Respectful Insolence

Communist “science”

Yesterday was May Day, and Catallarchy has posted its annual Day of Remembrance for for the victims of Communism.

Of particular interest to readers of this blog is a rather extensive article about just what can happen when political ideology is allowed to warp science, specifically what happened to science under Communism because of Trofim Lysenko:

Lysenko’s doctrines were an unholy merger of Lamarckism with Stalinism: the infinite malleability of man was mirrored by the infinite malleability of plants. (Lysenko claimed that if you grew plants incrementally further and further North each year, they would gradually adapt to the climate to the point where you could grow anything in the Arctic.) Biology was turned into a political play, with revolution occurring within the cells of the body. Competition for resources was replaced with the notion that plants of the same species do not compete but rather help each other to survive.

The reality of chromosomes and genes was denied altogether, these being derided as “bourgeois constructs.” Stalin himself argued for a distinction between “proletarian” and “bourgeois” science, extending Marxist class-struggle doctrine into biological science. Lysenko’s false empirical claims mirrored the Stalinist bureaucracy’s trumped-up economic claims. His persecution of scientists merged with Stalin’s paranoid persecution of political opponents.


The conclusion:

The Lysenko affair acts as a tragic reductio ad absurdum of the blurring of political ideology with science, and an extreme reminder of the importance of scientific institutions that promote free inquiry. We are all prone to wishful thinking concerning our pet theories. Without the freedom to challenge even the most popular doctrines, the vision of the true believers replaces conjecture and refutation and errors can be amplified into disasters.

The key strength of science is its ability to self-correct. When that ability is removed by fusing politics with science in such a blatant way, particularly in the context of a totalitarian regime that demands certainty over the uncertainty that all science must acknowledge and the openness to change based on new evidence, the results are travesties of science, such as Lysenkoism under the Communists and racial hygiene and ill-fated attempts to forge a “German physics” (as opposed to the “Jewish physics” of physicists like Albert Einstein) under the Nazis.

Comments

  1. #1 Roman Werpachowski
    May 2, 2006

    For some time, quantum mechanics were also suspect in Marxist eyes (Bohmian version was a partially an attempt to make it kosher in Marxist eyes).

    Let us also not forget Soviet scientists sent to Gulag for expressing political views (like Lev Landau), for being Jewish or just for being too smart.

    One wishes that the Communism itself will someday be condemned as strongly as Nazism was. Too many people still try to whitewash Communism and Marxism.

  2. #2 BronzeDog
    May 2, 2006

    Sometime, I’d like to run into a troll who tries to link evolution with Communism (instead of just Naziism), just so that I can show him something like this.

  3. #3 Sean Foley
    May 2, 2006

    Let us also not forget Soviet scientists sent to Gulag for expressing political views (like Lev Landau), for being Jewish or just for being too smart.

    Why did NKVD agents work in teams of three? One to write the reports, one to read them, and one to keep an eye on the two intellectuals.

    Sometime, I’d like to run into a troll who tries to link evolution with Communism (instead of just Naziism), just so that I can show him something like this.

    I haven’t seen any internet trolls do it, but the YEC literature is rife with comparisons between communism and evolution. The most frequent canard that comes up is the myth that Marx wanted to dedicate Kapital to Darwin. However, I do seem to remember reading somewhere that Marx did speak approvingly of The Origin, claiming that it provided a biological basis for the class struggle.

  4. #4 Roman Werpachowski
    May 2, 2006

    Why did NKVD agents work in teams of three? One to write the reports, one to read them, and one to keep an eye on the two intellectuals.

    NKVD itself was quite smart. They were very good at rooting out political opposition in conquered countries, far better than the Nazis were. It was the system itself which saw every independently thinking person (and smart people tend to be such) as an enemy.

  5. #5 Chris
    May 2, 2006

    Let’s not forget that Marx has about as much to do with people calling themselves Marxist as Jesus does with people calling themselves Christian.

    Marx was right about some things, wrong about others, and too wrapped up in his vision to see its flaws; but I don’t think he would ever have created or supported Stalinism. He would probably have – quite correctly – pointed out that the party elite had made themselves a new upperclass, against which the workers would have to rebel again.

    Whether or not he would have also realized that this constituted a refutation of his entire theory of inevitable social progress, I don’t know.

  6. #6 Roman Werpachowski
    May 2, 2006

    Chris, I recommend you the essay “Marxist roots of Stalinism” by Leszek Kołakowski. In it he asks “can we say, that every attempt to realize the basic principles of marxist socialism would lead, with a high probability, to the social organization clearly resembling stalinism?” and answers “yes”. Among his arguments (I do not pretend to distill Kołakowski’s text for you, it’s what I picked now among other paragraphs) is that Marxist “liberated humanity” was a unity without any social conflicts: the logical conclusion is that a society without conflicts does not need any safeguards protecting the individual from the society or some part of it from other parts, safeguards such as human rights or independent courts. One cannot also get around the fact that Marx happily did away in his ideology with private property or independent economical activity, disregarding the fact that, as Frank Zappa said, “people like to own stuff”. And the only thing to make people do away with things they like and desire is by force (the idea that people would voluntarily give away their all their property is so silly that attributing it to Marx is an insult to him).

  7. #7 Sergey Romanov
    May 2, 2006

    Lysenko’s antics get boring after a time. Much more interesting are all those marginal pseudo-scientists who appeared during that era – because they were even more radical and ultimately weird. Take Lepeshinskaja, who condemned “Virchowianism” (basically, all contemporary cell biology), Boshjan (proponent of viruses-to-crystals theory), all those condemning theory of relativity and quantum mechanics (Mitin, Mitkevich), etc.

  8. #8 Roman Werpachowski
    May 2, 2006

    I know why communists did not like quantum mechanics, but I know less why they didn’t like relativity. Was it about Einstein being Jewish, or something else?

  9. #9 kitty
    May 3, 2006

    The other field that was persecuted during Stalin was cybernetics (as well as anything to do with computers). wikipedia gives a more complete list.

    I grew up in the Soviet Union, my parents grew up during the Stalin era. My mother thought Stalin’s “knowledge of all sciences” (the official line at the time) set Russian biology and computer science back by about 30-40 years. When I was in high school in the 70s, the computers only started to appear. Leningrad (St. Petersburg) State University had one mainframe – a Russian version of IBM System/370. But genetics was still not taught in school. Even though we had way more math than American kids do, as well as physics/chemistry/biology as separate subjects starting from the 6th grade. I remember one class dedicated to genetics in the 10th (last) grade in 1976 – and that only because our teacher decided to stray away from the textbook. The official textbook still had nothing.

    Solzhenitsin’s “The First Circle” describes special prisons during Stalin’s time – a cross between prison and research/engineering lab – for scientists and engineers that were deemed useful to continue working in their field while being in prison; not geneticists, of course, but mostly those whose research could do something for the military. The title is based on Dante’s first circle – not exactly hell, but almost. Gives a nice description of the times.
    Let us also not forget Soviet scientists sent to Gulag for expressing political views (like Lev Landau), for being Jewish or just for being too smart.
    Actually, during Stalin times, anybody could’ve been sent to Gulag, and not just for the reasons above. Your neighbor might’ve not liked you and/or wanted your room (this was the time of communal apartments) and wriiten a denunciation. One denunciation was enough or just being in the wrong place in the right time or just knowing somebody. Even dedicated communists ended up in Gulag.
    I read a book about Lev Landau. He was accused of being a foreign spy.

  10. #10 Sergey Romanov
    May 4, 2006

    “I read a book about Lev Landau. He was accused of being a foreign spy.”

    They were eavesdropping on Landau, and he was saying thatt USSR is fascist and such things. His luck was that contrary to Stalin’s dictum, he wasn’t “interchangeable” ;-)

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