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  • Lysenko’s Ghost: Epigenetics and Russia by Loren Graham
  • Harley Balzer
Loren Graham, Lysenko’s Ghost: Epigenetics and Russia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016. 209pp. $24.95.

Loren Graham is a unique resource for anyone who hopes to understand Russia’s complex intellectual and scientific life. Few scholars are so well-equipped to locate the narrative of Soviet/Russian biology in the context of historical legacies, global research in the life sciences, and recent political developments.

As Graham has done repeatedly over a career spanning six decades, he takes Soviet and Russian scientists’ views seriously and evaluates them objectively. The bottom line is that the recent effort to rehabilitate Trofim Lysenko may be understandable but represents a deeply flawed approach to science.

Graham’s broad question is whether epigenetics and genetic engineering herald a new era in our understanding of evolution. Was Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (and therefore Lysenko) correct after all in arguing that changes in an organism could be passed directly to the next and perhaps to subsequent generations?

With his characteristic combination of genial storytelling and rigorous scholarship, Graham begins with the inheritance of acquired characteristics, the crucial issue in recent debates about Lamarck. Although this was far from Lamarck’s sole scientific contribution, it is the one for which he is most remembered. Something similar may be said regarding Lysenko: His contributions in plant grafting were massively outweighed by his poorly documented efforts at “vernalization” and his attempts to refute genetics.

Graham’s first two chapters demonstrate the strong influence of Lamarck’s ideas about inheritance of acquired characteristics in the current-day Russian life sciences community. Chapter 3 features Paul Kammerer of midwife toad infamy. Kammerer committed suicide in 1926 after it was found that his toads had been injected with ink to “prove” inheritance of acquired characteristics. Graham recounts Soviet Minister of Education Anatoly Lunacharsky’s work with a German film company to make Salamandra, a silent movie portraying Kammerer as the victim of a nefarious plot to discredit his work. The film ends not with Kammerer’s real-life suicide but with him moving to the Soviet Union to continue his work on the inheritance of acquired characteristics. [End Page 220]

Graham could have added that Arthur Koestler repeated the depiction of Kammerer as having been framed in The Case of the Midwife Toad. Whether framed or not, Kammerer’s scientific approach was demonstrated quite clearly when he arrived in New York to lecture in 1923 and proclaimed “The next generation of Americans will be born without any desire for liquor if the prohibition law is continued and strictly enforced” (cited in coverage in The New York Times, 28 November 1923, p. 5).

Graham uses the Kammerer story to introduce the multiple points of view in debates over genetics in the Soviet Union in the 1920s. By the end of the decade the Communist Party had imposed an official consensus: Mendelian genetics was viewed with suspicion; Lamarck was adopted but applied only to plants and animals. Human beings were to be discussed in Marxist terms, rejecting eugenics. Lysenko accepted all of this, focusing on plants and animals, while savagely attacking opponents.

Graham begins Chapter 5 by recounting his chance meeting with Lysenko in Moscow’s House of Scientists in 1971 (a narrative also found in Graham’s book Moscow Stories). After reviewing the damage Lysenko inflicted on Soviet biologists, Graham asks whether recent evidence that some characteristics may be inherited means that Lysenko might have been correct, even if for the wrong reasons.

Chapter 6 answers this question by examining Lysenko’s approach to biology, providing a balanced assessment of his work in the context of twentieth-century science. Graham has read all of Lysenko’s approximately 400 often-redundant publications. Lysenko’s key arguments were that environment determines heredity and that genes, even if they might exist, were not significant because the whole cell controls heredity. Graham’s conclusion is unambiguous: Where Lysenko was correct, he was not original, and where his ideas were original, he was not correct.

Graham is similarly even-handed in dealing with Lysenko’s critics. He debunks the myth that Lysenko’s views were embraced...


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pp. 220-222
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