Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov: a cautionary tale

Once upon a time there was a Russian scientist named Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov.

He was a botanist and geneticist in the Mendelian days before the discovery of DNA, in the 1920s and 1930s.

Vavilov wanted desperately to be non-political, because he perceived – accurately – that to be political was to be vulnerable, in those early days of the United Soviet Socialist Republics.

He did remarkable work. He established beyond much doubt that the origin of the apple tree was in Kazakhstan, and he did much other excellent work.

But Stalin preferred the work of a man named Lysenko.

Lysenko wasn’t much of a scientist, but he knew how to use politicians to advance his own career. He came up with odd theories, but when challenged, he said his challengers were “armed with foreign ideas.” He claimed Mendelian theory was bunk. On what basis? Well, none, except that Uncle Joe Stalin was his buddy.

Vavilov ended up in prison. Under torture, he told his wardens what they wanted to hear: he was an enemy of the state. He ended up dying of dysentery in a prison camp in 1943.

If you are a Republican, you may hear this story as a defense of the brave scientists who have attacked climate change and shale oil and conservation. You probably see those defiant scientists who argue against the rest as Vavilov.

For me, and for Democrats in general I think, Vavilov is something else. He is Science personified. He is the method by which we try to discover what’s going on in nature. He is not political. He tells the truth, whatever it turns out to be, and whether or not it supports our political viewpoints.

What’s the end of the story?

Well, the whole Lysenko thing cost the USSR much time and trouble, since they were out of touch with the rest of the world’s scientific research.

Now, I ask you: is an American population, brought up on creationism and intelligent design, ready to do scientific work in the world community?

You tell me.



About Loren Williams
Gay, partnered, living in Providence, working at a local university. Loves: books, movies, TV. Comments and recriminations can be sent to

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