Hermann J. Muller's 1936 Letter to Stalin

Article excerpt

This is the full text of a 1936 letter sent by the American geneticist H.J. Muller to Joseph Stalin advocating the creation of a eugenic program in the USSR. It was rejected by Stalin in favor of lysenkoism.

Key words: eugenics, communism, Lysenkoist theory, liberal roots of eugenics movement, Jewish scholars, Hermann J. Muller, Joseph Stalin, Stalinist, purges.

Hermann Joseph Muller (1890-1967) received the Nobel Prize in 1946 for his work on the genetics of drosophila, whose brief generational life made it an ideal laboratory in miniature. Within a decade, however, following the discovery in 1953 of the double helical structure of DNA, drosophila studies began to be regarded as classical genetics and gave way to microbial and molecular genetics devoted to gene structure and function.

Muller looked upon his drosophila research as science to be applied to the genetic betterment of the human species. A popular misconception with regard to eugenics is that it was exclusively a product of political conservatism. In point of fact the movement had its roots in the left as much as in the right. Muller himself was a devoted communist and an idealistic believer in human rights. Bearing in mind that Jewish scholars played a significant role in the eugenics movement, it should not come as a surprise to find that Muller was Jewish on his mother's side. Indeed, he wrote a letter to Stalin on the subject of eugenics at the suggestion of the Russian-Jewish physician Solomon Levit, whose main interests lay in the field of genetics, especially in twin studies.

In 1932, Muller left the United States to pursue his scientific interests in five different countries. The period December 1934 until September 1937 was spent in Moscow, where he held the position of Senior geneticist at the Institute of Genetics of the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences on the eve of the great purges. The invitation had come from the Russian geneticist Nikolai Vavilov, who himself perished in those terrible events.

In his 1936 letter to Stalin, Muller proposed a eugenic program. Evidently after receiving the letter, Stalin had Muller's book Out of the Night translated into Russian. A great believer in environmental egalitarianism, he began reading the work in 1937 and ordered that an attack be prepared on it and indeed on all of genetics, in favor of Trofim Lysenko's totally environmentalist neo-Lamarckian school of thought.

A frightened and depressed Muller asked Vavilov for a leave of absence to go abroad, but the very request was fraught with physical danger not only for him, but for his Russian colleagues and students as well. Vavilov proposed that Muller motivate his request by a desire to volunteer his services to the International Brigade in Spain and so join the struggle against Franco's fascism. He spent eight weeks in that country and then returned to Moscow to collect his belongings. The service in Spain cleared his name of the suspicion of having spoken against Lysenkoist theory, and he was able to leave the country with minimal damage to the reputation of his Russian colleagues.

With hindsight we cannot help but lean back in our armchairs to muse over Muller's conviction that direct intervention in the human genome was "idle fantasy, probably not realizable for thousands of years at least. "Even so, animal breeders still depend almost exclusively on the "like breeds like" methodology practiced since pre-historic times.

Muller's letter is an enormously important historical text, and had it been received positively by one man it would undoubtedly have become one of the single most important documents of world history.

Readers who wish to inform themselves as to the details of his life and work are referred to Elof Alex Carlson's 457-page Genes, Radiation, and Society: The Life and Work of H.J. Muller (Cornell University Press, 1981).

To Comrade Joseph Stalin,

Secretary of the Communist Party,

of the U. …