Things You Can’t Change

As you probably know, geneticists were persecuted in Stalin’s USSR. The leading scholars of genetics were killed. For nothing, for being scientists. The rest were jailed, or at the very best, publicly humiliated, stripped of all scholarly degrees and fired. Most people know about this. But do you know why it happened? Why genetics in particular was singled out?

Cybernetics was also disliked by Stalin but the anti-cybernetics campaign consisted of a few mocking articles. There was no internationally recognized school of cybernetics in the USSR. Ragging in cybernetics was just a way to signal the preoccupation with the post-war technological advances of the US. But genetics? Destroying genetics meant severely hurting agriculture in an already starving country. Why start murdering scientists who studied inherited characteristics in plants?

At the core of genetics is the idea that heredity matters. There are things about you, me, and every living organism that can’t be changed because they were inherited. This idea was intolerable to the proponents of the Communist ideology. They couldn’t abide the thought that humans just have to accept the dictates of nature. “We take what we need from nature,” they declared. “We don’t sit around and wait for the nature to give its benefits to us.”

To disprove the laws of heredity, the Soviet anti-geneticists made absurd claims that fit in with their belief that nature is infinitely malleable. For instance, they claimed that cuckoo birds – some of whose species are brood parasites and lay their eggs in other birds’ nests – don’t really leave their eggs for other birds to raise. Instead, the Soviet biologists claimed, cuckoo birds “spontaneously appear” in other birds’ nests. It’s all a meaningless accident, they said. Two larks don’t necessarily produce a lark. They can produce a cuckoo because there are no laws of nature. Also, if you are born a cuckoo, you don’t have to remain one. You can be transformed into something different if human beings choose to place you in a set of propitious conditions and guide your development into something else.

Geneticists were told they were all Nazis and racists because believing that some traits are inherited inevitably leads to believing that human beings are different because of an accident of birth and can’t change those differences no matter how hard they try.

We all know how the story ends. Geneticists won the argument, and there have been stunning advances in genetic scholarship since then.

The ideas that inspired their persecutors are still very much alive, however. And so are the tactics used to persecute those who disagree.

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24 thoughts on “Things You Can’t Change”

  1. Did interest in cybernetics grow after Stalin? I read a history of cybernetics a few years ago. It noted that the decline of enthusiasm for cybernetics* within the US military industrial complex was in part driven by the fact that it was popular in the Soviet Union and a knee jerk “if the Soviets are for it then we’re against it” reaction kicked it.

    *This didn’t mean a decline of interest in the actual research. People just stopped calling it “cybernetics” and started calling “computer science” of “information theory” or something else instead.

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  2. Much of the Western left would prefer that genetics weren’t real (and they often act like it isn’t) because it’s highly inconvenient to them that much if not most of the human condition is genetically determined or at the very least strongly genetically “pushed” in certain directions that are extremely difficult to change.

    The left is in many areas just as anti-science as the right, but they dress it up in more favorable language so it comes across as more palatable.

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    1. Absolutely. I’m stunned at how anti-science people are, even in academic circles. Nature stands outside of morality, and they just can’t stomach that.

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  3. It’s interesting – when evolutionary theory first kicked off, it was a major shift away from a static, unchanging cosmology and towards a view where major changes were possible. Nowadays, when the name of genetics is invoked in a general context, they seem to play the role of a fate – something difficult, perhaps impossible, to alter. To the point where any sliver of a non-genetic avenue of influence (epigenetics, say) is seen as a possible source of freedom – as if being determined by environment instead of your genes is being any less determined.

    I’m being a bit frivolous now, but – the idea that two larks don’t necessarily produce a lark is exactly key to evolutionary theory, and while it sounds like the soviet interpretation takes it a bit far, the idea that there’s chance involved isn’t particularly misguided. Nor is the idea that genes produce a range of possible outcomes depending on environment conditions inherently stupid – I’m sure it’s not even impossible for different species to produce a convergent phenotype sometimes.

    The hill that I want to die on is not that heredity matters – that’s as liable to narrative misuse as any alternative in a myriad of obvious ways – but the more general principle that you should give the sharpest minds the most leeway in what they’re allowed to think.

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    1. Has there been any proof? Any fossil evidence that two larks don’t produce a lark? It’s a total aside to what you are saying, with which I agree completely. But we were tortured with evolution in Soviet schools, so I’m sceptical.

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      1. It’s totally true that genetics has been reified in bizarre ways. People in the US are obese – it’s got to be the genes. Depression is in the genes. Autism is in the genes. There’s zero proof to any of this but it’s in the genes. Everything is in the genes except for what is really in the genes. I hate this crap.

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        1. I was being a bit cute with it, but my basic point was something you already know – whatever shared couple of ancient birdo ancestors larks and cuckoos and geese and hummingbirds once had, the birdos needed to produce something other than exact copies of birdos for new species to be able to diverge. Heredity not being entirely clean is crucial for the whole process to work.

          Aside from that, the rest of the post is just a bit of a lark. There are a few interesting concepts – reaction norms, convergent evolution – that, when carelessly fiddled with, can make the soviet position seem more likely than it actually is.

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          1. I know that this is the theory. I’m just wondering why there’s no fossil record to support it. I always wondered about that. Thought maybe you knew.

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            1. “I’m just wondering why there’s no fossil record to support it.”

              Okay, Dr. Answer Man here:
              As DWeird explained, evolution progresses because the egg actually did come before the chicken — many generations before the first “true chicken” was hatched. Because of external environmental pressures, very tiny genetic changes occurred in the eggs that eventually became a new species of bird.

              There are fossil records of many species of animals that have evolved and left their no-longer existent ancestors behind: fossils of saber-toothed cats, mammoths, giant 50-ft. crocodiles, dinosaurs, etc. — including the famous bones of our common humanoid ancestor “Lucy,” discovered Ethiopia in 1974.

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            2. That’s a really interesting question, I hadn’t thought of that! If evolution is as smooth a gradient as that, lining up fossils that show all transitions going as smoothly as a flipbook should be a snatch, and as far as I know, the fossil record we have is indeed more like a tree and less like a gradient.

              Doing some quick reading, I think the main reason for it is that fossilization does not happen all that reliably. Most organisms are just going to get incorporated into some other organism during or after their deaths, and you generally need to fall into tar or be instantly buried or something for the opportunity for fossilization to even occur. There aren’t even fossils of most currently living species, so as far as creating that flipbook goes, there is in fact a fair bit of inference going on – fossil record is less of an up to date archive and more pictures of a crime scene.

              It’s somewhat possible to see smooth evolution happening in an experimental setting, though it’s made more difficult by the fact that it’s kind of capped at the speed of reproduction, and most things we humans actually care about, the big and awesome animals, reproduce at a rate roughly similar to ours. There’s dog breeding and domestication of wild plants, where generational changes, far as I know, are in fact fairly smooth, but I’m not sure how much of that is attributed to variable genetic inheritance from parents, and how much from random mutation.

              There’s been a longform experiment in bacteria that reproduce both really fast, so we can track the changes during a human lifespan, and asexually, by “cloning” themselves, so that the only way in for change is through random mutation. There obviously can’t be any gaps in the record for these, since every generation is accounted for, but they nonetheless managed to change in size, ability to intake nutrients, and even a change in the kind of nutrients they are able to take. For that to be possible, in our terms, a lark must at least sometimes be able to produce a slightly off version of a lark.

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            3. ” I’m just wondering why there’s no fossil record to support it.”

              One reason is that the fossil record is very spotty and haphazard and prone to various interpretations… the ‘take one’ shelf at the library where I work was filled a little while ago with old books from the USSR (on topics like starting aquariums, how to cook various vegetables, some random fiction, some random poetry, how to knit, how engines work etc etc etc).
              Imagine someone trying to reconstruct the Soviet Union from those couple dozen very random books…

              Similarly fossils can be hard to identity. I recently saw a TED talk (yeah…. hear me out) one the puzzle of where are all the baby dinosaur fossils? The speaker’s answer is that they’re right there in the middle of other fossils but often misidentified. It seems there’s no paleontological glory to be found in assigning fossils to existent species it’s all about naming new species. In about 15 minutes he convincingly (to me) eliminates about 15 or more species as juvenile specimens of other species based on features like bone density.

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    1. “Nobody is going to revive Lysenkoism.”

      The idea that gender is a some kind of metaphysical category that has no inherent or necessary relation to anatomy… is essentially a modern form of Lysenkoism, so no, nobody’s going to revive it because it’s already here.

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      1. Exactly. And the strategies used to silence people are very similar if not anywhere as extreme.

        But again, nobody believed the Lysenko crap. Lysenko was a very uneducated fellow, so maybe he did believe at some point. But everybody else faked it. Because they were afraid of getting killed, literally. Today’s Lysenkoists are completely sincere. That’s the scary part.

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        1. And it’s not just gender, it’s everything, it’s cultural differences, for example. When we were about to hire a South American administrator, I told people, are you sure you understand what a South American guy in his fifties in a leadership role entails? Are you sure you know how to deal with that? I was screamed down, of course. He was hired and it was a disaster because of the cultural differences I warned everybody about. And the funniest part was that I did great with him. Because I understand the culture and know how to adapt. But everybody else tried to interact with him like he was an American with a different kind of name. And it didn’t work. There were nervous breakdowns, lawsuits, it was a mess. Simply because of this ridiculous idea that culture doesn’t really exist and humans are fungible widgets.

          I’m not saying don’t hire south American men. I’m saying do hire but keep in mind that they aren’t just a check on a diversity report. They are people with a way of being that might be radically different from yours.

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          1. Was this South American administrator a recent immigrant or a foreign citizen ? Why hasn’t he adapted to American culture? You talk about lawsuits and some mess, so he has probably paid the price too.

            If I arrived to America, I wouldn’t expect people to interact with me differently than with other Americans and don’t think there would be any problems because of my Israeli Jewish background. Not all cultural differences lead to problems.

            “I’m not saying don’t hire south American men. I’m saying do hire but keep in mind…”

            If someone brings a baggage with them for any reason, whether cultural or not, not hiring seems to best, easiest decision. If one wants to succeed in American society, while in Rome do as the romans do.

            Are there any cultural differences in case of African Americans too?

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            1. These are subconscious attitudes that people holding them perceive as the norm. I think I mentioned before how my Hispanic colleagues at my first academic workplace took me aside and explained to me that they are used to having less physical distance when they speak to you and that my tendency to move away until I got plastered to the wall whenever anybody talked to me was annoying. I swear I had no idea I was doing it. I had to have it pointed out to me and unlearn this behavior.

              Or another example. If I walk down the street with a Hispanic male colleague, he’s going to run circles around me to ensure he’s always positioned between me and the road. It’s completely unconscious, like a reflex. There’s a reason why they do it (to protect a woman who’s normally wearing a hand bag from purse grabbers) but it’s completely automatic.

              It’s a million things that people do without thinking so they don’t know to change them unless somebody specifically points them out.

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          2. This reminds me of an earlier post where you suggested that, for many people, “diversity” means being surrounded by people who look different from them but are otherwise identical to them in every way.

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