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Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria College, Wellington, N.Z. Vol. 13, No. 12. June 15, 1950

The Lysenko Dispute

page 4

The Lysenko Dispute

This is part two of an article setting out a point of view on Lysenko. "Salient" printed an article on this subject in 1948, and raised a slight row at the time from people who didn't like any sort of praise for the man. If you don't agree with the viewpoint here expressed, then you have the right to say so. He continues, quoting Ashby...

"One would expect therefore, Lysenko's claim to be supported by exhaustive and convincing experiments, carried out with pedigree plants free from disease. In actual fact, the experiments were carried out with plants of no certain pedigree, some of which carried the virus disease spotted wilt, which produces a red yellow mottling of the fruit. Furthermore the numbers of plants used was far too small to establish such a striking claim."

This is only one of the many examples which Lysenko and his school cite as evidence for their beliefs. There has been built up a large amount of data from similar experiments, all of which are claimed to prove the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Several experimentors have attempted to repeat these experiments to prove their validity, notably M. B. Crane, an American geneticist who tested a large number but was unable even in a single case to produce anything which might have been called a vegetative hybrid. Lysenko attributes such failures to the fact that the experimentors had not produced the "right conditions" but he neglects to say what the right conditions might be.


A certain amount of the evidence of vegetative hybridisation can be attributed to the occurence of chimeras, i.e.. plants which, as a result of grafting have fused their tissues although the individual tissues retain their individuality to the extent that they are recognisable cytologically as coming from their respective parents. Such plants can only be reproduced by cuttings or further graftings as any seeds which may be produced will be formed from one tissue or the other and will show only those characteristics of the parent from which the tissue came.

As was noted in the tomato experiment, Lysenko and his associates work with very small numbers of plants and no "control" plants, i.e., plants in normal conditions for use as checks on his other plants, are used. The latter he considers unnecessary although regarded by scientists as standard practice throughout the scientific world. Usually large numbers of plants are used for experiment so that the results can be statistically analysed but this practise Lysenko deplores as "abiological." When the results of one of Lysenko's students were found to be incapable of standing up to the test of statistical analysis, Lysenko replied "we biologists do not want to submit to blind chance .... we maintain that biological regularities do not resemble mathematical laws."


Lysenko condemns formal genetics practically from the point of view of a layman. All his criticisms are levelled at subjects which were under discussion, controversial, and in the earlier stages of the science. The science of genetics is only fifty years old. Probably two-thirds of our present knowledge of heredity has been accumulated in the last 25 years but Lysenko ignores this latter period almost entirely. His comments on this period are confined to answering specific questions and these he answers from the point of view of the man in the street. Recently much success has been achieved in producing high-yielding crop varieties by treatment with colchicine and X-rays. According to Ashby, Lysenko's comment was "Mendelian geneticists who maim plants by application of poisons and other extreme treatments maintain that they are working out a method for producing fertility in sterile distant hybrids (i.e. hybrids between distantly related plants). The crossing of distant species and the production from the crosses of fertile offspring, should be studied in the works of I. V. Michurin."

Much of the justification Lysenko employs for his theory is obtained by appeal to authority. Several authorities are cited, but for the present only those concerned with the scientific aspect will be considered. The main "scientific" authorities are Darwin, Timiryazev, Michurin and Burbank.

Darwin's theory of evolution by a continual series of small changes really forms the fundamental basis for Lysenko's "new genetics." Darwin however, is not accepted in entirety. "Malthus' preposterous reactionary ideas on population" are rejected along with certain other "bourgeois" elements. The rest, the "materialistic" basts is accepted as true, final and unquestionable.

Criticisms ?

The second authority, Timiryazev, was a Russian scientist with a world-wide reputation. In the early 1900's when genetics was wobbling on unsteady, unfamiliar legs, he expressed doubt as to the validity of certain of the early theories on heredity. This opinion was perfectly valid criticism and he was certainly not the only biologist to do so on the subject at this time. Lysenko has however made use of this opinion as further evidence against formal [unclear: genetics.]

The other two, Michurin and Burbank are in a separate class. Both were exceptionally competent horticulturists and very successful. Both, through their products, became famous and the subjects of popular acclaim. Their success tended to give them a false authority on biological subjects in everwidening fields in which they had no background other than their own specialised experience. Michurin went further than Burbank and developed several subjects which now form the practical basis for Lysenko's "new Genetics" along with the theoretical background gleamed from Darwin.

This then, rather sketchily outlines the background of the genetics picture. There is, however, a much more prominent foreground which is the situation as usually considered by the layman when referring to the "Lysenko controversy." This latter aspect wil be elaborated in a later article.