The concept collided with all that was known about Darwinian evolution and Mendelian inheritance. Lysenko found an easy solution—deny Darwin and Mendel. Lysenko’s ideas intersected with the old theory of French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck on the inheritance of acquired characters, although Lysenko endeavoured to assert that his theory was not Lamarckist. In fact, he found a more appropriate framework for his proposals: communism.
In the face of Mendelian inheritance, determined by genes from before birth, Lysenko advocated a system where the environment could achieve anything. To counter Darwinian competition, he proposed that plants cooperated with each other. Although he never intended to apply his theories to the human being, his ideological positioning and the promise of bountiful harvests earned him the favours of the Soviet regime.
As explained to OpenMInd by science writer Simon Ings, author of Stalin and the Scientists: A History of Triumph and Tragedy 1905-1953 (Faber & Faber, 2016), the Marxist philosopher Isaak Prezent, “Lysenko’s friend, champion and an eminence grise,” played a crucial role. “It was Prezent who created and promoted the body of theory we know as Lysenkoism,” Ings explains.
Ings points out that Mendelian genetics was a foreign science, developed by a “politically undesirable” social class. “Lysenko was useful to Stalin and the leadership. He conformed to the Bolshevik ideal of a barefoot scientist, applying science to production without any intervening big words.” It was, summarizes the writer, a conflict between “the business of science and the business of production.” Thus, in 1948 Stalin adopted Lysenko’s ideas as the only official biology of the USSR, and any other theory was formally outlawed.