Science is social, but when political ideology takes precedence over experimental evidence the results can be fatal.

The United States is in the midst of a partisan political battle over science. Whether the issue is evolution, global warming, stem cell research, or HPV vaccines, conservative politicians either disregard the evidence that would undermine their position or remain proudly ignorant of scientific reality. For example, in the lead up to the mid-term elections, Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (VA-7) singled out the National Science Foundation as part of his YouCut Citizen Review that asked conservative voters to sift through a list of already approved federal science grants and contact their Congressperson about «wasteful spending that should be cut.» This, in addition to the ongoing battles to stop the teaching of evolution, and prevent the evidence of global warming from informing energy policy, has made science the subject of political attacks today more than during any other period in U.S. history.

The goal, as Republican strategist Frank Luntz famously wrote in a leaked memo, is entirely ideological. «There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science,» he wrote, referring to global warming. «A compelling story, even if factually inaccurate, can be more emotionally compelling than a dry recitation of the truth.» This is the backdrop to the so-called «Climategate» scandal in which hacked e-mails written by climate scientists became the justification for right-wing attacks upon, not only the science they rejected, but also the integrity of the scientists themselves.

History offers compelling examples of what can go wrong when science is sidelined in favor of political ambition. Perhaps the most extreme case would be that of the Soviet Union where biologists, in particular, were censored, arrested, or even executed because their evidence contradicted the official Party line. Under the influence of the charismatic agronomist Trofim Lysenko, who claimed that genetics was a fraud and that environment alone influenced heredity, Russian biology became stunted for a generation. His promise of unprecedented agricultural yields coincided with a Soviet ideology that believed human nature could be moulded to support the interests of the state. Those scientists who challenged the results of his highly flawed experiments, particularly after the August, 1948 session of VASKhNIL (the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences), were singled out as critics not only of Lysenkoism but of Soviet ideology itself.

Eduard Izrailevich Kolchinsky grew up in the generation after Lysenko’s downfall and has worked for more than forty years to bring the previously censored history of evolutionary biology to light in his native Russia. Born on September 16, 1944, at the same time that Allied forces were entering Germany in World War II, Kolchinsky has been fascinated with the intersection between biology and politics throughout his career. Receiving his PhDs in Philosophy of Biology and the History of Science, his first book, The Evolution of Evolution (1977) co-written with Kirill Zavadsky, became highly influential and continues to be cited to this day. Among Kolchinsky’s many international honors he was recently invited to be a Fellow in the Linnaean Society of London. He is currently the director of the St. Petersburg branch of the Institute for the History of Science and Technology (IHST) in the Russian Academy of Sciences as well as a professor of Philsophy at St. Petersburg State University.

I recently arrived in Russia to begin my fellowship with the Institute and to present my research at an international conference being held later this week. I had the opportunity earlier to sit down with Professor Kolchinsky—along with Marina Loskutova, IHST senior researcher, who assisted with translation—to ask him about the dangers of mixing science with politics and what lessons can be learned by exploring this previously unknown history of the Soviet Union.

Eric Michael Johnson: Readers of Scientific American are certain to have an idea of what it was like to live in the Soviet Union. Some of these ideas may be accurate, others not. But few will have any idea about what it was like to be an evolutionary scientist during the Soviet period. What were the major issues that scientists had to deal with then and what, in your opinion, are the greatest misconceptions about this time?

Eduard Kolchinsky: In 1972 the great American evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr came to the Soviet Union to visit our Institute and spoke with me as well as many of the people who used to work here. He was very interested in the fact that there was a group in St. Petersburg who was studying evolutionary science. The head of the department at the time was Kirill Zavadsky—he was also my PhD advisor—and Mayr specifically requested to meet with the junior scholars alone without Zavadsky present. He wanted us to talk freely without any possible influence.

After Mayr left he sent a letter to the Russian Academy of Sciences thanking them for organizing the reception and in it he wrote, “I’m particularly stunned and I marvel at the courage of Zavadsky and many others in the Soviet Union who manage to remain faithful to evolutionary theory.” When we learned about this remark we laughed a lot. In 1972 you did not need any special courage to be an evolutionist in the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was a very long period in history and the relationship between the Communist Party apparatus and scientific research was very different in the latter half of the 20th century than it was during the first half. The Party attitude towards Darwinism also changed dramatically. It was our teachers who bore the burden of fighting for Darwinism.

Johnson: What were some of the major changes that you witnessed?

Kolchinsky: I knew a researcher who spent several years of his life in the gulag concentration camps after the August, 1948 session of VASKhNIL because he challenged Lysenko’s views on heredity. That never applied to me. The biggest problem for me was that I had to learn biology using textbooks written by Lysenkoists that described genetics as a whore of imperialism. But after Khrushchev was dismissed as the First Secretary of the Communist Party in 1964 there was a flood of information about biology, genetics, and Darwinism, all of which quickly became the cutting edge of science. So, for me, the main problem was changing my own mental perception and reading widely about previously censored topics in philosophy and biology.

Johnson: In my own scientific training I learned that the doctrine of science is to be highly critical and to interrogate your own assumptions. Was that encouraged even under Soviet science?

Kolchinksy: Zavadsky was the founder of a field called Historical Critical Studies in Biology, though he was more of a biologist than a historian. He certainly encouraged critical thinking and, as for myself, I’ve been naturally critical of everything. There was a period of about 30 years, from the 1930s to the 1960s, where very few people in the Soviet Union knew what evolutionary theory meant and regarded it as a bourgeois misconception. Afterwards, for historians of science in my generation, it was very important to immediately introduce this forgotten history to biologists and explain what had already been done so that it could be made relevant for current research.

Johnson: Did you ever feel pressure to present the history of biology in a certain direction?

Kolchinksy: There was some pressure. You have to understand that, even after the downfall of Lysenko, most of his supporters retained their positions. Additionally, many of his students and the people who were taught using his textbooks were now the heads of departments. So, for example, when I was trying to publish a paper that summarized my doctoral dissertation for the journal Istoriko-biologicheskie issledovaniya [Studies in the History of Biology], these were the people evaluating it. You can’t say they refused to publish it, but they did everything they could to create delays. They kept it at the editorial board where it was passed back and forth multiple times, but they never agreed to publish it. This went on for six years. Finally, when my dissertation was published as a book, they couldn’t justify holding it back any longer and immediately published it.

But I think the most serious case of pressure I ever received came later when I was preparing an edited volume under the title The Development of Evolutionary Theory in the U.S.S.R. [1983] that covered the period from 1917 through the 1970s. I was told I was not supposed to mention Nikolay Timofeev-Ressovsky because he had emigrated to Germany, and I could not write about Raisa Berg because she had emigrated to the United States. I was also told there should be a more dialectical materialist perspective. This was the sort of pressure I received.

Johnson: How did you maintain your independence as a scholar under these conditions?

Kolchinksy: I always find that if someone puts pressure on you, you can find ways to put pressure on them. In this case I used the academic community to get support for my own position. All of the people in the publishing houses and the State service who were objecting to my position were primarily looking out for their own careers. But they were also afraid of being perceived as ridiculous or old fashioned. At one point near the end of this process the head of the publishing house requested to see me. By this time there had been five or six proofs and they’d already invested a great deal of time and money into the project.

“We have to publish your book,” he told me. “If we don’t publish we’ll have to explain why we accepted it in the first place. This will look very bad for us and we could lose our salaries, so it’s not an option. But we need some big name that will support you. Please bring me a favorable review of the book signed by the Vice-President of the Academy of Sciences of the U.S.S.R., Yuri Ovchinnikov.”

This was an outrageous request. I boldly replied that, to my knowledge, Ovchinnikov was not in the country at the moment so I could not arrange a meeting. But I could get a statement of support from the head of the Zoological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Orest Scarlato. I saw that the man was feverishly thinking about this.

“Scarlato?” he said. “I’m not so sure.”

I looked him in the eye and said that Scarlato had to be approved by the Central Committee of the Communist Party in order to become head of the Institute. Did he not trust the Party’s decision? The man’s attitude changed immediately.

“Oh, yeah, Scarlato, sure,” he said. “That’s fine.”

Scarlato was a decent man. He had done very little research on evolutionary theory, but he agreed to sign the letter that we prepared. After that, the book was published.

Johnson: In your most recent book, Biology in Germany and the U.S.S.R., you do a comparison of evolutionary biology in these two countries during periods of social and political crisis: the concurrent rise of Nazism and Sovietism. In what ways did ruling elites see evolutionary biology as a political issue that they had to control?

Kolchinsky: The political elites were evolving. Early leaders in the Soviet Union, like TrotskyBukharin, and Lenin believed that dialectical materialism had to be grounded with Darwinism as its foundation. But in Darwinism they were only looking for statements that would bring credibility to their political ideas. Later on the idea emerged in the Soviet Union that there should be a proletarian science with its own theory of biology. They felt that science, intrinsically, always has a class background and that it therefore cannot be classless. They thought there should be a proletarian science in the Soviet Union and bourgeois science elsewhere. And, because they thought science had a class basis, they believed that all science had to be controlled by the State, not just biology.

Johnson: This is the background that led to the rejection of Mendelian genetics in favor of Lysenko’s flawed ideas about the inheritance of acquired characteristics. But it also ultimately led to his downfall, did it not?

Kolchinsky: Yes, at a certain point Stalin felt he was losing control over biology and that Lysenko was overshadowing him. At this point he stated very clearly that, “We should teach Comrade Lysenko how to appreciate criticism.” This statement immediately opened the doors to allow criticism of Lysenko. Once this started scientists were not only criticizing Lysenko, but also the entire Communist Party approach to the supervision of science. However, in general, the issue was not so much about control. Each individual Party bureaucrat, whether they were on editorial boards or in various scientific agencies, were scared that they might miss something that their superiors would object to and it could hurt their careers. You have to realize that Khrushchev was probably the last leader of the U.S.S.R who sincerely believed it was a realistic task to build communism in this country. After that they were interested in the stability of the system but were not interested in communism as such. It was more about petty bureaucrats trying to hold on to their positions.

Johnson: The Japanese have a phrase, “death by a thousand cuts.” In many ways it sounds like the institutional barriers put in place by the Soviet bureaucrats were doing this to science in Russia.

Kolchinsky: Yes. It was a kind of decomposition, a gradual decomposition of the system. We used to have a joke: communism is like a horizon. But what is a horizon? It’s a line you’re trying to reach but that is always somewhere far ahead of you. People wanted to live their daily lives right now.

Johnson: Is science ideologically pure? Why did biologists collaborate with this regime?

Kolchinsky: Everyone collaborated. It was not only about biologists. Chemists as well as physicists participated in the creation of chemical and nuclear weapons.

Johnson: Let me change that to, why did scientists collaborate more generally?

Kolchinsky: Because the regime provided funding. It was all about funding for science. Right now we are working on a book, the collected works of Mikhail Lomonosov. In the eighteenth century naturalists in Russia looked for patronage in the Royal courts and in the twentieth century they were looking for support from the radical regimes that existed. Essentially, it’s all very simple. Scientists want to satisfy their own curiosity. They need money for their research so they look for funding. How they get it depends on the government and the ways that public money is channeled. So this issue about collaboration with a regime, it’s ultimately not about scientists. It’s about the way public money functions and the interests of government in a particular historical circumstance.

Scientists are remarkably cunning. For example, in the United States during the Cold War era, money went into defense research and scientists were very skillful in using this language to receive grants. Everyone wanted to get something from the huge allocation of resources that was going towards defense. Scientists are cynicists and science is a deeply cynical enterprise. The ultimate thing that scientists want is to satisfy their own curiosity. Of course, later on they will use nice words to explain that it serves the public interest or that it will solve problems that plague all of humankind.

Johnson: Prior to the Bolshevik Revolution Russia was a world leader in biology. There were two Russian scientists, Ivan Pavlov and Ilya Mechnikov, who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine but no Russian biologists have won since (even though they have in chemistry and physics). Why do you think this is?

Kolchinsky: You have to realize first of all that, for example in the Unites States, science was largely a private enterprise. The federal and state governments did not invest much into science. Science advanced through various associations or by researchers at private universities. Benjamin Franklin was a statesman who was primarily interested in public affairs and journalism, but as a kind of fireside entertainment he conducted research on electricity. It was only in the late 19th century in the United States that you could talk about certain grants from the federal government that promoted science.

However, from its inception—starting with Peter the Great—science in Russia has always been a state affair. In the 18th century we had no secondary schools and no universities, but we already had the Academy of Sciences and it was one of the leading academies in Europe. Of course, the clerics never liked it. They would insist that a certain scientific book be burned but Peter would respond by saying, “We’ll publish a second edition.” Therefore, in Russia, science developed as the result of government.

In 1908 Ilya Mechnikov received the Nobel Prize for his research that was done here in St. Petersburg, but he got it after he was already working in Paris. In order to get the Nobel Prize you need to be known internationally. You need to have friends internationally, if not among the Nobel committee at least among the nominees. For example, I will occasionally get a request from some journal of which I’m on the editorial board to nominate someone for an award. Immediately I will start thinking of people that I know and who are friends of mine. Of course, there are always many other people involved in these decisions so that, overall, there is a kind of statistical leveling. But it’s always about who knows who.

But in the 1920s the Iron Curtain really descended on Russia and by the following decade scientists had no opportunity to go abroad. Of course they had access to books and publications, but that’s not enough. You need to have personal contacts. I would say that it was ultimately the government of the Soviet Union who was most responsible for the fact that we were not awarded any Nobel prizes in biology after 1917.

Johnson: American scientists often say that science is a social activity. From what I’m hearing it sounds like St. Petersburg’s proximity to Europe early on and the free flow of ideas allowed for a thriving scientific culture. But with the advance of the Soviet period international communication was closed off and ultimately science was sacrificed. Would you agree with that interpretation?

Kolchinsky: To a great extent, yes. You have to realize that from 1929 onwards any connection with foreigners was looked on with suspicion. By 1937 anyone that had some kind of international connections seriously risked being executed or sent to the camps. Even when I was defending my candidate dissertation I heard as a kind of criticism that I had far too many foreign books cited in my work. I received questions like, do you really read German and English and what for?

Johnson: What would you consider to be the greatest overlooked discoveries in the history of Russian biology?

Kolchinsky: It is very difficult to answer because our real strength is not the discoveries per se, but the ideas that have been developed here. The lack of money for equipment means that people have to think carefully before carrying out an experiment. Very often we are only allowed two hours for something that would require two months in the West. I think the greatest achievement of Russian biology is Sergei Winogradsky’s discovery of chemoautotrophy. This is one of the most important biological discoveries of the twentieth century, other than the deciphering of DNA. Other than that, I would perhaps add Aleksandr Ugolev’s discovery of membrane digestion. I used to be a friend of Ugolev during his final years, so I know the history of how he was nominated for a Nobel Prize. I would say that the Soviet authorities did everything that they possibly could to prevent Russian scientists from receiving this honor. Hitler directly forbade scientists from receiving a Nobel Prize during the Nazi period but the Soviet Union was only different in form, not in substance. They refused to accept the idea that Soviet scientists could be awarded an important prize by some external authority, not by them. They felt that only the Soviet state had the authority to decide who was a great scientist and who wasn’t.

Johnson: From your vantage as a historian, what do you see as the major obstacles to be overcome for Russian biology today?

Kolchinsky: I think the first obstacle is that people don’t think they need science in Russia nowadays. That’s the main obstacle. Our political elites think that they have enough oil and gas for the next few decades, so they’re not interested in science. In their view it’s easier to just buy the results of research already available in the West rather than work to reorganize the research units destroyed in the 1990s.

Another problem is that, after the end of the Soviet period in the 90s, many young researchers emigrated to the West looking for the opportunity to pursue their research. This left a large generation gap in Russian science. Young students need to be taught by young scientists so there are points in common between a student and their mentor. Of course, I think the gap between the academic community here and in the West is increasing. In the Soviet days we certainly had problems, but we could still get access to all of the current literature published in the West. It was no problem. But now libraries have no money for buying books or subscribing to journals. Even electronic subscriptions are prohibitively expensive. For many researchers the only option is to actually go there and make copies, or ask your friends to send them to you. But it’s difficult to ask your friends all the time.

But of all the things I’ve mentioned, I think the critical one is that no one thinks they need science. I would like to say that we are the most educated society in the world, but I have to admit that the Russian people—and the Russian intelligentsia, in particular—are very keen on believing whatever stupidity you can concoct. Personally, I’m tired of arguing with idiots about the influence of astrology and its influence over their life.

Johnson: This is an ongoing problem where I’m from as well. Perhaps the differences between Russia and the United States are not as large as people think.

Kolchinsky: [Laughs.]

Johnson: Professor Kolchinsky, I want to thank you for taking the time to talk with me today.

Kolchinsky: I enjoyed our conversation. If it helps to improve the understanding between our two countries, I would be delighted.

Johnson: It certainly improved my understanding.