At the start of this year, I decided to focus a bit more on reviewing history books – more so than I had been previously. Come February and a couple of Twitter and media storms down the track, and I decided to revise this a little. I have no intention to stop focusing on history, but where I can, I’m going to try and dip into more into the history of science and bioethics. It’s 2020, and I’m sorry, I am going to get peeved at anyone who tries claim science is apolitical.
Try as you might, you can never completely divorce science from politics because we don’t live in an apolitical society. One of my favourite books which serves as a great introduction to this concept – in a rather accessible manner – is an academic text, complete with study questions at the end of each chapter. It’s The Cold War Politics of Genetic Research: An Introduction to the Lysenko Affair by William deJong-Lambert, and it makes for a light and easy read, considering the heaviness of the subject matter.
This is not the first book I’ve reviewed on the tragic subject of Lysenkoism – you can read about Peter Pringle’s The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov here. The Cold War Politics of Genetic Research does not delve into the lunacy surrounding Trofim Lysenko and the Soviet Union’s love affair with genetics denialism quite as deeply as Pringle’s book, but what it does instead is cover the politics of genetics unfolding in the Anglosphere around the same time.
Curiously enough, many British and US geneticists and science popularisers were quite sympathetic to communism in the interwar years, with a few well-known names travelling to the USSR during this period. How each of them reacted to the Lysenkoist attacks on “Mendelist-Weissmanist-Morganist” thinking (read: genetics) varied; some people, like Herman Muller, performed a drastic U-turn; while others, like JBS Haldane, doubled down.
But western genetics was not so squeaky-clean itself. An ugly idea had taken hold during this period, and it was one that would remain publically popular for far longer than it should have: Eugenics. This is not to say that there weren’t any soviet scientists that had flirted with the concept themselves. But thanks to Lysenkoism, eugenics in the USSR became problematic for reasons beyond the regular ethical implications.
The Soviet political machine at the time was more than happy to use the West’s support for eugenics as a tool to paint Mendelists as dreadful people and to bolster support for their own philosophy. And in the post World War Two era, certain American conservatives decided to return the favour, by beating up on Lysenko, the USSR and western leftism to try and convince people that eugenics had been misunderstood, and perhaps it would be worth trying again. If only, they bemoaned, people listened to the more reasonable, more rational version…
Sounding a bit familiar at this point? Surely there’s no one in 2020 trying to promote this kind of view? *cough, a little shit named Sabisky, cough.* Or trying to divorce eugenics from its ethical considerations in order to have a reasonable, rational discussion?
So again, science is never going to be purely apolitical. The machinations showcased in The Cold War Politics of Genetic Research demonstrate that even if you’re on the ball yourself, someone else will be more than happy to cynically use your work or your philosophy in their own game of political ping-pong. As L.C. Dunn indicated, what an idea becomes means more than how it got there. And this game of ping-pong is as vicious today as it was during the time of the cold war.
Sadly, because this is an academic text, buying it outright might prove to be expensive. But please, don’t be afraid to check your local library system! And if you have access to an eJournal subscription, you might be able to get it directly from Springer here. It’s a relatively short book and it serves as a decent platform for discovering further reading.
As for me, I’m open to recommendations, if you have them