Thursday, May 5, 2016

Lysenko and The Soviet Academy

Graham has written a wonderful book on Lysenko and the Russian School of Genetics during the Stalin era. Lysenko viewed inheritance in the sense that certain characteristics could be handed down in generations based upon environmental factors experienced by parents. That is the change in a genetic makeup was not solely due to genetic changes per se. He could turn summer wheat to winter wheat by getting it used to a change in weather. Thus he did not need a genetic alteration but an environmental alteration was sufficient. In a sense the concept did play into the hands of the Marxist reasoning.

Graham blends the understanding of epigenetic changes that are currently being understood with the ideas of Lysenko and asks if this new understand then justifies Lysenko's ideas. On the other hand, Graham details Lysenko's way of dealing with his academic adversaries often resulting in their imprisonment and demise. The current understanding of gene expression and thus phenotype is that genes can be turned on and off by such epigenetic factors as methylation. Methyl groups bind to the nucleotides and also suppress expression directly by blocking the gene or indirectly by blocking transcription factors.

This is somatic epigenetics. Germ line epigenetics, parent to child has also been observed. Namely effects on the parent causing epigenetic changes can be handed down to the child, where it was assumed that the methylation of certain bases was eliminate but somehow they can be preserved. Thus, in a simplistic sense, an environmental change imprinting the parent can imprint the offspring. This may or may not be consistent in a broad sense with Lysenko but the author discusses it in some detail. Graham's discussion is limited as one would expect in a short book of this type but he does explain some of the issues well including the event of the "Dutch Winter", an epigenetic benchmark.

Graham has a wonderful discussion of his opportunistic meeting with Lysenko at a lunch table in the Russian Academy, and the brief attempt to elicit some explanation from Lysenko. Lysenko was as one would expect defensive since this occurred after he was taken down from his perch yet retained his academic credentials. This discussion is quintessential east meets west based upon my personal experiences in Russia when first meeting some notable. It was clear from Graham's description that Lysenko was still wary especially since Graham had been critical of him in Graham's prior writings.

Graham also presents a clear and coherent discussion of the players in this tragedy, the geneticists following the true path and how Lysenko and his actions resulted in their fall.

The only point that would have been useful to explore would be the need by the Marxist theorists to have a Lysenko position versus a Darwinian one. I had seen this battle with the probabilists. Marxist theory is deterministic and probability is its enemy. Yet many probabilists managed to work and prosper. Individuals like Gnedenko, Kolmogorov, Stratonovich, Markov and others developed the basis for stochastic processes that we see used in fields as broad as finance with the Black-Scholes theorem in options trading, a thought anathema to the Marxists. Graham does provide some insight but it would be worthwhile to have a more in depth discussion of this potential conflict.

Overall the book is an excellent addition to understanding both the Russian Academy and its functioning, the Stalinist management of the overall society, and a petri dish model of Academic infighting. It is very worthwhile for those seeking to understand both Russia as well as the politics of Science, albeit in a different vein.