Journal of the History of Biology

, Volume 16, Issue 1, pp 1–37

A war on two fronts: J. B. S. Haldane and the response to Lysenkoism in Britain

  • Diane B. Paul


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  1. 1.
    Haldane turned to communism in the late 1930s, although he did not formally join the Communist Party until 1942. Two years later (in 1944), he became a member of its executive committee. He resigned (probably by allowing his membership to lapse) in 1950. Haldane also served as chairman of the editorial board of the London Daily Worker from 1940 to about February 1950 and contributed a weekly column, usually on a science-related topic, from 1937 to August 1950. Haldane's role in the party and his contributions to the Worker are described in Ronald, Clark, J. B. S.: The Life and Work of J. B. S. Haldane (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1968), esp. pp. 132, 159, 166, and 185. See also Haldane's obituary in the Times (London) of December 2, 1964.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Gary Werskey recently published a sympathetic study of the social relations of science movement, The Visible College: The Collective Biography of British Scientific Socialists of the 1930s (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1978). His research is summarized in Martin Green, “The Visible College in British Science”, Amer. Schol. 4–7, (1977/78), 105–117. Also relevant, though its focus is largely restricted to the career of J. D. Bernal, is Hilary Rose and Steven Rose, “The Two Bernals: A Marxist Critique of J. D. Bernal and the Social Functions of Science Movement” Fundamental Scientia, 001.2 (1981) 267–286. C. P. Snow's “Rutherford and the Cavendish” in The Baldwin Age ed. John Raymond (London: Eyre and Spottiswode, 1960), pp. 235–248, remains the most important first-hand account of the movement, even though it is more narrowly focused than the work of Werskey and Green, Snow estimates that a poll of the two hundred brightest physicists under the age of forty in 1936 would have revealed that “about five would have been Communists, ten fellow-travellers, fifty somewhere near the Blackett position [noncommunist, but activist and fairly far left], a hundred passively sympathetic to the Left. The rest would have been politically null, with perhaps five (or possibly six) oddities on the Right” (p. 248).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    J. G., Crowther, Soviet Science (London: Kegan Paul, 1936), p. 14.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    These papers were published as Science at the Cross Roads: Papers Presented to the International Congress of the History of Science and Technology held in London from June 20th to July 3rd by the Delegates of the U.S.S.R. (London: Kniga, 1931).Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    J. D., Bernal, The World, The Flesh and the Devil: An Enquiry into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969; orig. ed., 1929), pp. 79–80. Bernal also writes: “In a Soviet State (not the state of the present, but one freed from the dangers of capitalist attack) the scientific institutions would in fact gradually become the government” (p. 78).Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Green, “The Visible College”, p. 114.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    E. Ray, Lankester, in Science and Education: A Collection of Lectures Delivered Before the Royal Institution in 1854 (London: William Heinemann, 1917; orig. ed., 1855), p. 6.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    The Neglect of Science: Report of Proceedings at a Conference held in the Rooms of the Linnean Society, Burlington House, 3 May 1916 (London: Harrison, 1916), p. 24.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Ibid., p. 33.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    J. D., Bernal, “The Social Function of Science”, Mod. Quart.1 (1938), 15–22; quotation on p. 18.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    J. D., Bernal, The Social Function of Science (London: Routledge, 1939), p. 261.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    I know of nine American biologists who worked in the Soviet Union during the 1930s (H. J. Muller, Calvin Bridges, Percy Dawson, Daniel Raffel, Carlos Offerman, Sidney Halperin, Mark Graubard, Horseley Gannt, and Bronson Price); I believe all but Dawson were geneticists. Perhaps their having actually lived in the Soviet Union accounts for the considerably more critical attitude of American scientific socialists toward Stalinism in general, and toward Lysenkoism in particular.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    David, Joravsky, The Lysenko Affair (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970); Zhores A. Medvedev, The Rise and Fall of T. D. Lysenko (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969). For a shorter history see the chapter “Genetics” in Loren R. Graham, Science and Philosophy in the Soviet Union (New York: Alfred A, Knopf, 1972).Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    My summary of events within the Soviet Union largely follows the accoun of Joravsky.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Joravsky, The Lysenko Affair, p. 116.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Figures for science expenditure as a percentage of the GNP in the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union may be found in Rose and Rose, “The Two Bernals.”Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Bernal, The Social Function of Science, p. 277.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Ibid., pp. 227–228. He also asserted that “the very essence of science is the spirit of free inquiry” (p. 470) and that “at all costs science must be prevented from becoming a hierarchic orthodoxy; it must be able and willing to defend its theses against all comers, and it should not exclude but encourage critics of all kinds however unbalanced or irrational they may appear to be” (p. 278). The 1947 statement of the Association of Scientific Workers, whose president was P. M. S. Blackett, drew heavily on The Social Function of Science: “It has never been part of the policy of the Association either to restrict the freedom of the individual scientist in any way or to suggest any limitation to the development of fundamental science either absolutely or relatively to that of applied science” (from the statement “Freedom and Organization in Science,” 1947). Michael Polanyi perceptively noted at the time that Bernal was “trying to win the support also of non-socialists, mainly by emphasizing that no restriction of the freedom of science is intended.” Michael Polanyi, “Rights and Duties of Science,” Manchester School of Economic and Social Studies (October 1939), 175–193; quotation on p. 175.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    J. B. S., Haldane, “A Note on Genetics in the U.S.S.R.,” Mod. Quart., 1 (1938), 393–394; quotation on p. 394.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    For example, in “Genetics in the U.S.S.R.,” Mod. Quart., 1 (1938), 370–371 (signed “Helix” and “Helianthus”); “Biological Research in the Soviet Union,” in Science in Soviet Russia, ed. Joseph Needham and Jane Sykes Davis (London: Watts, 1942), pp. 24–28; and “Biological Science in the U.S.S.R.,” Nature, 148 (1941), 362–363. It should be noted, however, that Needham consistently expressed skepticism of Lysenko's scientific claims.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    See Walter, Laqueur, The Terrible Secret: An Investigation into the Suppression of Information about Hitler's “Final Solution” (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1980).Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    For example, Eric, Ashby, Scientist in Russia (London: Penguin, 1947) and P. S. Hudson and R. H. Richens, The New Genetics in the Soviet Union (Cambridge: Imperial Bureau of Plant Breeding and Genetics, 1946).Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    Joravsky, The Lysenko Affair, pp. 110–111.Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    J. B. S., Haldane, contribution to “The Lysenko Controversy: four scientists give their points of view”, Listener, 30 (1948), 873–875; quotation on p. 875.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    Theodosius, Dobzhansky, “N. I. Vavilov, A Martyr of Genetics, 1887–1942,” J. Hered., 38 (1947), 227–232; quotation on p. 232.Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    H. J. Muller to Julian Huxley, March 9, 1937 (Muller collection). Material in brackets is an addendum to the preceding paragraph and appears at the end of the letter.Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    George Bernard, Shaw, “The Lysenko Muddle,” Labour Monthly, 31 (1949), 18–20; quotation on p. 18.Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    Ibid., p. 20.Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    Julian, Huxley, Soviet Genetics and World Science: Lysenko and the Meaning of Heredity (London: Chatto and Windus, 1949), p. 35.Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    John, Langdon-Davies, Russia Puts the Clock Back: A Study of Soviet Science and Some British Scientists (London: Victor Gollancz, 1949), p. 119.Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    Ake Gustafsson to H. J. Muller, January 26, 1949 (Muller collection); F. G. Gregory to J. B. S. Haldane, August 21, 1947. (Haldane Papers).Google Scholar
  32. 32.
    J. B. S., Haldane, “Heredity: Some Fallacies”, in Science and Everyday Life (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1939). See also his articles “The Inheritance of Acquired Characters”, Nature, 130 (1932), 20 and “Domestic Animals and Evolution”, Daily Worker (London), October 6, 1948, p. 4. Muller's views were succinctly stated in his resignation from the Soviet Academy of Sciences: “Faith in the inheritance of acquired characters must lead inevitably... to the same dangerous Fascistic conclusion as that of the Nazis: that the economically less advanced peoples and classes of the world have become actually inferior in their heredity” (reprinted in Science, 108 [1948], 436). Filipchenko's views are discussed in A. E. Gaissinovitch, “The Origins of Soviet Genetics and the Struggle with Lamarckism, 1922–1929,” J. Hist. Biol., 13 (1980), 1–51, esp. p. 21. The earliest use of this argument of which I am aware occurs in Arthur M. Lewis, Evolution Social and Organic (Chicago: C. H. Kerr, 1908). Lewis writes: “If it were true that the terrible results of the degrading conditions forced upon the dwellers in the slums were transmitted to their children by heredity, until in a few generations they became fixed characters, the hope of Socialists for a regenerated society would be much more difficult to realize. In that case those unfortunate creatures would continue to act in the same discouraging way for several generations, no matter how their environment had been transformed by the corporate action of society. This much at any rate Weismann has done for us, he has scientifically destroyed that lie” (pp. 78–79).Google Scholar
  33. 33.
    See his “In Defense of Genetics”, Mod. Quart., 4 (1949), 194–202; quotation on p. 200.Google Scholar
  34. 34.
    Naomi Haldane Mitchison to J. B. S. Haldane, December 1, 1948 (Haldane Papers).Google Scholar
  35. 35.
    J. D. Bernal, remarks quoted in “The Situation in the Science of Biology; Report of a Conference Called to Discuss the Issues Raised by T. D. Lysenko's Address on Soviet Biology,” Trans. Engles Soc. (April 1949), 11.Google Scholar
  36. 36.
    Emile Burns, remarks quoted in Transactions, pp. 11–12.Google Scholar
  37. 37.
    Angus Bateman was an active anti-Lysenkoist within the party (who also wrote in defense of Lysenko for non-party audiences). He considered that none of the dozen or so party geneticists whom he knew at the time were genuine Lysenkoists; even J. L. Fyfe, author of the party pamphlet “Lysenko was Right” and whose defenses of Lysenko were particularly uncompromising, was in practice an orthodox Mendelist-Morganist plant breeder (letter of Angus Bateman to the author, November 17, 1980). Following the decision to ban “formal” genetics in the Soviet Union, Fyfe wrote that “we are forced, if we are still capable of facing facts, to conclude that this was an outstanding example of demoncracy in science.” J. L., Fyfe, “The Situation in Biological Science I”, Mod. Quart., 4 (1949), 291–295; quotation on p. 294.Google Scholar
  38. 38.
    J. B. S. Haldane, remarks quoted in Transactions, p. 9.Google Scholar
  39. 39.
    “J. B. S. Haldane's self-obituary,” recorded at University College, London, on February 20 and televised on BBC-2 after his death on December 1, 1964. Published in Listener, December 10, 1964, pp. 934–935; quotation on p. 935. Also important is an eight-page letter to M. Teich (undated, but replying to Teich's letter of October 3, 1948). It is difficult to know, however, whether this very detailed letter, which expresses considerable sympathy for some of Lysenko's scientific ideas (although characterizing them as greatly exaggerated), is an indication of Haldane's genuine beliefs or the strength of his loyalty to the party.Google Scholar
  40. 40.
    Haldane had earlier threatened to resign from the Engels Society in protest to a statement drafted on behalf of the group by Alan Morton. (It was not adopted.) Haldane to Maurice Cornforth, November 20, 1948 (Haldane Papers); also Cornforth to Bernal, January 7, 1949, expressing relief that Haldane had after all paid his dues at the previous meeting (Bernal collection). Haldane had also apparently threatened at least once to resign from the party over a nonscientific issue. See Clark, J.B.S., pp. 171–172.Google Scholar
  41. 41.
    Haldane, contribution to “The Lysenko Controversy,” p. 875.Google Scholar
  42. 42.
    Eric Ashby, “Science without Freedom?” Listener, November 4, 1948, p. 678. See also his Scientist in Russia.Google Scholar
  43. 43.
    Haldane, Transactions, pp. 8–9.Google Scholar
  44. 44.
    J. B. S. Haldane, “How Heat Upset the Barley,” Daily Worker (London), August 11, 1947, p. 4.Google Scholar
  45. 45.
    J. B. S. Haldane, “Can You Inherit Cancer?” Daily Worker (London), January 17, 1949, p. 2.Google Scholar
  46. 46.
  47. 47.
    See, for example, his article “Lysenko and Darwin,” Daily Worker (London), November 1, 1948, p. 2.Google Scholar
  48. 48.
    This formulation is taken from Edward O., Wilson et al., Life on Earth, 2nd ed. (Sunderland, Mass.: Sinauer Associates, 1978), p. 636. Reproduced by permission of the publisher.Google Scholar
  49. 49.
    For examples and a fuller discussion of this topic, see my article “Marxism, Darwinism, and the Theory of Two Sciences,” Marxist Perspectives, 2 (1979), 116–143.Google Scholar
  50. 50.
    Ronald A., Fisher, The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection (New York: Dover, 1958; orig. ed., 1930), pp. 46–47.Google Scholar
  51. 51.
    J. B. S. Haldane, “Why I Am a Cooperator,” manuscript, p. 17. (Haldane Papers.)Google Scholar
  52. 52.
    The incompatibility of Haldane's and Lysenko's remarks was noted by Eric Ashby in a letter to The Listener of November 25, 1948, quoted by Langdon-Davis in Russia Puts the Clock Back, p. 93.Google Scholar
  53. 53.
    J. B. S., Haldane, The Inequality of Man and Other Essays (London: Chatto and Windus, 1932), p. 137.Google Scholar
  54. 54.
    Loren R. Graham has discussed eugenic sentiment in Weimar Germany and the Soviet Union in the 1920s in “Science and Values: The Eugenics Movement in Germany and Russia in the 1920s,” Amer. Hist. Rev., 82 (1977), 1133Google Scholar
  55. 55.
    Other works challenging the conventional association of eugenics with the Right are: Linda, Gordon, Woman's Right: A Social History of Birth Control in America (New York: Grossman, 1976), Donald MacKenzie, Statistics in Britain (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1981), and Michael Freeden, “Eugenics and Progressive Thought: A Study in Ideological Affinity,” The Historical Journal, 22 (1979), 645–671.Google Scholar
  56. 56.
    Reported in a letter of Herbert Brewer, author of the proposal, to Joseph Needham, 1936 (Needham collection).Google Scholar
  57. 57.
    He did write in a more intellectual Marxist journal, as late as autumn 1948, that “in many countries the poor breed much quicker than the rich, even when allowance is made for their higher death-rate. Thus the valuable genes making for ability, which bring economic success to their possessors, are getting rarer, and the average intelligence of the nation is declining.” If true, asserted Haldane, the conclusion should be that wealth ought to be equalized. “Biology and Marxism,” Mod. Quart., 3 (1948), 2–11; quotation on p. 9.Google Scholar
  58. 58.
    J. B. S. Haldane, “Darwin and Slavery,” Daily Worker (London), November 14, 1949, p. 2.Google Scholar
  59. 59.
    Haldane, “Biology and Marxism,” pp. 9–10.Google Scholar
  60. 60.
    Unpublished review submitted to the Daily Worker, with a copy sent to Haldane. Bernal also wrote that he had “talked with Lysenko and seen his results, and he has impressed me as a scientist more original than any I have met for years” and that “what Langdon-Davies and his scientific backers cannot see, because they do not want to see, is the intrinsic necessity of such steps in any state that takes science seriously” (mss. in the Bernal collection).Google Scholar
  61. 61.
    J. B. S. Haldane, “Nonsense about Lysenko,” Daily Worker (London), November 9, 1949, p. 2.Google Scholar
  62. 62.
    J. B. S. Haldane, “In Defense of Genetics,” quotation on p. 202.Google Scholar
  63. 63.
    J. D., Bernal, “The Biological Controversy in the Soviet Union and Its Implications,” Mod. Quart., 4 (1949), 203–217.Google Scholar
  64. 64.
    Although Bernal publicly defended the Soviet invasion of Hungary, he was upset by it to the point of cooperating behind the scenes with the children of Michael Polanyi (his old nemesis) to aid Hungarian scientists. See his correspondence with George and Priscilla Polanyi, late spring and summer 1957 (Bernal collection). That he was even more disturbed by the invasion of Czechoslavakia is indicated by his unfinished and difficult-to-follow manuscript of September 1968, “The Doctrine of ‘Peaceful Counter-Revolution’ and Its Consequences” (Bernal collection). I am grateful to Dorothy Hodgkin for alerting me to the existence of this manuscript. For information regarding Bernal's message to the Soviet Academy of Sciences see the article “Scientific Freedom” which appeared in the Manchester Guardian of January 29, 1949, p. 4, and Bernal's response, “Science and Freedom,” of February 4, 1949, p. 4. Also relevant is a letter of Bernal to Julian Huxley, April 29, 1949 (Bernal collection).Google Scholar
  65. 65.
    Bernal, “The Biological Controversy in the Soviet Union,” p. 204. The lengths to which Bernal was willing to go in his public defense of Soviet policy is indicated by the following passage from his essay “Stalin as Scientist,” Mod. Quart., 8 (1953), 133–142. “In thinking of Stalin as the greatest figure of contemporary history we should not overlook the fact that he was at the same time a great scientist, not only in his direct contribution to social science, but, even more, in the impetus and the opportunity he gave to every branch of science and technique in the creation of the new, expanding and popular science of the Soviet Union” (p. 133). Further, “Stalin's achievement is something greater than the building up and defending of the Soviet Union, greater even than the hope for peace and progress that he gave to the whole world. It is that his thought and his example is now embodied in the lives and thoughts of hundreds of millions of men, women and children: that it has become an indissoluble part of the great human tradition. However great the changes of the next few years, and there will be great changes which he worked for and would welcome, this remains” (p. 142).Google Scholar
  66. 66.
    Bernal, from the foreword to the second edition of The World, the Flesh and the Devil, p. vi.Google Scholar
  67. 67.
    Bernal, “The Biological Controversy in the Soviet Union,” p. 206.Google Scholar
  68. 68.

Copyright information

© D. Reidel Publishing Company 1983

Authors and Affiliations

  • Diane B. Paul
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Political ScienceUniversity of MassachusettsBoston

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