Socialist science in the 20th century
A review of: Stalin and the Scientists: A history of triumph and tragedy 1905–1953 by Simon Ings
Faber & Faber, London, UK, 2016
CMI has often dispelled the public perception of white-coated scientists dispassionately and objectively following the science where it leads. Presuppositional bias toward philosophical naturalism drives the interpretation of data that seems to support deep-time cosmology and evolution as an explanation of origins. The same can be said of a commitment to the divine inspiration of the Bible, which biases creation scientists toward a supernatural, six-day creation interpretation of the origins of the universe.
It is often pointed out, when it comes to origins, outside of the direct reach of the scientific method of experiment and observation, that those involved in historical science are compelled to follow interpretations of the evidence that fit their preferred authority and narrative of existence. What is sometimes missed, though, is that scientists in other disciplines, including the so-called ‘hard sciences’, are made of the same stuff as their colleagues and mankind in general. As fallen children of Adam, we are all by nature prone to selective bias toward our preferred outcomes and narratives.
We seem to be wired for bias. The question is whether our bias is towards the truth or deception.
Stalin and the Scientists is a record of how sometimes brilliant, sometimes hack scientists were led to scientific conclusions increasingly driven by ideology, fear, political affiliation, peer pressure, self-preservation, prestige, and the fringe benefits of acquiescence to the zeitgeist of Stalin’s Russia under the Communist Soviet Union.
Russia has a history of some brilliant scientists. Men like Dmitry Mendeleev (p. 57), the chemist and inventor who formulated the Periodic Law by which to describe the elements, and substantially developed the Periodic Table of Elements. That heritage was increasingly squandered in 20th-century Soviet Russia as ideological and political considerations took precedence over the search for truth as the driving force of ‘science’. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, increasingly centralized control ensured that Russian science could at once be the most funded by GDP, have the most scientists by population, and at the same time become the ‘laughing stock of the intellectual world’ (p. xv). These non-scientific agendas sometimes were set aside when pragmatic circumstances dictated, such as in the race against the West for the USSR to develop nuclear weapons. Ideological conformity was not required of those working on the program, Stalin tellingly saying to his head of the NKVD Lavrentiy Beria, “Leave them in peace. We can always shoot them later” (p. 392).
Ideology trumps pure science
Just as a biblical worldview underpinned the development of Western science, the antithetical worldview of materialism led to its demise in Soviet Russia. The founders of Communism—Marx and Engels—left an indelible ideological stain on Soviet science that continues today in much of Western science as that worldview becomes dominant. The dialectical materialism of Friedrich Engels required and, by its own philosophy, demanded that all the scientific and societal disciplines conform to a unified ‘science of everything’ (p. xvi). Of course, they believed this would bring about a “huge benefit for mankind”.
“The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’.” And no matter how brilliant and qualified the atheist, the fruit will ultimately be a poisoned apple. By definition, an atheist (including the writer of the book, based on many of his observations) has to ‘explain’ everything by natural, material causes, even “things like love, and grief, and memory, and the colour green” (p. 28). This, of course, gives rise to the ‘scientific government’ of Karl Marx, who believed that “it might be possible to extend the natural sciences into all spheres of life.” The ‘scientific government’ (p. 29) that would inevitably lead to a world-dominating Soviet utopia. This is scientism, religion masquerading as science; a religion set free from any of the metaphysical constraints and values of traditional theism. Soviet politicians and, increasingly, their scientists believed that the Communist revolution would create a “city of science, a series of temples where each scholar is a priest who is free to serve his god” (p. 426) (i.e. the god of philosophical materialism).
Ironically, having exhaustively documented the abject failure of Russian science to achieve this goal, the author ascribes that failure not solely to the ideology itself, but partly to historical timing and the failings of individual men and women, and mostly to “the failure of the sciences themselves to cohere into a single, coherent discipline that politics might wield” (p. 426). His is still the religious scientism of the progressive mind, the faith that a utopia is still possible with enough concentration of resources, thought, and effort.
Science in Russia became a tool to serve the revolution and the government spawned by that revolution. “Philosophy and all other branches of theory must be refashioned to be of immediate service to the revolution” (p. 191).
Like any religion, ‘scientism’ requires an enemy, which was ‘Western science’ (p. 381), an omniscient authority figure (in the absence of God), and a loyal priesthood. ‘Self-criticism’ became a regular ritual of the doubting scientific congregants (p. 380).
Lenin saw himself as a ‘mental athlete’; his brain was preserved and studied after his death, which of course confirmed his own estimation of himself (p. 137). But it was Stalin who took this mantle of infallibility to absurd depths. He regarded himself as the ‘Great Scientist’ and was instrumental in reviewing and editing numerous scientific speeches and articles (p. 379), as well as in the destruction of dissenting scientists or the elevation of those that conformed to his ideology of the ‘scientific priesthood’ (p. 245). He established the Stalin Prize for scientific research and was elected by the Academy of Sciences as an honorary member. They flattered Stalin by calling him ‘The Coryphaeus of Science’ (p. 259; Coryphaeus was the chorus leader in Classical Greek drama who spoke on behalf of everyone).
The author shows how this cultish elevation of an individual who “dreamt of one day plucking fruit from Arctic lemon trees” (p. 351) actually oversaw the destruction of Russian science.
As an anti-god ideology, Marxism demanded material explanations, rejected the distinction between mind and matter (p. 394), and denied individualism in favour of the collective, leading to cruelty and death on a massive scale. It was ethically unconstrained, and as there was no ownership, resources had no value, leading to devastating environmental degradation where “energy and materials were used without regard for waste or loss” (p. 431).
In light of Stalin’s atheism, his death, as described by his daughter Svetlana, is instructive:
“At what seemed like the very last moment he suddenly opened his eyes and cast a glance over everyone in the room. It was a terrible glance, insane, or perhaps angry and full of fear and death” (p. 398).
Lamarck vs Mendel
The book traces numerous scientists in diverse disciplines from rocketry to cybernetics to physics. But there is a recurring theme throughout the book, that of the biological sciences. As a country with a history of regular and devastating famines, it is understandable that biology and the overlapping fields of agronomy, farming, animal husbandry, and breeding would be prioritized in Russian science. But even here, ideology was sacrosanct and caused scientists to follow rabbit trails, often to the detriment of feeding the people, and consuming vast resources.
In the biological sciences there were two main streams of thought in the early 20th century. The first was that of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, the 19th-century scientist who believed that characteristics developed during the life of a living organism, such as increased strength, size, or speed, could be passed on by inheritance to the next generation. The theory is summarized by the phrase “inheritance of acquired characteristics”. Charles Darwin himself toyed with Lamarckian ideas to explain the evolution of life.
The model of inheritance increasingly confirmed and accepted in the Western world at the time, though, was that of the 19th-century Augustinian friar Gregor Mendel. Mendel, through his famous experiments with the growing of peas, developed a theory of genetic ‘units of heredity’, where characteristics such as size, colour, and taste varied from one generation to the next within fixed, mathematical bounds of the genes of the previous generation. This implied that a fixed set of cards was dealt to mankind, with place for shuffling of those cards, but very little room for continuous development and improvement. In short, the implication of genetic inheritance confirmed Mendel’s belief and stoked Marxist fears of a creator.
It is obvious, then, why Lamarck’s ideas would have appealed to an ideology of continuous dialectical improvement, beginning with the imperfect and leading to ever-greater progression without the need for God. If this process could be harnessed, it was seen by Marxist ideologues and Bolshevik scientists as a means to the cure of diseases within one generation (p. 118), the improvement of “people’s physical and mental well-being within a single generation” (p. 117), and the inheritance of ‘acquired behaviours’ (p. 126) set by Marxist technocrats by future generations. This would establish the Bolsheviks as ‘captains of the future’ (p. 121). In the words of one of the influential Russian scientists of the time, they would be in charge of a world where “all living nature will live, thrive, and die at none other than the will of man and according to his designs” (p. 194). It would enable Russian scientists to give Stalin his Arctic lemon trees.
And so Mendelian genetics was vehemently rejected for these ideological reasons, as well as that it was believed to be of ‘foreign provenance’ (p. 193) as opposed to Soviet Russian. Of course, Western scientists obligated to materialism were also presented with the teleological implications of fairly rigid genetic boundaries. In the 1930s, the Darwinian Synthesis was developed that sought to discard these genetic restraints by positing natural selection of random genetic mutations as the drivers of evolution. This is a theory that almost 100 years later has a paucity of supporting evidence but is clung to desperately by evolutionary scientists in the absence of any other suitable mechanism to explain life without God.
But even this Neo-Darwinian theory was unsatisfactory to the Marxist as it implied slow, random, undirected processes, which are never acceptable to the impatient ‘Progressive’ mind.
“Stalin was himself a totally dedicated and self-declared Lamarckian” (p. 190). His ‘will to power’ mentality assured him “that oaks and other deciduous trees, if planted as seeds, would adapt to the most hostile conditions, flourishing in the dry steppe, and in the salty, semi-arid wildernesses near the Caspian Sea” (p. 190). And he would not allow any reticent scientists to stand in his way.
Another dominant ideology of the time that appealed to the materialist mind was that of eugenics. Married to Malthusian ideas of limited resources for a growing population, the Russian scientist Nikolai Koltsov believed that
“Eugenics has before it a high ideal which also gives meaning to life and is worthy of sacrifices; the creation, through conscious work by many generations, of a human being of a higher type, a powerful ruler of nature and creator of life. Eugenics is the religion of the future and it awaits its prophets” (p. 142).
The Bolshevik Leon Trotsky prophesied that eugenics would “create a higher socio-biological type, an Ubermensch if you will” (p. 418).
These ideas appealed to
“… many great figures of Soviet biology queuing up to endorse collectivisation—a movement that starved millions to death and was used quite deliberately as a weapon to obliterate an entire class of moderately well-off peasant, decimate the Ukraine, Russia’s troublesome satellite, and subjugate the Russian countryside” (i.e. the Holodomor, murder by starvation, p. 203; figure 1).
This disdain for the innate value of human life also encouraged such bizarre experiments as efforts to cross-breed a human being with a chimpanzee. In collaboration with the American biologist Raymond Pearl, the world-renowned Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov’s work was seen as essential for materialism, as success would “become a decisive blow to religious teachings” (p. 156), in the view of Lev Fridrichson of the Agricultural Commissariat. Ivanov’s initial attempts were, of course, conducted away from the public eye in Africa; a ‘useful’ laboratory, even today, for experiments of dubious value.
In a totalitarian society under the brutal Stalin, terror was, of course, an obvious tool to force compliance among any recalcitrant scientists to conform their disciplines to Marxian ideology. Scientists were regularly killed by firing squad (p. 281), and large numbers (along with millions of Soviet citizens) were sent to penal gulags (p. 238), some of which became scientific prison camps where scientists were forced to work on pet projects of the political elite. This strategy was also driven by a desire to industrialize the vast, empty space of Siberia (p. 312).
But there were many other effective methods to manipulate compliance among the scientific community. These methods echo in an eerily familiar manner today. Even in Communist Russia, monetary ‘fringe benefits’ were used to encourage enthusiastic support of the diktats of the ruling class by scientists. Salaries and funding were largely determined by political usefulness (pp. 93, 96, 97), and cars (p. 372) and mansions (p. 291), and even champagne imported to treat a health condition (p. 374), given to scientific comrades valued by their political patrons.
Scientists could be removed or restored to scientific institutions and associations on a whim (p. 111). Out-of-favour scientists would be labelled as ‘counter-revolutionary’, ‘reactionary’, ‘fascist’ (p. 284), and ‘bourgeois collaborators’ (p. 362). Honest scientists who raised objections were demonized (p. 341). Sackings were commonplace, with capable scientists left providing for themselves as a gardener or ‘ballroom pianist at a club’ (p. 369). Dissent was psychologized and dissenters placed in psychiatric hospitals, like the biologist Zhores Medvedev, who was diagnosed as schizophrenic for working in the disparate fields of biology and political science (p. 428). Scientists persisting in genetic studies of fruit flies brought in from America were forced to “revise their work and cease their ‘fawning and servility before foreign pseudo-science’” (p. 368). India ink was used to erase the names of famous geneticists (Mendelian) from books where they were mentioned (p. 368) in the library of the Geographical Society. A professor of plant physiology at Moscow University who refused to kowtow to the ‘settled science’ of the day was exiled from Moscow. He wandered jobless until he shot himself in 1951 (p. 369). Medical students were exposed to more ideological than medical studies (p. 429).
This environment was devastating for Russian science. Pride and narcissism carried scientific yes-men into influential positions (p. 215) and fostered a propaganda of ignored reality in science (p. 235).
“Scientific honesty is difficult to achieve” (p. 224), and in such an environment rampant scientific fraud was inevitable and claims increasingly exaggerated and fantastical. Olga Lepeshinskaya, winner of the Stalin Prize, entranced by the mystical idea of ‘vital substance’, claimed at her prize giving, with filmed ‘proof’, to have caused living cells to emerge from non-cellular materials. “Actually, she had filmed the death and decomposition of cells, then ran the film backward through the projector” (p. 381). No one at the presentation said a word to contradict such obvious fraud and she was hailed in poems and plays as the “author of the greatest biological discovery of all time” (p. 382).
No-one epitomized this scientific clown show more than the infamous, barefoot, largely self-taught Trofim Lysenko. His experiments with crop plants, including hybridization, vernalization, and acclimatization, and the publicity generated by Soviet propaganda, led him to regard himself as “a new Messiah of biological science” (p. 207). Disdainful of Mendelian genetics, he stated:
“In order to obtain a certain result, you must want to obtain precisely that result; if you want to obtain a certain result, you will obtain it … . I need only such people as will obtain the results I need” (p. 290).
His Lamarckian fervour made him a favourite with Stalin and led him to such ‘amazing’ results as “the case of the hornbeam tree that had been persuaded to turn into a hazelnut” (p. 409), which he reported in his own journal, Agrobiology, in 1952. In reality, “the branch everyone was getting so excited about had actually been grafted into the fork of the hornbeam” (p. 409).
Real and claimed ‘achievements’ of Russian science were trumpeted to the masses by a compliant press and film media (pp. 124, 241), and the courts were even used as a “new and effective form of the re-education of the intelligentsia” (p. 349). Set to music by Shostakovich, the propaganda film Michurin has the hero wave a flower under the noses of two fat American capitalist professors trying to bribe him, and claim that his flower is a hybrid of violet and lily. He says, “That’s the trouble with Mendelians, they can’t explain hybrids!” This leads the capitalists to withdraw defeatedly muttering and cursing (p. 386).
Much of the propaganda portrayed the chief scientist Stalin hovering benevolently over all the wonderful scientific achievements (figure 2). A press photograph of a meeting between Stalin and Lysenko showed so-called ‘branching wheat’, showing promise of feeding a starving nation due to the large number of seeds it produced per plant, but in actuality, branching wheat was
“… virtually inedible, but it was certainly photogenic, and the message was clear—that Stalin and his favourite barefoot scientist were again on top of the situation, poised and ready to pull the nation from the brink of catastrophe” (p. 351).
As the biblical Christian belief system was the foundation upon which the careful experimentation, observation, and recording of natural phenomena was based, an erosion of that foundation will inevitably lead to the loss of scientific integrity of the scientific method. Due to the devastation of WWII on Russia, and particularly after Stalin’s death in 1953, Russian science took a more practical and pragmatic direction. The urgent need to rebuild, feed, and house their starving population, and the space and armaments race against the West, once again began to show the capabilities of Russian scientists. Due to the shortage of scientists, they increasingly enjoyed salaries and fringe benefits almost double that of officials in the Central Committee. Mendelian genetics was tolerated alongside Lamarckian biology. Visitors from the West had to keep a certain healthy scepticism as they would be told of “perennial wheat with prodigious harvests, bacterial treatment of seeds which doubles the yield, new potatoes for the Arctic, and new sheep for deserts” (p. 341).
From the early 1950s onwards, cybernetics began to come to the fore. It was believed that mathematically and technologically driven society, enabled by cybernetics, would be the new umbrella that would provide the longed-for ‘one science’, subsuming all of society, government, and science (pp. 406, 408). Throughout the world today, cybernetics continues increasingly to take that role, incorporating linguistics, law, and ‘scientific government’, computing, including AI, information theory, robotics, and increasingly transhumanism.
I first read this book in 2019 and was struck by how many of the corrupt scientific foibles of Stalin’s Soviet Union still seemed to be at work in the contemporary scientific world. The past three years have only served to confirm those parallels; the numerous and massive settlements paid by large pharmaceutical companies for their roles in promoting opioid addictions in millions of people; peer-reviewed research published in respected journals that cannot be replicated by third party researchers, and predetermined outcomes attributed to confirmation bias or fraud.
Recent research published in the BMC online journal Trials, reported that 62% of randomized biomedical trials were at high risk of bias, 30% were unclear, and only 8% were low risk.1 It seems that money, pride, politics, and ideology are playing almost as great a role in global science today as they did in the Soviet Union.
And yet the unquestioning faith in the abilities of science to solve all the world’s problems continues. It is more technologically advanced, yet no less guilty than the scientism of the Soviet Union.
The biblical basis for the separation of state control from the church, or church control from the state, that has worked so well in recent history, should equally apply to a separation of science and state. The lines between financial benefit, political advantage, and ideological bias, have become increasingly blurred, with massive conflicts of interest intersecting government funding, regulatory bodies, and scientific research institutions. Science in the 21st century would do well to look at the disaster of Stalin’s science and pull back from the brink. In the absence of a renewed Christian culture, this is unlikely to happen.
References and notes
- Pirosca, S., Shiely, F., Clarke, M., and Treweek, S., Tolerating bad health research: the continuing scandal, Trials 23, art. no. 458, 2022; trialsjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13063-022-06415-5. Return to text.