Thursday, March 09, 2006

(140) As the Soviet Academy of Science rebels and asserts its right to uphold truth, we witness “The rise and fall ...” but of whom?

On the afternoon of July 29th 1997 I was composing a synopsis for a six part TV series against neo-Darwinism.
I was musing upon which particular ammunition to deploy in the middle programmes and who might feature as contributors.
I had not yet even drafted the outline of episodes 4 - 6.

Earlier that day I had made a rough list of possible eminent figures who might present parts of the series, or even people who might have just an interesting snippet to throw in.
I remembered several references to political subversion of evolutionary theories in the former U.S.S.R. where scientists were forced to defend (as I understood it) pro-Lamarckian models instead of the Darwinian consensus in the west.
Those who had spoken out had been sent off to the gulag.

I thought therefore that it would be a good idea to try to learn a bit more about this topic, and on pro-Lamarckian trends in the U.S.S.R. in general.

As it happened, a few weeks earlier I had discussed in conversation the scientific eminence of the Russian emigré Zhores Medvedev.

I knew his son Dimitri from London café circles (indeed some weeks earlier I had even traced the home number of Z. Medvedev in London because his son owed me £120 lost at backgammon and was showing little willingness to settle up!).

A year or two earlier I had read a reference to Z. Medevedev’s work as a gerontologist in a Sunday newspaper, but I had first come across the name in 1976 when reading from Robert Kaiser’s book on the U.S.S.R; Russia:The People and the Power.

I had some hazy recollection of his having been temporarily incarcerated in a mental hospital as a refusenik circa 1970, and had even commented on this to his son.
I also knew that he had been a friend of Solzhenitsyn.
Dimitri remarked that when living in Russia (the family left in the seventies) they had met with Kaiser and assisted him with writing the book.

So I called Medvedev senior in the hope of shedding some light upon a potentially important scientific area.
And if he could also assist with getting his son to cough up, so much the better.

He explained that he had been a biologist and then switched to gerontology but he had touched upon the subject of evolution when in the 1960s he had written a book attacking the claims of T.D. Lysenko.
Indeed, he explained, it was for precisely this reason that they had stuck him in the psychiatric hospital.

He was never a refusenik per se.

I had been meaning to find out a bit more about this Lysenko, for I had some vague notion that he was a figure connected with the Stalinist perversion of scientific truth.
Dr Medvedev explained that Lysenko had written works denying any kind of genetic mechanism whatsoever! He had asserted that DNA does nothing!

Kaiser commented thus in his aforementioned book:

At its crudest political interference has contradicted scientific finding. The most famous instance was the ‘biology’ of Trofim Lysenko, a charlatan who argued that environment could alter hereditary characteristics.

Lysenko said his genetics was ‘Marxist genetics,’ and convinced first Stalin, then Kruschev that this was so. He ruled over Soviet Biology for years at the expense of true science and numerous personal careers...

If science shares some of the characteristics of other Soviet institutions, it is also unique in one respect. Science is the one important field in which independent-minded people can occasionally defy the regime and get away with it. Scientists, at least some of them, demonstrate an independent spirit that is rarely seen in the U.S.S.R.
... Zhores Medvedev, quoted above, was a beneficiary of the scientific community’s independence. Medvedev is a biologist and specialist in gerontology, the science of aging. As a young man he encountered the consequences of Lysenkoism in genetics, and eventually wrote a book about how Lysenko had taken power in the field...
In 1970 Medvedev was arrested and confined in a mental hospital outside Moscow...
More than half a dozen members of the Academy of Sciences and numerous other scientists joined friends, dissident intellectuals and several Old Bolsheviks in protest to Soviet officials. Medvedev was released from the mental hospital. By expressing themselves boldly, his fellow scientists probably saved him from prolonged incarceration.”

In the third paragraph of my synopsis I too had referred to the Soviet Academy Of Science as the sponsors of a televised debate on evolution in May 1990, and said how disturbing it was that in a so recently totalitarian society such a debate was possible when, because of the taboo in the U.S.A. and Britain against challenging neo-Darwinism, it was effectively impossible in those countries.

As I conversed with Dr Medvedev I had gone back through the synopsis on my computer screen and was left with the start of Programme One at the top of it.

I had decided to give each programme a title as well, to make it a little more eye-catching to a commissioning editor.

For the opening episode I chose
The triumph of Darwinism... and the beginning of the fall.

I include all that was visible to me as we chatted:

The triumph of Darwinism... and the beginning of the fall.

The series opens with a historical overview of the triumph of the Darwinian idea of evolution by means of natural selection after the publication of The Origin Of Species in 1859.

The cultural background of intolerant fundamentalist Christianity is emphasised and examples of the effect of this blind bigotry are given, e.g. the inability, as late as the 1880s, to be an MP if one were an atheist.

Enter C. Darwin, thinking for himself, collating data, theorizing... and daring to present his evidence that challenged religious orthodoxy.”

I asked Dr Medvedev for the title of his anti-Lysenko book, the writing of which, in conjunction with other criticisms of the Soviet regime, had resulted in his being placed in a mental hospital by the offended Soviet authorities.

The Rise and Fall of T. D Lysenko”, he told me.

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