The Murder of
Nikolai Vavilov

Peter Pringle
(Simon & Schuster)
Proponents of Special Creation insist that God created all the species of plants and animals during the seven days of Creation, just as the Book of Genesis tells us. Evolutionists argue instead that the species have evolved over many millions of years, and are still evolving, through processes of natural genetic variation (by mutation and rearrangement in the DNA) and natural selection. The argument, you might think, could be settled by the creation of a new species in the laboratory or the greenhouse, proving directly that species formation is still occurring.

The argument was indeed settled long ago by the young Russian plant geneticist Georgi Karpechenko. In the 1920s, he reported generating the new species Raphanobrassica, which was formed as one of the very few fertile seeds of a largely sterile hybrid of the radish and the cabbage. The plant grown from the rare fertile seed was self-fertile and could be propagated. But it was a new species by the decisive criterion that it could not be crossed with either parent. The new species' complete reproductive isolation from both parent species is based on a chromosomal mechanism which plant geneticists call amphiploidy or allopolyploidy. So, whatever God did or didn't do during the first seven days, new species were still being created in the 1920s, in Karpechenko's greenhouse for one place. Many new allopolyploids have been created since the first report.

Moreover, Karpechenko (and many others since) noted that many species in nature exhibit the tell-tale chromosomal features of allopolyploidy, indicating that they evolved in the same way, rare variants of hybrids of two different parental species. The list of such plants is so long --- species of maize, wheat, tobacco, cotton, salsify, primrose, orchids, ferns, cactuses, etc. --- that one would certainly suspect evolution has been going on all the time everywhere in nature and in farmers' plots. So much for the story of Special Creation. If Karpechenko had made observations of this sort in the 13th century, the Holy Inquisition would surely have arrested him as an enemy of the faith, and possibly burned him at the stake. But things like that couldn't occur in the progressive 20th century, could they?

In 1971 the Russian-American emigré geneticist T. G. Dobzhansky at Rockefeller University published a famous paper in Nature entitled "An experimentally created incipient species of Drosophila." It reported something like another speciation event in the laboratory in an animal rather than a plant, a fruit fly. Here the mechanism of speciation was different from the allopolyploidy common in plants, but again it was seemingly based on the behavior of chromosomes, which Dobzhansky had studied for many years. Dobzhansky had in fact been a colleague and friend of Karpechenko's back in the 1920s, when the two Russians had both come from the new Soviet Union to do advanced research in the USA.

Both Dobzhansky and Karpechenko figure in the life of their older Soviet colleague Nikolai Vavilov, recounted in this exceptionally well-informed and well-written biography by Peter Pringle, formerly Moscow bureau chief of the Independent. Vavilov was a famously energetic plant naturalist, explorer, and scientific administrator, a proponent avant la lettre of what would today be called biodiversity. He made expeditions all over the world to collect specimens for an enormous seed bank, and aimed to draw on this bank of biodiversity to breed useful varieties of food and medicinal crops. He was Director of the All Union Institute of Plant Industry in Leningrad, and of associated regional plant laboratories, and also served in a variety of other posts in the Soviet scientific establishment.

In 1930, on one of his many trips abroad, Vavilov tried to persuade Dobzhansky and Karpechenko, both then working at Cal Tech, to return to their native country. There, he told them, they could contribute to the growth of science under Socialism. Dobzhansky chose to remain in the USA, taking US citizenship in 1937. He became one of the most distinguished biologists of his time, a writer of very influential books, and a professor first at Cal Tech then at Columbia and finally at Rockefeller. But Karpechenko responded to Vavilov's urgings, and in 1931 joined the older Soviet biologist at the Institute of Plant Industry in Leningrad.

It was a tragic choice. He was arrested in February of 1941, six months after the arrest of his boss Vavilov. Both scientists were sentenced to death as "enemies of the people." essentially because they adhered to the discipline that had underpinned Karpechenko's discovery of the new species, which was the analysis of genes and chromosomes. In the west, this discipline was called genetics, but in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics it came to be known as "bourgeois formalist Mendelism-Morganism," and was classified as a category of anti-Soviet wrecking activity. The most subversive feature of genetics was that it necessarily included criticism of Stalin's favorite science fakers.

The most well-connected and powerful of these wizards was Trofim Lysenko, who claimed that heredity (and indeed species identity) could be "trained" by crude environmental manipulation, in particular of the temperature. Lysenko's associate I. Prezent helped him to show how this insight accorded with the dialectical philosophy of Marxism-Leninism, and Stalin appreciated that it reflected uniquely Soviet, progressive, and proletarian thought. Other wizards, not mentioned in this biography of Vavilov, included G. M. Bosh'yan, who discovered the conversion of antibiotics into viruses, viruses into bacteria, and bacteria into crystals; and the elderly Olga Lepeshinskaya (winner of the Stalin Prize in 1950), who discovered the emergence of cells and even tissues from a sort of magic goo, also in accord with dialectical principles, and later discovered that old age could be cured by taking soda baths. The Party and of course the government ministries decreed that these discoveries were to be the foundation of teaching and research in Biology.

Raising questions about this feast of the intellect in the 20th century USSR was virtually as dangerous as criticizing the Church had been in the 13th century. Karpechenko was executed in 1941, as were a number of other adherents of the forbidden discipline of genetics. Vavilov, more an administrator than a working scientist, had his sentence mercifully commuted to 20 years imprisonment. He died in 1943 of disease and malnutrition after 2½ years in prison.

The socialization of property by the Bolsheviks had not magically eliminated fraud, ignorance, and ruthless ambition, let alone the combination of all three in Lysenko and his associates; while the politicization of biology (and of everything else) characteristic of life in the USSR provided them with precisely the vehicle they could use to achieve domination. In short, the rule of the Vanguard Party, which claimed that its absolute monopoly of power rested on a monopoly of virtue, created a re-run of medieval theocracy, with Socialism and Soviet Power in place of the Cross and the Throne of Peter, and the NKVD in the role of the Holy Office.

§     §     §

The book follows Vavilov's life from his youth and early days as an agronomist before 1917, through his attempts to conduct honest, normal science in Stalin's Socialist wonderland, to his arrest and imprisonment, death in prison camp, and posthumous rehabilitation years later. His grotesquely phony conviction --- one of the NKVD's "witnesses" had been dead for several years when he is recorded as testifying against Vavilov --- was quietly rescinded as early as 1955, two years after the death of Stalin. However, the rubbish of Lysenko and Co., which Vavilov and Karpechenko and a few others had dared to criticize, continued to dominate Soviet biology and biological education well into the 1960s.

In 1967, 24 years after Vavilov's death in prison camp, the Institute he had directed in Leningrad was renamed the Vavilov Institute. Despite this gracious gesture, and despite having a huge number of people with advanced degrees in subjects containing the word "Biology," the science of biology still mysteriously failed to thrive in the Soviet Union, which contributed virtually nothing to the tremendous, revolutionary growth of molecular biology in the 20th century, much less than tiny countries like Switzerland or Denmark. This powerful, thought-provoking, and profoundly sad book makes it clear why.

One of the story's many ironies is that Lysenko and his fellow charlatans pretended that their school of thought followed from Darwinian evolutionary principles, in contradiction (they claimed) to the arid mathematical approach of Mendelian genetics. At the very time they waged this rhetorical charade, scientists in the west had in fact recently achieved an illuminating synthesis of Darwinian evolution and genetics, illustrating perhaps the Marxist sequence of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. Dobzhansky, the Soviet emigré who decided to stay in the west, played an important part in this intellectual project. And its mathematical form, the subject of population genetics, was in fact foreshadowed by a brilliant Russian geneticist, S.S. Chetverikov. However, Chetverikov was unable to play a role in the intellectual project because he had been arrested by the secret police already in 1929 and sentenced to exile from Moscow, although he was not sent to the gulag. He later managed to return to an academic post in provincial Gorky University, but Lysenko cleverly got him dismissed in 1948.

The ongoing occurrence of evolution, demonstrated by Karpechenko and Dobzhansky among others, does at least clear up a question posed in one of my favorite New Yorker cartoons. The cartoon shows a group of morose bar-flies, sitting around a table in a tavern and staring dully at their drinks. "Is evolution still going on," one of them asks, "or is this pretty much it?"

--- Jon Gallant
Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH