Epigenetics and Russia 1

By Graham, Loren | Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, September 2016 | Go to article overview

Epigenetics and Russia 1


Graham, Loren, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society


Epigenetics is a controversial but nonetheless booming field in biology worldwide. At the moment, the term is a buzzword that not only is featured in many scientific journals but is also being celebrated widely and often inaccurately in popular media. Several years ago, the German magazine Der Spiegel featured epigenetics on its cover with the exaggerated announcement "Victory over Genes."2

According to epigenetics, environmental influences, such as nutrition and stress, can cause changes in inheritance in organisms, and this changed inheritance can last several generations, maybe more. Such epigenetic changes are not based on alterations of the underlying DNA but instead on genes that are marked in such a way, often by methyl groups, that they are turned "on" or "off." In other words, the genes are either expressed or not expressed in further development.

One of the reasons why epigenetics is controversial is that it postulates that these genes are thus marked by experiences during the lives of individual organisms; therefore, it seems to revive the doctrine of the "inheritance of acquired characteristics," a view often called "Lamarckism." Lamarckism was seen as thoroughly discredited by most biologists in the twentieth century but now has some new supporters.

A particularly infamous exponent of the inheritance of acquired characteristics in the twentieth century was Trofim Lysenko, the agronomist who ruled Soviet biology for several decades. With Stalin's support, he purged the field of his critics. Many well-known Russian biologists were fired, imprisoned, and sometimes even executed. In the West, "Lysenkoism" became synonymous with "pseudo-science."3 It was a prime example of the ruinous effects of political rule over science.

In recent years, to the absolute amazement of those few Western observers who have noticed, a rebirth of Lysenkoism has occurred in Russia. Dozens of articles and books have appeared praising Lysenko and claiming that his views are confirmed by epigenetics. These publications have such titles as "The Truth of Trofim Denisovich Lysenko is Confirmed by Modern Biology,"4 and "A Sensation: Academician Lysenko Turned Out to Be Right."5 As a result of this resurgence of praise for Lysenko, a great debate has been going on in Russia in recent years about Lysenko and epigenetics.

Most of the publications reviving Lysenko in Russia were written by old-line Stalinists, people who simultaneously praised the agronomist and Stalin who supported him. But defenses of Lysenko became much more serious in 2014 and 2015. In 2014, P. F. Kononkov, an old supporter of Lysenko, published a book titled Two Worlds-Two Ideologies which continued his old arguments but was presented under new ominous auspices: the book was subsidized by a government organization, the Federal Agency on the Press and Mass Communication.6 The Russian historian Eduard Kolchinsky saw this subsidy as "the tolling of the bell," alerting Russian biologists to the specter of government support for Lysenko, once again, decades after an earlier similar episode.7

Also in 2014 and 2015, two established biologists-Lev Zhivotovskii and A. I. Shatalkin-published books in which they described Lysenko as a significant scientist unappreciated in the West.8 Zhivotovskii is a well-known scientist with a doctorate in biological science, a specialist in population genetics, and a researcher at the Institute of General Genetics of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He has published widely in international peer-reviewed journals on the topic of early human migration and has worked closely with foreign biologists, especially at Stanford University. Shatalkin is an entomologist who has published widely in his field. He has long had an interest in Lamarck and the inheritance of acquired characteristics.

Upon close examination of their works, it can be seen that Zhivotovskii and Shatalkin have given shallow defenses of Lysenko, as described in my book on the subject. …

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