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Trofim Lysenko was the director of the Institute of Genetics within the USSR’s Academy of Sciences in the 1940’s. He was known for dismissing Mendelian genetics in favor of various pseudo-scientific theories including the impact of temperature variation on grain production. He collected data on growth of various grains, in how many days, at what temperatures. Other scientists found errors in his calculations. He angrily retorted that mathematics has no place in biology (This was undoubtedly the first clue to his colleagues that perhaps Mr. Lysenko was not a top-rate scientist…).
But his work drew the admiration of Stalin (who envisioned being able to grow more crops than seemed possible – and as it turns out, more crops than actually were possible) and over time Lysenko stopped arguing scientific theory with other scientists, but rather discredited them, and marginalized them. His favored political position with Soviet leadership enabled him to cut the funding for the research of those who disagreed with him. In fact, scientific dissent from his theories was formally outlawed in the Soviet Union in 1948. So eventually those who argued with him went from being discredited to being marginalized to being imprisoned and, in many cases, executed.
Stalin’s admiration led to Mr. Lysenko’s theories being applied to the Soviet agricultural system as a whole. The results were even more horrifying than one might have expected. The farming practices that were mandated under Mr. Lysenko’s policies contributed to the starvation of millions of Soviet people. Then Mao Zedong adopted his methods starting in 1958, with disastrous results, leading to the Great Chinese Famine of 1959 to 1962, in which around 15 million people died. One looks at all this, and wonders how such a second-rate scientist managed to kill that many people. I mean, if his farming practices didn’t work, how did they become sufficiently widespread to kill millions of people? Why didn’t the farmers just do something else?
Norman Borlaug was an American biologist who developed extremely high-yield grains which flourished even under difficult weather conditions in poor soil.
He went to the University of Minnesota, although his first application to the school was rejected because he failed the entrance exam. He was a very successful wrestler there, making the Big 10 semi-finals. He started his career at DuPont, where he worked on many and varied projects before and during WWII; everything from canteen sterilization to glue to DDT to camouflage and many other things. Then he began studying grain production.
He was once asked how he became an expert in growing grains, and he responded that he first became an expert in how not to grow grains. There were many failures over many years. But he ended up with a means of producing much more grain on much less land. This meant that hundreds of millions of acres of farmland could be returned to forest and it meant saving people’s lives. It is estimated that Dr. Borlaug’s work saved over a billion lives around the world.
A billion people. The mind boggles.
I find it interesting that the Soviet Union produced Lysenko and America produced Borlaug.
How did an incompetent like Lysenko manage to kill that many people with faulty science? Does collectivist thinking somehow lead to scientific incompetence and fanciful thinking? One could look at the American left’s infatuation with over 100 different genders, blaming global warming for everything from droughts to floods, silly energy policies, and so on, and wonder if perhaps leftist politics makes one prone to scientific incompetence. But I’m not sure.
What does seem obvious is that collectivist societies with strong centralized control systems often do a poor job of selecting the good ideas from the bad. And sticking with bad ideas long after it is obvious that they don’t work. This is only possible by silencing debate – something that leftists tend to do. Especially when they realize that they may lose an argument.
Contrast that with Dr. Borlaug in America. He was a competitive wrestler, which is a good way to become accustomed to frequent setbacks despite hard work. He then started his career in a private corporation, where you don’t get promoted unless you produce. Then he spent years studying the research of others, and trying and failing with his own research. For years. His failures were discarded, but only after he learned from them. The failures of the research of other scientists were discarded as well. But only after he learned from them, too.
And his high-yield grains were sold on the open market. Some sold well. Some didn’t. He worked on improving the ones that sold well. And some of those new varieties sold better. And some didn’t.
The American government didn’t choose which grains would be planted. Farmers in Mexico and Pakistan did. Farmers who know a lot more about producing grain in Mexico and Pakistan than American politicians do.
And after some decades, now some billion people are alive that wouldn’t have been without Dr. Borlaug’s work.
But I think it’s important to remind ourselves that those billion people owe their lives not just to Dr. Borlaug, but also to capitalism, freedom of speech, a functioning peer review system, a competitive research environment, and encouragement of (rather than suppression of) dissenting views.
Things that did not exist in Lysenko’s Soviet Union. Things that we take for granted here in America.
Or, at least, we used to.
Those who suppress free speech, either through the legal system, or on social media, or via cancel culture and peer pressure, or via any other technique – anyone who suppresses free speech and open markets is dangerous. In many ways, some of which might be difficult to predict. Like wheat production in Pakistan. Who’da thunk it?
Well, you don’t have to understand it. Just get out of the way and let it happen.
If you find yourself suppressing the ideas of those who disagree with you, even if you know you’re right, you should stop and think about Mr. Lysenko and Dr. Borlaug. And you should think about dead Chinese people and well-fed Mexicans.
Suppression of dissenting ideas and free speech is dangerous. In ways that you just can’t imagine.
American Democrats really need to stop and think about their tactics. This stuff is dangerous. In ways that they just can’t imagine.
Just ask a dead Chinese person from 1961.Published in