Introducing the Minding the Campus Lysenko Award

With campus cancel culture now so commonplace and brazen that even leftist publications like The Atlantic are sounding the alarm, we are now inaugurating a new MTC award: The Minding the Campus Trofim Lysenko Award for the Suppression of Academic Speech (a Lysenko Award, for short).

Who was Trofim Lysenko?

The son of Ukrainian peasant farmers and illiterate until he was 13, Lysenko became an agronomist of initially dubious reputation. His earliest experiments (which involved sowing certain crops in the winter to get yields in the spring—hardly a new idea) were marked by poor design and likely fabricated results. Nevertheless, the young Lysenko loudly proclaimed that they validated his principal theory: that genetics did not exist, and that, instead, plants and animals could simply be trained to develop heritable traits, allowing them to grow and prosper under any conditions.

Foreign scientists regarded him as a bad joke. British biologist S.C. Harland observed that Lysenko was “completely ignorant of the elementary principles of genetics and plant physiology . . . To talk to Lysenko was like trying to explain differential calculus to a man who did not know his 12-times table.” When confronted with statistical errors in his results (likely occurring because he either did not understand statistics, or was simply fudging his data), Lysenko famously claimed that mathematics had no place in biology, and denounced his critics as bourgeois imperialists.

Under normal academic conditions, where researchers follow the scientific method and subject hypotheses to rigorous testing and debate, Lysenko’s theories would have been swiftly exposed for the pseudoscience they were. But Lysenko had one thing going for him. While his research was bunk, the idea that you could change a plant or animal’s heritable characteristics by changing its environment matched up with the Marxist concept of materialism—Joseph Stalin brooked no disagreement from that party line. Therefore, disputing or even mildly questioning Lysenko or his theories (Lysenkoism) thus marked you as a counterrevolutionary, a rebel, an imperialist, etc. Lysenko was not shy about unleashing the secret police on those who disagreed with him, or about blaming his dissenters as the “enemies” responsible for his failures. The lucky ones merely lost their positions and fell into penury. Many others, like botanist Nikolai Vavolov, were named enemies of the state and were either killed or starved to death in prison.

With dissent from Lysenkoism outlawed (indeed, the science of genetics was officially proclaimed to be antinationalist and pseudobiology), Lysenko’s crackpot ideas became official Soviet agricultural policy. This led to predictable results: implementation of his theories led to the famines of the 1930s that killed tens of millions in the Soviet Union. When Mao adopted them in 1958, the result was the Great Chinese Famine of 1959-62, in which 15 million people died.

Even after Watson and Crick cracked the genetic code in 1953, Lysenko, Lysenkoism, and the silencing of dissent remained official Soviet policy well into the 1960s. By the time he was finally exposed as a fraud and disgraced in the mid-60s, Soviet biology and agronomy had been set back by decades. In particular, Soviet genetics research—which had been among the best in the world in the 1920s— was utterly obliterated by Lysenkoism.

The moral of Lysenko is that suppressing academic debate and dissent for political reasons yields bad science, bad scholarship, and inevitably bad results. It can even lead to the collapse of nations. The genius of the scientific method and Western academic culture is that you get closer to the truth by subjecting all theories and ideas to rigorous testing and debate. When you frustrate this process because you are afraid the results might prove politically inconvenient, uncomfortable, or “triggering,” the ghost of Lysenko smiles.

The Lysenko Award

MTC’s Lysenko Award is for those in academia who promote or advocate the silencing of academic inquiry and speech, especially where the motive for doing so is based on political disagreement. Nominees for future awards can be sent to Managing Editor David Acevedo (acevedo@nas.org).

Dishonorable mention for the inaugural Lysenko Award goes to MIT Professor Robert van der Hilst, who caved to the Twitter mob and disinvited Professor Dorian Abbot from giving MIT’s annual Carlson lecture. However, as there appears to be some question as to whether Prof. van der Hilst was motivated by a desire for academic censorship or simple cowardice, he gets a reprieve.

Our winner, however, has no such excuse. While also involved in l’affaire Abbot, she is not on the MIT faculty or in its administration, so unlike Prof. van der Hilst, she was not thrust into the fray. Nevertheless, this Williams College department chair helped lead the keyboard warriors demanding that Prof. Abbot be disinvited from giving the Carlson Lecture—not because his science was unsound, or that he was unqualified, or that he had broken the law or committed a tort, but because he believes that individuals in higher education should be evaluated based on their individual merit rather than their membership in an identity group. Scandalous, I know. Apropos to the purpose of our award, when interviewed by the New York Times, our winner justified her actions thusly:

What, she was asked, of the effect on academic debate? Should the academy serve as a bastion of unfettered speech?

“This idea of intellectual debate and rigor as the pinnacle of intellectualism comes from a world in which white men dominated,” she replied.

Trofim Lysenko would be pleased, although he likely would have formulaically dismissed the need for academic rigor and debate as being the product of fascist-bourgeois-imperialist-capitalist culture, instead of the current wokeism of “straight white men” as the source of the world’s problems.

So congratulations, Williams College Professor Phoebe Cohen, you are the first recipient of the Minding the Campus Lysenko Award for the Suppression of Academic Speech.


Author’s Note: A draft of this article was sent to both Prof. Cohen and Williams College for comment. Neither Cohen nor the College responded.

Image: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Louis K. Bonham

Louis K. Bonham is an intellectual property litigator. He is a graduate of the University of Texas (BA ’83, JD ’86), was an Articles Editor on the Texas Law Review, and served as a law clerk to the Hon. Edith H. Jones of the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

10 thoughts on “Introducing the Minding the Campus Lysenko Award

  1. Try asking your Science-adhering Democrat today, how many sexes are there among Mammals.

    Then ask him, if any of the 6500 Mammal species is capable of changing their sex.

    The seemingly simple questions answered by the scientific discipline of Biology long ago is sure to infuriate — and render you a sexist bigot…

  2. “In the ‘satellite’ fields of Shouzhang County, Shandong Province, leadership demanded that deep plowing go 1.2 zhang [a unit of measure equal to three and one-third meters] deep… “The soil dug up by the bottom person was lifted to the middle person, who then hauled it to the top person, who then hauled it to fill a ditch.” — From Agricultural Reform and Rural Transformation in China since 1949.

    https://medium.com/change-becomes-you/food-from-thought-e5301c9a2a79

  3. Great idea. Few people know who Lysenko was, and those that do, tend to believe “it couldn’t happen here”.

  4. This article is amazing and very needed currently. Please share widely. I agree that Phoebe deserves this award.

    This is a comment I wrote to a colleague after I read the NYT’s article describing this event (disinvitation of Dorian Abbot), and of course the comments on the article were the most revealing. “The Soviet Union had a political operative in every department in order to enforce conformity, I see DEI as doing the same thing. DEI faculty or administrators useless except in making sure that we all conform to the new ideology. They are unaccountable, they are above criticism (I do not know how or who has authority over them without them losing their job, they are the ones in charge of the guillotine). They are creating trainings designed as loyalty tests, 100% conformity is required in order to pass the DEI training at our University and the test is mandatory. This is terrifying and I am speaking out because this needs to be exposed. The primary objective of academic institutions is no longer inquiry and discovery but instead DEI has become the primary objective of all or most Universities and departments. If this does not end it will be the end of Universities as we have known them, institutions designed for free inquiry of ideas promoting debate and freedom of speech therefore leading to innovation and increase of knowledge. Look at the article in the NYT’s, one of the comments is very enlightening and gives away the game, from a Phoebe Cohen a professor at Williams College MA: “This idea of intellectual debate and rigor as the pinnacle of intellectualism comes from a world in which white men dominated.” This comment is absurd. A lot of the comments in the NYT’s article show that many of the readers at the NYTs do not believe in intellectual debate and free speech.”

    1. You must had some personal experience of the Soviet Union academic life to know all that. I studied in Odessa State University between 1983 and 1988, and this city and university was at the time the first step in the many academic gulags were existent there. Professors from Moscow, Leningrad and other prestigious cities and universities that contested the slightest little academic dogma, where send to this “golden academic gulag”, in the USSR South, close to the Black Sea beaches, but far from the main discussions. If they became recidivists, then Siberia was always an option…

  5. An outstanding award and an equally outstanding recipient! My congratulations to the Academy!

    But let us not be blinded to the many potential Lysenko Award Winners who did their best work in the years prior to the creation of the award. I draw the Academy’s attention to the exemplary contribution made by the Idiots at Pomona, back in 2017, as they vociferously protested, first, to Heather MacDonald’s presence on campus, and then to their President’s plea, in the face of that protest, for “freedom of speech” .

    Allow me to quote (at extraordinary length) from their response to President Oxtoby, the better to convey the turgid depth of this Award Worthy Effort:
    “Free speech, a right many freedom movements have fought for, has recently become a tool appropriated by hegemonic institutions. It has not just empowered students from marginalized backgrounds to voice their qualms and criticize aspects of the institution, but it has given those who seek to perpetuate systems of domination a platform to project their bigotry. Thus, if “our mission is founded upon the discovery of truth,” how does free speech uphold that value? The notion of discourse, when it comes to discussions about experiences and identities, deters the ‘Columbusing’ of established realities and truths (coded as ‘intellectual inquiry’) that the institution promotes. Pomona cannot have its cake and eat it, too. Either you support students of marginalized identities, particularly Black students, or leave us to protect and organize for our communities without the impositions of your patronization, without your binary respectability politics, and without your monolithic perceptions of protest and organizing. In addition, non-Black individuals do not have the right to prescribe how Black people respond to anti-Blackness.”

    But — as the Cat in the Hat put it — “that is not all, Oh No, that is not all!”
    They went on, in true Lysenko fashion, to reject the entirety of Western Enlightenment thinking.

    “Your statement contains unnuanced views surrounding the academy and a belief in searching for some venerated truth. Historically, white supremacy has venerated the idea of objectivity, and wielded a dichotomy of ‘subjectivity vs. objectivity’ as a means of silencing oppressed peoples. The idea that there is a single truth–’the Truth’–is a construct of the Euro-West that is deeply rooted in the Enlightenment, which was a movement that also described Black and Brown people as both subhuman and impervious to pain. This construction is a myth and white supremacy, imperialism, colonization, capitalism, and the United States of America are all of its progeny. The idea that the truth is an entity for which we must search, in matters that endanger our abilities to exist in open spaces, is an attempt to silence oppressed peoples. We, Black students, exist with a myriad of different identities. We are queer, trans, differently-abled, poor/low-income, undocumented, Muslim, first-generation and/or immigrant, and positioned in different spaces across Africa and the African diaspora. The idea that we must subject ourselves routinely to the hate speech of fascists who want for us not to exist plays on the same Eurocentric constructs that believed Black people to be impervious to pain and apathetic to the brutal and violent conditions of white supremacy.”

    So I appeal to the Academy: if Prof. Cohen can take home the trophy for her rather minor-league Lysenkoisms, surely we can award something like a ‘Lifetime Accomplishment” recognition for this unparalleled paean to the irrational!

    (You can find the whole monstrous thing here: https://www.scribd.com/document/345438691/In-Response-to-Academic-Freedom-and-Free-Speech)

  6. The 1930’s famine in the USSR (the Holodomor) resulted in four to seven million deaths, not tens of millions as the author claims. It was not brought about by the application of Lysenko’s theories but rather through the forced collectivization of Ukrainian agriculture. It is true that as starvation ravaged Ukraine there was an attempt to apply Lysenko’s “theories”, but the Soviet government posted guards to keep starving Ukrainians from leaving their “republic” (in name only–it was ruled by Moscow), where they might be able to find food. Conquest’s The Harvest of Sorrow is the definitive work.

    One might note Solzhenitsyn’s pithy comment on Lysenko and those who actually followed his advice to throw grain on the snow to increase harvests. As Solzhenitsyn noted, Lysenko could not say the snow was a kulak or that he was an ass–and so those who actually followed his advice went off to the Gulag.

  7. A not minor point here — the Holodomor — the 1932-3 famine in the Ukraine — was both political & intentional. Stalin took their grain.

    Soviet collective farming and mismanagement didn’t help, but this is generally considered a genocide.

    1. The Holodomor was indeed genocide; not disputing that. But my understanding is that the Soviet famines of the 1930’s were not confined to the Ukraine and the 1932-33 famine, but were more widespread, largely due to Lysenkoism being official policy.

      So, if you will, why did Stalin need to take what Ukrainian grain there was and force the Ukrainians to starve? Because crop yields were down across the USSR due to Lysenkoism, and for various reasons Stalin and his gang chose the Ukrainians be the ones thrown over the side.

      1. > why did Stalin need to take what Ukrainian grain there was and force the Ukrainians to starve?

        The answer is as simple as it is horrible: to KILL Ukrainians. Ukrainian peasants, in particular.

        Being far richer than those in most of Russia, Ukrainian peasants didn’t embrace the Communist Revolution…

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