Join 3,439 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


A Hearing for Vavilov
September 19, 2012 11:53 AM   Subscribe

A Hearing for Vavilov is an essay by Stephen Jay Gould excerpted from his 1983 book Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes, in which he describes the disastrous consequences of allowing ideology rather than evidence to dictate policy. The story concerns Russian geneticist Nikolai Vavilov (previously) and his nemesis, the pseudoscientist Trofim Lysenko whose work served as the foundation for Lysenkoism, a body of research and policy which set back biology in Russia by decades and caused agricultural disaster in the Soviet Union in the mid-20th century.
posted by Scientist (11 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
Your main link seems to be broken (or at least not accessible to all people). All I get is the Google Books page for Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes with no preview.
posted by daniel_charms at 12:21 PM on September 19, 2012


Lysenkoism is one of the strangest events in history, if you ask me.
posted by deathpanels at 12:21 PM on September 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


Thanks for this! (FWIW I am having no trouble with the link and in fact am well into the next chapter on hyenas. Windows XP/Firefox 15.0.1)
posted by trip and a half at 12:32 PM on September 19, 2012


I think Sagan also covered this in Demon Haunted World.
posted by dr_dank at 1:24 PM on September 19, 2012


How strange; Vavilov, in his brilliance, was reaching toward a non-Darwinian coda to evolutionary theory with his Law of Homologous Variation that we would now attempt to put in terms of epigenetics, and Gould, in an act almost of fluorescent homage, recognized that he was really onto something.
posted by jamjam at 1:51 PM on September 19, 2012


Since I can't read the main link, I'll just pretend it's just like any other post and keep on rambling about Lysenko and ideology without actually having a clue what Gould is talking about.

I'm currently reading a history of the Leningrad school of literary studies in the late 1940s, which actually gives a really nice overview of the intellectual situation at the time. It also touches upon Lysenkism, which the author actually sees as just another, relatively localized (in that the number of people directly affected by the August Session was relatively small) disaster in a depressingly long line of ideologically motivated actions. And he makes it abundantly clear how ideology was just one of several factors that lead into each of them. Things didn't just become ideologically unacceptable by default with a change in ideology; there would always have to be someone who uncovered them, someone who pointed out how they were in contradiction with the party line. And it couldn't be just anyone; it had to be someone whose words bore just enough weight to make things happen, generally someone with friends in high places. So, then, rather than an active, independent force of evil, ideology was just one of the tools employed by individuals like Lysenko who desired to make their way into high places, yet lacked the talent to do so by merit alone. People who were ready to go to any lengths necessary for their own personal gain.

Interestingly, in most cases, it seems to have been used only when all other weapons had failed, as an act of desperation. This was probably because they knew what the consequences of such a desperate measures would be. For it was not ideology that made things happen, that made certain people to fall and others rise; the real work was done by all those other machines set in motion by playing the ideological card, machines that destroyed lives and made people disappear.

This actually applies to Lysenko as well: while he was still a powerful man in 1948, his ideas were about a decade past their prime, he little to no actual results to show for all his work and other biologists were openly criticizing him. He and his proponents were quickly losing their positions. The respect and administrative resources he used to command had worn thin, his time was running out, so he did what any desperate man would do in his situation and appealed straight to the highest power in the state, Stalin, calling his opponents cosmopolitan bourgeois idealists etc (ie not true patriots) and asking the state to deal with them (the author of the book states that the reason why Stalin gave his support to Lysenko was because after the famine of 1946-47, he, too, had become desperate and Lysenko probably promised him the world).
posted by daniel_charms at 2:21 PM on September 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


he describes the disastrous consequences of allowing ideology rather than evidence to dictate policy

It is too bad that Gould did not apply this maxim to his opinions on general intelligence.
posted by Tanizaki at 3:45 PM on September 19, 2012


Gould seems to suggest that Vavilov would not fare any better with today's breed of neo-Darwinian than he did with Lysenko:
We who view him as a martyr and champion his name while ignoring his ideas would do well to reconsider the older non-Darwinian tradition that he represented.
Nowadays the very phrase "non-Darwinian tradition" seems to bring out the worst in the defenders of the faith doctrine.
posted by No Robots at 3:49 PM on September 19, 2012


that should be "faith doctrine."
posted by No Robots at 3:50 PM on September 19, 2012


he describes the disastrous consequences of allowing ideology rather than evidence to dictate policy

It is too bad that Gould did not apply this maxim to his opinions on general intelligence.

I'm not sure it accurately characterizes Gould's opinion so much as it reflects that of Scientist, and therein lies the rub.
posted by mwhybark at 12:27 AM on September 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm currently reading a history of the Leningrad school of literary studies in the late 1940s

By the way, if anyone's interested in this (and can read Russian), here's the book itself (link goes to the publisher's website): П.А. Дружинин. Идеология и филология. Ленинград, 1940-е годы М.: Новое литературное обозрение, 2012.
posted by daniel_charms at 5:49 AM on September 20, 2012


« Older Proof that cats are better than dogs. Please do...  |  Levi van Veluw* has taken his ... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments