWill Russian science return to the bad old days of Stalin?Reuters photographer

Politics is once again threatening science in Russia, just as it did in Stalin’s time. President Vladimir Putin’s emphasis on nationalism and Russian pride is encouraging some politicians and a few scientists to resurrect an old Stalinist tyrant in biology, Trofim Lysenko, using new developments in epigenetics to strengthen their case. Lysenko did great damage to Soviet agriculture, but his new supporters ignore his faults and try to portray him as a prescient scientist.

imagePerhaps premature.Der Spiegel

Epigenetics is a booming, albeit somewhat controversial, field in biology worldwide. The term is being featured not only in scientific journals but also, often inaccurately, in popular media. The German magazine Der Spiegel several years ago featured epigenetics on its cover with the exaggerated announcement “Victory over Genes!”

According to epigenetics, environmental influences such as nutrition and stress can cause changes in inheritance in animals. This changed inheritance can last several generations, maybe more. Epigenetic changes are not based on alterations of the underlying DNA; rather, genes are marked in such a way that they are turned “on” or “off.” Cells then either do or don’t express these genes in further development depending on how they’re marked.

imageJean Baptiste de Lamarck developed early theories of evolution.Charles Thévenin

One of the reasons that epigenetics is controversial is that it postulates genes are marked by experiences during the lives of individual organisms; therefore, it seems to revive the doctrine of “the inheritance of acquired characteristics,” often called Lamarckism. Early 19th-century naturalist Lamarck argued an organism can pass along traits acquired during its own lifetime to its offspring; imagine a bodybuilder who develops his muscles, and then passes on to his sons a heavily muscled physique. Lamarckism was seen as discredited by most biologists in the 20th century – but now has some new supporters.

imageAgronomist Lysenko oversaw Soviet biology with an iron fist.

A particularly infamous exponent of the inheritance of acquired characteristics in the 20th century was Trofim Lysenko, the agronomist who ruled Soviet biology for several decades. “Lysenkoism” was a prime example of the ruinous effects of political rule over science. He denied the importance of genes and denounced to the secret police those geneticists who disagreed with him. Many of them were imprisoned. With Stalin’s support, Lysenko purged the field of his critics.

While researching my forthcoming book on Lysenko, I’ve been following the rebirth of Lysenkoism that’s occurred in Russia in recent years. Dozens of publications have appeared praising Lysenko and claiming that his 1930s views are confirmed by modern-day epigenetics. These publications have titles such as “The Truth of Trofim Denisovich Lysenko is Confirmed by Modern Biology,” and “A Sensation: Academician Lysenko Turned Out to Be Right!”

Most Russian authors, but not quite all, writing such publications are admirers of the old Soviet Union. An example is S Mironin, who says he has a doctorate in biology; he writes that Lysenko was “an outstanding natural scientist” who anticipated epigenetics. He simultaneously says Stalin should be lauded for his policies toward science, which, let’s not forget, included tight police controls over scientists, their institutions and their foreign contacts.

Many Russian geneticists are fighting back, pointing to Lysenko’s incompetence and ignorance of statistical methods. They also often observe, as do many Western biologists, that the true significance of epigenetics is still unknown.

imageTrofim Lysenko, 1938

However, in a curious twist of interpretation, a few Russian biologists have tried to turn the tables on the new supporters of Lysenko by using epigenetics against the Stalinist regime that supported him. These critics point to recent US research maintaining that rats can inherit fear of certain smells if those same smells in an earlier generation had been associated with negative experiences, such as electrical shocks. These Russian anti-Stalinists then maintain that the political passivity of Russian citizens and even their toleration of an authoritarian ruler like Putin can be explained by fears inherited from ancestors who endured the Stalinist repressions. The director of Russia’s Institute of Clinical Immunology, Vladimir Kozlov, has recently written that the Russian people have epigenetically inherited “fear for themselves and their families” stemming from Stalinist times.

A sprinkling of leading Russian scientists has joined the Lysenko bandwagon. One of them is Lev Zhivotovsky, a population geneticist in Moscow who has published in international peer-reviewed journals. Recently Zhivotovsky wrote a book in which he maintained that Lysenko’s views were close to modern-day epigenetics. The book is causing intense controversy in Russia, both among other geneticists who disagree with Zhivotovsky’s scientific views and from anti-Stalinists who see a defense of Lysenko as as a defense of Stalin, who supported Lysenko.

imagePutin supports the sciences, but does the nationalism he engenders do the same?Reuters/RIA Novosti

The argument that Lysenko anticipated epigenetics is strained, since Lysenko condemned molecular biology, out of which epigenetics grew and upon which it is dependent. But Putin’s revival of Soviet attitudes is bringing back ghosts of the past and, once again, scientific arguments do not always win over political ones.

Little danger exists that Lysenkoism will again take over academic genetics in Russia. Instead, the threat is that public perceptions and perhaps even secondary education will be influenced by the new supporters of Lysenko. Already nationalists have produced a new biology textbook for 10th- and 11th-graders in which these views are represented, and they are pushing for its adoption in local schools.

The conflict between political views and scientific standpoints is not unique to Russia, as debates over evolution and global warming in the United States illustrate, but Russia throughout its history has been particularly vulnerable to the undermining of science by politics.

Loren Graham does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Authors: The Conversation

Read more http://theconversation.com/a-rise-in-nationalism-in-putins-russia-threatens-the-countrys-science-again-41403

Writers Wanted

Angus Taylor's tech roadmap is fundamentally flawed — renewables are doable almost everywhere

arrow_forward

Climate explained: humans have dealt with plenty of climate variability

arrow_forward

Why do bankers behave so badly? They make too much money to ask questions

arrow_forward

The Conversation
INTERWEBS DIGITAL AGENCY

Politics

Did BLM Really Change the US Police Work?

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has proven that the power of the state rests in the hands of the people it governs. Following the death of 46-year-old black American George Floyd in a case of ...

a Guest Writer - avatar a Guest Writer

Scott Morrison: the right man at the right time

Australia is not at war with another nation or ideology in August 2020 but the nation is in conflict. There are serious threats from China and there are many challenges flowing from the pandemic tha...

Greg Rogers - avatar Greg Rogers

Prime Minister National Cabinet Statement

The National Cabinet met today to discuss Australia’s COVID-19 response, the Victoria outbreak, easing restrictions, helping Australians prepare to go back to work in a COVID-safe environment an...

Scott Morrison - avatar Scott Morrison

Business News

Ten tips for landing a freelance transcription job

Transcription jobs are known to be popular in the field of freelancing. They offer fantastic job opportunities to a lot of people, but there are some scammers who wait to cheat the freelancers. ...

News Company - avatar News Company

How To Remove Rubbish More Effectively

It can be a big task to remove household rubbish. The hardest part is finding the best way to get rid of your junk. It can be very overwhelming to know exactly where to start with so many option...

News Company - avatar News Company

4 Tips To Pass Skills Certifications Tests

Developing the right set of skills is valuable not only to your career, but for life in general. You can get certified in these skills through obtaining a license. Without a certified license, y...

News Company - avatar News Company



News Company Media Core

Content & Technology Connecting Global Audiences

More Information - Less Opinion