Lysenko Comes to the CDC: Exploring the Relationship Between Science and
By: Martha Sonnenberg <>
September 12, 2020

When I was a pre-med student in 1971, taking a course in genetics, the very
first lecture was about Trofim Lysenko (1898-1976), the Soviet biologist
who, in the 1930s and 1940s, had great influence during the years of
Stalin’s rule, becoming the Director of the Soviet Union Lenin All-Union
Academy of Agricultural Services. The point of the lecture was to show how
politics can pervert science, contrasting Lysenko’s methods under Stalinist
rule to the “scientific method” under Western democracies, which
purportedly allows science to be free from political pressures.

*Who was Lysenko?*

Lysenko became famous for his rejection of Mendelian genetics and natural
selection. He believed that environmental changes, acquired changes in an
organism, could be passed on to its offspring.[1] Lysenko’s belief fit with
the doctrine of Soviet historical materialism which viewed Marxism as a
“science” of materialism, and which defined people (or plants in the case
of Lysenko) as determined solely by their socio-economic environment. A
change in material conditions would lead to a change in people. This
“scientific socialism” provided the philosophic justification for Stalin’s
totalitarian state. Lysenkoism and Stalinism had in common a deterministic
and reductionist distortion of Marx’s notion of dialectic materialism,
addressed further below.

Lysenko’s theories of acquired changes led to his methods of subjecting
crops to freezing water—this was supposed to force plants to sprout all
year long, and to create future crop generations which would “remember”
these acquired changes. The theory thus promised year round sustainable
agricultural bounty, and was just what Stalin needed as he began
instituting forced collectivization of Soviet agriculture.

There were two major consequences of Lysenkoism. The first was that his
methods led to mass failure of crops, and subsequent famine and starvation
of tens of millions of people in the Soviet Union, in the 1930s, and in its
ally, China, in the 1950s. The second was that it allowed no dissent–any
scientist who disagreed with or questioned Lysenko’s theory and method was
considered an “enemy”. During this time over 3,000 biologists were
dismissed or imprisoned, and numerous scientists were executed.

*Lysenkoism and the current pandemic*

I thought of Lysenko when I read of the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC)
recent revision of its coronavirus testing guidelines. These new
guidelines, supported and promoted by the Trump administration, state that
people with asymptomatic COVID-19 infection need not be tested, nor do
people who have been in close contact with an infected person if that
person is asymptomatic. It is clear that the new recommendations are
consistent with Trump’s promotion of less testing, with the absurd argument
that too much testing was driving COVID-19 case numbers up, reflecting
poorly on his administration.

The impetus for these revisions came from Brett Giroir, assistant HHS
secretary who oversees testing. Giroir said that the revisions were
supported by CDC Director Robert Redfield, as well as by all the physicians
on the Coronavirus Task Force. This included Dr. Scott Atlas who is close
to Trump and a frequent commentator on Fox News. Scott Atlas has also
questioned the efficacy of mask wearing , and has stated that children do
not transmit coronavirus. Both assertions have been proven untrue. Another
doctor on the Task Force is Dr. Stephen Hahn, the current Commissioner of
Food and Drugs, who agreed to the FDA’S precipitous emergency approval for
the use of immune serum from recovered COVID19 patients as treatment for
actively infected COVID-19 patients, without strong evidence that the
treatment is effective. These are the new Lysenkos, doctors and other
political appointees who promote methods and theories which support Trump’s
administration. Giroir also claimed the support of Anthony Fauci. Fauci has
subsequently distanced himself from the new recommendation stating that he
was undergoing surgery at the time the decision for revised guidelines was
made. He did not sign off on the new recommendations and has expressed
“concern” about them. But he has not directly spoken out against them, even
as the Infectious Disease Society of America has called for the “immediate
reversal of the abrupt revision of the CDC Covid-19 testing guidelines.”

These revisions of testing recommendations are exactly the *wrong* thing to
do—they are counter to the clear evidence that asymptomatic individuals are
significant transmitters of the virus. They hobble our ability to better
understand and control transmission of the virus. The new revisions come at
a time when cases in the US are at an all time high of nearly 6 million
cases, with over180,000 deaths, and when contact tracing can be a
significant method to reduce further spread. Testing and contact tracing
are particularly important at a time when students and teachers may be
returning to colleges and schools, and when even more “essential workers”
are being called upon as businesses are clamoring for opening. These
revised recommendations increase public confusion, and will likely increase
the spread of Covid-19, with more deaths ensuing.

During my career as an Infectious Disease physician, the CDC has been a
respected source for investigating outbreaks and for making evidence based
recommendations. It is tragic that this previously renowned agency has been
pressured by Trumpian politics to promote policies at the expense of public
well-being. Indeed, the specter of Lysenko is haunting the CDC and the
entire Trump administration, revealing that the perversion of science is as
likely in a capitalist democracy as it is in a Stalinist state, and always
with dire consequences.

*The relation of science and politics*

The larger issues raised by contemporary Lysenkoism have to do with the
relationship of science and politics (or ideology and religion). Clearly
there are historical precedents for the *control* of science by those in
power. The most well known example is that of Galileo (1564-1642), whose
theory of heliocentrism (the earth and planets revolve around the sun), was
investigated by the Inquisition and deemed heretical by the Catholic
Church. Galileo was forced to recant.

Of course, scientific investigation does not occur in a vacuum; it always
occurs in a social and historical context. But if the scientist’s goal is
to understand the world in which she lives, then the scientist must, as
Thomas Kuhn has described:

“extend the precision and scope with which (the world) has been ordered.
That commitment must, in turn, lead him (sic) to scrutinize, either for
himself or for his colleagues, some aspect of nature in great empirical
detail. And if that scrutiny leads to pockets of apparent disorder, then
these must challenge him to a new refinement of his observational
techniques…” (*The Structure of Scientific Revolutions*).

The problem with Lysenko and contemporary Lysenkoism is first the denial of
this basic methodology of conventional science, the use of precision and
scope to understand the world, second, the obliviousness to the ever
changing nature of science and research, and third, the willingness to
disregard the safety and health of the earth and all its life forms.

Lysenko accepted the most deterministic interpretation of Marx’s philosophy
promulgated by the Stalinist Soviets, which to this day is still accepted
by mainstream media. Lysenko’s theory of acquired change in crops as
products of changed environment was consistent with Stalin’s version of
historical materialism, in which human beings were merely the “products of
circumstances.” For Stalin, historical materialism justified the
totalitarian imposition of forced change upon people, rather than allowing
change to be created *by* people. Marx himself was critical of this kind of
historical materialism:

“The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and
upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of changed
circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men who change
circumstances and that the educator must himself be educated. (Third Thesis
on Feuerbach)

For Marx, it was the element of human activity, the ability of human beings
to alter their conditions, which gave life to his theory of dialectic
materialism and made it a revolutionary philosophy.

If this more humanistic and dialectic aspect of Marx’s theory is applied to
scientific inquiry, it is not through the *control *of science, but rather
through the *possibility *of a more profound basis for scientific inquiry—a
method which allows the scientist more creative agency in approaching
problems and in exploring the world.

There have been many scientists, including Richard Levins, Richard
Lewontin, Stephen Gould, and others, who have seen the value in applying a
dialectical approach to scientific research. In *The Dialectical Biologist*,
Levins and Lewontin point out that conventional science tackles a problem
in a piecemeal fashion, looking only at a part of the problem, and
therefore leading only to partial solutions. Conventional science often
neglects the contradictions and complexities that exist beneath the
superficial aspects of a problem. Conventional science, said Levins, was
unsuccessful “at recognizing the shared biases of a whole scientific
community, the beliefs that are so much a part of the community that that
they are not even recognized as biases.” (*Talking about Trees*). Thus, he
believed that looking at the natural world as a fixed entity, and in a
piecemeal fashion, with perfectly adapted organisms, neglects ongoing
evolutionary processes and the potential for ecologic crises that lie
beneath the surface. This perspective bears resemblance to Lenin’s notion
of dialectics—“Dialectics demands the all sided consideration of
relationships in their concrete development and not pulling of a piece out
of one thing and a piece out of another.” (Selected Works, Vol. 9)

In my own field of infectious diseases, I have seen the contrast between
conventional science and dialectical science. The whole history of
infectious disease as a specialty has been based on the germ theory of
infections, and has been devoted to eliminating infections by developing
specific antibiotics for specific infections. This has led to an enormous
armamentarium of ever new antibiotics, but has also led to the opposite of
the intended outcome—rather than controlling infection, we have seen the
proliferation of new infections due to increased bacterial resistance to
these antibiotics. These new infections are often more virulent and
difficult to treat and often associated with life-threatening adverse

A more dialectical approach would be to understand the many contradictions
that lie beneath the surface of infectious diseases. Such an approach would
explore the ecosystems in which particular bacteria survive, how
antibiotics are prescribed and how they are over used. It would look at the
role of pharmaceutical companies in developing new and more expensive
antibiotics, and pharmaceutical marketing influences on doctors. It would
look at the effects of hospital management of nursing quotas, of custodial
staff, the effects of crowding patients in small rooms, inadequate
ventilation systems, and the poor quality of care in long term care
facilities. This approach would also look at the role of class and race,
and the access to healthcare in outside communities, as well as issues of
increased susceptibility of particular people to infection.

Finally, the current pandemic of Coronavirus itself provides a striking
example of the differences between a conventional approach and a more
comprehensive dialectical approach. Conventional scientists, physicians and
epidemiologists, knew that a pandemic such as we are experiencing was
inevitable. But even without the recklessness and incompetency of the Trump
administration and its contemporary Lysenko’s, the experts’ best
preparations for and responses to this pandemic have proven inadequate. We
find ourselves, in 2020, not much more advanced than in the 1300s with the
Black Plague:

“The condition of the people was pitiable to behold. They sickened by the
thousands daily, and died unattended and without help.” Giovanni
Boccaccio, *The
Decameron*, 1353

In the absence of an “all-sided consideration” of the reasons this pandemic
occurred, and neglecting the contradictions, those natural and human crises
that exist beneath the surface of the pandemic, conventional experts have
not been able to assure public safety. They have been unable to provide
consistent messaging and education about, and implementation of, such basic
measures as mask wearing physical distancing, and of enforced quarantines
when necessary. The response has been reactive rather than proactive, with
the focus on treatments and vaccines. This is not to deny the importance of
treatments and vaccines, but to say that these alone cannot effectively
control the current pandemic or prevent future pandemics. What has been
ignored or underestimated occurs at both a national and global level, and
includes multiple biologic, environmental, and social forces.

At the national level, we have witnessed the inability to assure quality
care for all due to the current private insurance system, allowing major
disparities in care by class, race, and geographic location. We have
witnessed the inability to provide a consistent strategy for prevention and
response to such pandemics due to the absence of a fully funded,
centralized public health agency with the authority and accountability to
act in such situations. Rather we have a chaotic conglomerate of
departments, agencies, services, each in their separate silos, and unable
to provide leadership of a centralized strategy that could be rapidly
implemented. Without the integration of universal health care *combined
with* a strong national public healthy agency, there can be no consistent
policy or messaging, no guarantee that treatment will be available to all,
no coordination of protection for health care workers, for dissemination of
necessary medical equipment and supplies, or for the availability of
testing materials and contact tracing. Further, with a central public
health agency, coordination with the efforts of other countries would
become possible.[2] The pandemic is, after all, not just an American
problem, but a global problem

At the global level, a comprehensive and dialectic approach would address
the intricacies of relationships between and among human beings, animals,
and the changing environment. It would address climate change in general
and in particular how climate change has led to massive shifts in human and
animal populations, with increases in global poverty. It would explore the
ways in which the effects of climate change impinge on ecosystems, creating
conditions for the evolution of new pathogens, mostly viral, and new ways
for these pathogens to multiply, and shift their transmission from animal
hosts to human hosts. As Ed Yong wrote recently, “Humanity has squeezed the
world’s wildlife in a crushing grip—and viruses have come bursting out.”
(“How the Pandemic Defeated America,” Ed Yong, *The Atlantic*, Sept. 2020.)
Today, any disease anywhere can spread within days to involve everyone.

The coronavirus pandemic is not the result of “a perfect storm”, which
implies forces of nature beyond human control. The pandemic is primarily
the result of human activity, and the solution can only be the result of
human activity. We will have to consider the myriad and complex forces
leading to pandemics and understand what cripples our response to them.
This requires a major shift in scientific perspective, a paradigm shift, to
use Thomas Kuhn’s term, to a more dialectic science, a scientific
revolution in which the scientific imagination is allowed to expand its
approach to problems. It is time for our human activity to “change
circumstances,” to become educated and learn the lessons that this
pandemic, catastrophic as it is, can teach us.

[1] It should also be noted that there has been a new interest in Lysenko
in Russia, under Putin’s regime, partially due to the interest in the field
of epigenetics. But Lysenko’s beliefs should not be confused with
contemporary epigenetics. Epigenetic theory is based in an understanding of
genes and DNA, and the issue of repressed and de-repressed genetic
material. Lysenko did not believe in genes at all, and the description of
DNA by Watson and Crick did not become known until 1953.

[2] The United States is not alone in its neglect of public health. As
Laurie Garrett points out in her book, *Betrayal of Trus*t, the neglect and
collapse of public health is also an international problem.
Posted Coronavirus <>,
Public health <>, Social Policy
<>, United States

*About Author*
Martha Sonnenberg, M.D. is a retired Infectious Disease physician and
former CMO at a community hospital in Los Angeles. She currently lives in
Walnut Creek, California.