August 04, 2005

The First Time

Rereading Soyfer's "Lysenko and the Tragedy of Soviet Science", one of the little things that strikes me is the way the Soviets used personal labels for scientific theories: the book is strewn with official Soviet references to "Michurinism", "Michurinist biology", "Virchowism", "Morganism", "Weissmanism", "Mendelism-Morganism", and the most impressive of the lot, "Weissmanism-Mendelism-Morganism" for theories or strands of science that in the West would have been given impersonal names.

I guess the reason's obvious: if you can identify a particular (and probably quite complex) theory with a single person, you can demonise or sanctify the theory accordingly. There's no need to spell out what's right or wrong with the theory itself -- if you can associate it with a person who's been deemed anti-Soviet or anti-proletarian, then ipso facto, you have proof that the associated theory must be evil and wrong as well. A deeply Orwellian shortcut, for sure... (there's a chilling line in one of the short biographies attached to the book that states that two sisters were arrested and sent to the camps after being "sufficiently convicted under Article 7-35 of being daughters of enemies of the people" -- a direct translation of the official record, presumably. They survived).

(This otherwise long dry book, written mostly for an audience who already know who Lysenko was, very occasionally breaks into the almost-lyrical:

"It is difficult for us now to realize that those years [the 1920's and early 1930's] gave the world amazing examples of inspired labor and the sublime poetry and prose of Mandelshtam, Babel, Pasternak, and Bulgakov, even though it also gave rise to Lysenko and Beria and lifted them to the summit of society. Perhaps we can no longer feel what it meant for millions of people to have the good fortune to learn to read and write, to hold a book for the first time, to listen to the radio for the first time, watch a film for the first time, for the first time... for the first time... for the first time.... Liberated people, newly literate, writing -- for the first time in their lives -- fingers shaking with the effort, 'We are not slaves. Slaves we are not.'" (p93).

The rest of it's a tough read if you don't have much Soviet history or general History and Philosophy of Science (HPS) background (I first read it a decade ago, mostly because a large part of my undergraduate studies were in HPS), but it's worth it, if only as a cautionary tale for what can happen when you let Belief and Authority override everything else or you try to institute the sort of Faith-based "science" much of the Intelligent Design (ID) movement seems to want...).


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