Lamarckian Inheritance and Lysenkoism
In the early 19th centuries, a French biologist, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, theorized that physiological changes that an organism acquired during its lifetime can be passed on to its offspring. E.g.; that if somebody works out at a gym to build huge biceps, he could pass on huge biceps to his children. It became known as Lamarckian Inheritance. It turned out Lamarck was wrong, and traits are passed on through genes that are hard coded with their own instructions, subject to the occasional mutation.
The genes of a particular organism neither know nor care what traits and characteristics the organism acquired during its lifetime. One’s genes might pass on a predisposition for huge biceps if they were already coded for such a predisposition. However, doing arm curls at a gym will have no impact on whether one’s kids will have an easy time developing monster biceps. By the late 19th century, Lamarck’s theories had been debunked, and only had a limited following within a circle of quacks.
However, Lamarckian Inheritance experienced an odd revival in the Soviet Union. In the 1930s, a quack named Tymofin Lysenko modified Lamarckism into a theory that came to be known as Lysenkoism. Lysenko falsely claimed to have discovered that, among other things, rye could be transformed into wheat, wheat could be transformed into barley, and that weeds could be transformed into grain crops.
It was laughably ludicrous, but in a sinister twist, Lysenko found a powerful supporter for his cockamamie theories: Joseph Stalin. In the bizarre political environment of the Stalinist Soviet Union, criticism of Lamarckian theories came to be treated as criticism of Stalin. As Stalinist terror grew by leaps and bounds, it became clear that you did not criticize Stalin, or even hint that you might disagree with Stalin, if you knew what was good for you.
Criticism of Lamarckian Inheritance was treated not as academic, but as political subversion and deviancy. The logical chain was chilling, and lethal: Comrade Stalin endorses Lamarckism. You disagree with Lamarckism. Therefore you disagree with Comrade Stalin. It follows that you are a subversive, a Trotskyite, a foreign spy, fascist agent, or capitalist stooge working to sabotage the Soviet Union.
In that environment, Soviet scientists who scoffed at the quackery of Lysenko and his revived Lamarckism were arrested by the NKVD, brutally interrogated, tortured, sent to the gulag where many died, or executed outright. Over 3000 mainstream biologists were fired, jailed, arrested, or executed in a campaign instigated by Lysenko to eliminate his scientific opponents. Russia and the Soviet Union had once been at the forefront of genetics, but research in that field, which disproved Lamarckian Inheritance and showed up Lysenko as a quack, was wholly abandoned. It would not be revived until after Stalin’s death in 1953, by which point the Soviets had fallen decades behind.