Bernard Shaw

The Lysenko Muddle

Source: Labour Monthly January, 1949;
Transcribed: Sally Ryan, May, 2002.

The Lysenko controversy has been honored in The Times by a special article. To anyone who knows the ropes the rumpus is laughable. Lysenko is a neo-Lamarckian who believes that acquired characteristics are inherited, in flat contradiction to the neo Darwinist Weismann, who denied that any acquired characteristic can be inherited, and was so fanatically Determinist that he maintained that every act of a living creature was imposed on it by external circumstances, and could not be prevented or initiated or forwarded by any legislature or any purpose or desire or volition of its living agents. As Butler had put it to Darwin, Determinism 'banishes mind from the universe.' Call it Fatalism and it becomes plain at once that it is a doctrine that no State can tolerate, least of all a Socialist State, in which every citizen shall aim at altering circumstances for the better purposely and conscientiously, and no criminal nor militant reactionary can be excused on the ground that his actions are not his own but the operation of external natural forces predetermined from the beginning of the world and entirely beyond his control or prevention. There is not a civilized country on earth which does not hold its citizens responsible for their conduct, persecuting ruthlessly all who act too irresponsibly, and in extreme cases certifying them as madmen and locking them up.

Lysenko is no Determinist. Following up Michurin's agricultural experiments he found that it is possible to extend the area of soil cultivation by breeding strains of wheat that flourish in a sub-Arctic climate, and transmit this acquired characteristic to its seed. This hard fact nullified Weismann and his Determinism, as facts are continually nullifying paper theories and hypotheses.

Lysenko is not the first in the field. Samuel Butler realised 80 years age the enormity of the Fatalism inherent in Darwinism, though Darwin, a Unitarian, was not a Darwinist, but a naturalist whose specialty was the semblance of evolution produced by what he called Natural Selection. Butler, in two books entitled Life and Habit and Luck or Cunning? fought Darwin tooth and nail.

Butler was followed in 1906 by myself. After a careful observation of my own acquired habits I pointed out, in the course of a lecture on Darwin to the Fabian Society, that evolution means that all habits are inherited. I cited the fact that as breathing is an inborn habit, and speaking, like skating and bicycling, one which every generation has to acquire, proves that habits are acquired by imperceptible increments at each generation, the inborn habits being those already fully acquired, and the rest only in process of acquirement.

I was followed by Bergson, who supplemented Butler's views and mine with a philosophy of our Creative Evolution.

After Bergson, Weismannism lost its stranglehold on the scientific world. Scott Haldane (father of J.B.S.), Needham, and in Russia Michurin and Lysenko, broke away from Fatalism, not polemically, but by simply ignoring it.

And now comes the joke. Fatalism is now dropped or certified as Materialism gone mad. Creative Evolution is basically Vitalist, and, as such, mystical, intuitive, irrational, poetic, passionate, religious, and catholic; for neither Lamarck nor Butler nor I nor Bergson nor Lysenko nor anyone else can account rationally for the Life Force, the Evolutionary Appetite, the Elan Vital, the Divine Providence (alias Will of God), or the martyrdoms that are the seed of Communism. It has just to be accepted as a so far inexplicable natural fact.

Weismannism, dismissing this force as an illusion produced by Darwinian Natural Selection, is soulless, totally rationalist, fatalist, anarchist, mechanist, and arch-materialist. It immobilises its votaries morally, driving Lysenko to the extremity of demanding its persecution as a Voodoo.

Lysenko is on the right side as a Vitalist; but the situation is confused by the purely verbal snag that Marx called his philosophy Dialectical Materialism. Now in Russia Marx is a Pontif; and all scientists who do not call themselves Materialists must be persecuted. Accordingly, Lysenko has to pretend that he is a Materialist when he is in fact a Vitalist; and thus muddles us ludicrously. Marxism seems to have gone as mad as Weismannism; and it is no longer surprising that Marx had to insist that he was not a Marxist.

The fault is wholly that of the detestable Hegelian jargon which hampered and bothered the Socialist movement in the eighteen sixties, and is mere abracadabra in England.

We have a parallel mix-up at home. In the Church of England no candidate for ordination can be inducted to a living unless when catechized by the Bishop he tells the flat lie, which the Bishop knows to be a lie, that he believes without mental reservations everything in The Bible literally. His justification is that as he will not be allowed to exercise his vocation without going through this imposture, he does it under duress and is therefore not morally responsible for it. Lysenko has to tell the flat lie that he is a Materialist, and can make the same excuse for what it is worth. Meanwhile it is our business not to let this bogus controversy be used as a red herring to split us into two factions squabbling about nothing. The trick is an old one: Divide and Govern.

Anyone can be a good Christian without believing that Joshua stopped the sun, or Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. So also is it possible to be a Socialist without, like Engels, making Das Kapital 'the Bible of the working class,' or accepting Marx's version of the exploded capitalist theory of value or his attempt to account for Surplus Value by an analysis of the circulation of commodities that is now tiresome nonsense. He knew nothing of the theory of rent and interest; and his English translators, like those of Wagner, made a mess of the German philosophic lingo, not having the literary genius of Carlyle, who assimilated it superbly. If only they had read the Jacobean Bible and learnt from it how to write English as Bunyan did, Marx would not have had to wait twenty-five years for his doctrine to be put into plain English by Hyndman, Morris and the Fabians. By that time he was dead.


P.S. Sir Henry Dale's resignation of his membership of the Soviet Academy of Science on the Lysenko issue is entirely conscientious and honorable in intention. But the real issue is between the claim of the scientific professions to be exempted from all legal restraint in the pursuit of knowledge, and the duty of the State to control it in the general interest as it controls ail other pursuits. To my old question 'May you boil your mother to ascertain at what temperature a mature woman will die?' the police have a decisive counter in the gallows. To Lysenko's question 'Can the State tolerate a doctrine that makes every citizen the irresponsible agent of inevitable Natural Selection?' the reply is a short No. The Yes implied by Sir Henry Dale's resignation is a hangover from the faith of Adam Smith, who believed that God interferes continually in human affairs, overruling them to a divine purpose no matter how selfishly they are conducted by their human agents. Experience has not borne this faith out. Laissez-faire is dead. Sir Henry should think this out.

My long political experience has taught me that what we are hardest up against is not general ignorance of Communism and all the rival paper Isms, but of the status quo, our notions of which are so fantastically Utopian that we daily reproach Russians and foreigners in general for practices and institutions and codes that are in full blast here, and in fact mostly originated in Merry England. (World Copyright).