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.