Was Lysenko (Partially) Right?

Russian pseudogeneticist Trofym Lysenko was a believer in Lamarkist-style evolution. that is to say: his belief was that organisms evolve quickly, in response to immediate environmental changes. Supposedly, he was able to breed frost-resistant food crops within 3-5 generations. My question: can tropical plants become “hardened” to colder climate conditions? Suppose one were to take a palm tree, and select its offspring for cold resistance (while exposing the plants to abnormal cold)-could you force the plant to evolve?

If you’re selecting the plant’s offspring for cold resistance, sure, but that’s not Lamarkian evolution…that’s Darwinian evolution.

‘Quickly’ is very much a relative term. Evolution in 3-5 generations? I don’t buy it.

My understanding of Lamarkist-style evolution is puncuated equilibrium. That is, things don’t evolve(much) if everything is going hunkey dory. Something has to change to invoke evolution. It could be a drastic climate change or maybe an earthquake that strands a population.

The evolution occurs so that the animals can adapt to their new environment. But, it still takes much longer than 5 generations for significant change.

I heard a discussion of this on NPR awhile back. For fish, it can take as little as 4 generations: Angling for evolutionary answers - Understanding Evolution

No. Lamarckist evolution is the discredited idea that acquired characteristics can be inherited. (For instance, Lamarck believed that if you cut the tails off of successive generations of dogs, eventually they’ll start being born without tails.) It doesn’t work. The standard refutation is that Jewish boys are still being born with foreskins after thousands of years of circumcision.

Wasn’t Lamark the guy who introduced the aquatic ape theory? I may be thinking of someone else.

The aquatic ape theory dates from the 1960’s I think. Lamarck died in 1829. So I’d say the answer is no.

In the 1960s? I thought that Anaximander lived around 600 B.C.!

So if we understand partially to mean: was he right about the speed at which change can happen, the answer is yes. He was fundamentally (and indeed catastrophically) wrong about the mechanism.

Either way it wasn’t Lamarck (unless he lived a *very *long time :wink: )

The current sort-of-Lamarkian type of evolution that is considered real is based on gene expression. Some events (from what I’ve seen, mainly diseases or other major body effects), change which genes get expressed. These changes may get passed onto children, etc. The Wired PBS show had a great segment about this recently.

But note that it is just turning on/off genes you already had and the offspring can get the genes back off/on based on what happens to them. Regular Darwinism still rules what genes you actually have.

Since there is probably no gene for foreskin shedding, the usual claim about that shouldn’t apply.

Can you direct me to the show that you are referencing? Yes, genes in the body get turned on/off, but you’re saying that the disease will also affect the genes in the sperm/eggs?

Actually, if you’re doing the selection, it’s artificial selection, not natural selection (which is what most people mean when they say “Darwinian evolution”).

Punctuated equilibirum has nothing to do with Lamarckism (and vice-versa).

First of all, Lysenko was a crank who was politically popular with CPSU and a personal friend to Stalin, who ironically promoted him to the position of Director of the Institute of Genetics at the Academy of Sciences, where he went on to have dissenting scientists (i.e. those who adhered to the then-advancing theory of genetic inheritance and evolutionary synthesis) dismissed, repressed, imprisoned in the GULAG system, tortured, and executed, and generally did a hell of a lot of damage to both the Soviet biological sciences and especially to agriculture, where his cracktastical “theories” including vernalization (storing winter wheat seed in snow in order to “acclimate” it for an early growing season) dominated. Lysenko and his pseudoscience was in no small part responsible for many years of sub-par grain yields and even total crop failures which resulted in widespread famines; nonetheless, his political connections (and the desire of the Communist Party not to admit to mistakes or failures) that he was promoted and medalled, and propoganda straight of an Orwell novel advanced the claim of record-breaking crop yields while whole peoples starved. He, and his quacky theories were attacked in the somewhat liberalized, post-Stalin environment, and physicist Andrei Sakharov attacked him for undermining science and using the State security apparatus to have opponents of his claims removed. In the post-Krushchev USSR, Lysenko was dismissed and disappeared into obscurity (though his claims would go on to influence Mao and the some of the failures of the Great Leap Forward), and Soviet agriculture returned to a more scientific method with substantial (although still sub-par) yields. For much of its history, the Soviet Union was dependent upon the small number of private holdings of kulaks, marking only a few percent of the arable land, and imports from its satellite nations, to provide foodstuffs for the populace.

As already noted, Lamarck’s eponymous theory was in the inheritance of acquired characteristics; a blacksmith’s son would have large forearms, for instance, or that cutting the tail off of a cat would result in progeny with short or no tails (if done repeatedly or consistantly). This is entirely at odds with Mendalian genetics, of course, and our modern understanding of inheritance, although on the level of molecular biology it is known that viruses can enter the genome and swap codes, which is a sort of acquired inheritance (assuming that the change is transfer to the gametes). However, overall Lamarckian theory was doddle, though it was a perfectly reasonable (if experimentally unfounded) hypothesis in the time before genetic transmission was understood.

If you want to make tropical plants live in cold climates, you can selectively breed them, which as already noted is a type of artificial selection i.e. you, the Divine Architect (as far as the plants are concerned–what do they know?) are selecting them for specific characteristics, or you can inject genes directly into their genome which will improve cold resistance. This isn’t Lamarckism per se, but rather artificial genetic modification.

And just for good measure again, I want to emphasize that Lysenko was a nutcase, promoting theories that didn’t work for his own political benefit, terrorizing other scientists, debasing Soviet research in biology, doing irreperable harm to the Soviet scientific establishment, contributing to the deaths of millions from needless crop failures, and discredited even by the party who raised him up. Any random theory you hear attributed to Nikola Tesla is more likely true than anything espoused by Lysenko.


Absolutely. I don’t have time to address the question in terms of Lysenko, etc. (no idea who that was), but in some senses, Lamarkian evolution has clearly been demonstrated.

Look around for a topic called epigenetics. Basically, it means information that is kind of like genetics but, “above genetics,” or, “above and beyond just the genome.” Some people include other sources of cellular nucleic acid in this (mitochondrial DNA, etc.), but the more common usage means somehow tagging genes with things like methyl groups to convey additional information instead of ATCG. It gives your genome even more information rich.

For example, here’s a stretch of the genome with just genetic data:


And here could be a stretch with genetic and epigenetic data:

A(methylated)-T-(methylated)-T(not methylated)-C(methylated)-G(not methylated)

The regions of your genome that are methylated or not methylated are somewhat flexible over the course of your life, and different species have different extents to which they hit the, “reset button,” on epigenetic information at the start of each generation.

In the past decade or so, there has been stunning, Nobel worthy progress made in realizing how epigenetics is an important part of the genes of an organism, and these changes can survive for several generations so they’re both heritable and maleable in short order.

But again, I want to stress that this is in the control of transcription and translation of gene products, not the introduction of new genes. So, it can push a population towards either side of the bell-curve of normalcy on a given trait, but it can’t give you an entirely new trait.


To get back to the original question about palm trees:

There are hardy selections of palms that have been discovered in relatively cold climates because they survived unusual cold snaps that killed other members of their species. These survivors have some genetic difference that permits them (and their progeny) to endure cold. If Lysenko had been right, the whole population of palms living in that marginal climate should have acquired cold-hardiness and survived the extreme cold - instead, only that rare plant made it.

No, he did not. That’s exactly what his opponents want you to think. He beleived that if a species *strived *for something hard enough, they could change their “force”. Injuries are not part of “striving” or “the adaptive force”. Thus the infamous mouse experiment or dogs or circumcism all would not be passed on in Lamarcks theory. Thus an experiment that proves that injruies are not passed on does not “disprove” Lamarckism. True, we now have a better mechanism for almost all evolutionary change (but see below).


*Lamarck stressed two main themes in his biological work. The first was that the environment gives rise to changes in animals. He cited examples of blindness in moles, the presence of teeth in mammals and the absence of teeth in birds as evidence of this principle. The second principle was that life was structured in an orderly manner and that many different parts of all bodies make it possible for the organic movements of animals.[25]

Although he was not the first thinker to advocate organic evolution, he was the first to develop a truly coherent evolutionary theory. He outlined his theories regarding evolution first in his Floreal lecture of 1800, and then in three later published works:…
Lamarck employed several mechanisms as drivers of evolution, drawn from the common knowledge of his day and from his own belief in chemistry pre-Lavoisier. He used these mechanisms to explain the two forces he saw as comprising evolution; a force driving animals from simple to complex forms, and a force adapting animals to their local environments and differentiating them from each other. He believed that these forces must be explained as a necessary consequence of basic physical principles, favoring a materialistic attitude toward biology…
L’influence des circonstances: The adaptive force

The second component of Lamarck’s theory of evolution was the adaptation of organisms to their environment. This could move organisms sideways from the ladder of progress into new and distinct forms with local adaptations. It could also drive organisms into evolutionary blind alleys, where the organism became so finely adapted that no further change could occur. This was later expanded in Charles Darwin’s theories of species adaption and natural selection.

Lamarck argued that this adaptive force was powered by the interaction of organisms with their environment, by the use and disuse of characters:

In every animal which has not passed the limit of its development, a more frequent and continuous use of any organ gradually strengthens, develops and enlarges that organ, and gives it a power proportional to the length of time it has been so used; while the permanent disuse of any organ imperceptibly weakens and deteriorates it, and progressively diminishes its functional capacity, until it finally disappears.

These characters were then inherited, according to the common belief of the day, in what is known as “soft inheritance” (nowadays erroneously called Lamarckism):

All the acquisitions or losses wrought by nature on individuals, through the influence of the environment in which their race has long been placed, and hence through the influence of the predominant use or permanent disuse of any organ; all these are preserved by reproduction to the new individuals which arise, provided that the acquired modifications are common to both sexes, or at least to the individuals which produce the young. ...

Lamarck constructed what may be the first comprehensive theoretical framework of organic evolution. Stephen Jay Gould argues that Lamarck was the “primary evolutionary theorist”, in that his ideas and the way in which he structured his theory set the tone for much of the subsequent thinking in evolutionary biology, through to the present day.[27]

Lamarck is usually remembered for his belief in the inheritance of acquired characteristics, and the “use and disuse” model by which organisms developed their characteristics. Lamarck incorporated this belief into his theory of evolution, along with other more common beliefs of the time, such as spontaneous generation.

The inheritance of acquired characteristics (also called the theory of adaptation or “soft inheritance”) was rejected by August Weismann when he developed a theory of inheritance in which “germ-plasm” (the hereditary material passed from parents to offspring) remained separate and distinct from “soma” (the material composing the body of an organism); thus nothing which happens to the soma may be passed on with the germ-plasm. This model underlies the modern understanding of inheritance. Weismann is famous for an experiment in which he cut the tails off mice, demonstrating that the injury was not passed on to the offspring; but historians of science such as Stephen Jay Gould argue that this experiment had far less effect on the acceptance of Lamarckism than Weismann’s more comprehensive theoretical framework[27] (Believers in Lamarckian inheritance did not count injury or mutilation as a true acquired characteristic: only those which were initiated by the animal’s own needs, that were beneficial, were expected to be passed on. This Lamarckian view is consistent with Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection)…
The argument that instinct in animals is evidence for hereditary knowledge is generally regarded within science as false. Such behaviours are more probably passed on through a mechanism called the Baldwin effect. Lamarck’s theories gained initial acceptance because the mechanisms of inheritance were not elucidated until later in the 19th Century, after Lamarck’s death.

Several historians have argued that Lamarck’s name is linked somewhat unfairly to the theory that has come to bear his name, and that Lamarck deserves credit for being an influential early proponent of the concept of biological evolution, far more than for the mechanism of evolution, in which he simply followed the accepted wisdom of his time. Lamarck died 30 years before the first publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. As science historian Stephen Jay Gould has noted, if Lamarck had been aware of Darwin’s proposed mechanism of natural selection, there is no reason to assume he would not have accepted it as a more likely alternative to his “own” mechanism. Note also that Darwin, like Lamarck, lacked a plausible alternative mechanism of inheritance - the particulate nature of inheritance was only to be observed by Gregor Mendel somewhat later, published in 1866. Its importance, although Darwin cited Mendel’s paper, was not recognised until the Modern evolutionary synthesis in the early 1900s. An important point in its favour at the time was that Lamarck’s theory contained a mechanism describing how variation is maintained, which Darwin’s own theory lacked. ."
Lamarck is one of the fathers of Evolution, and without Lamarck, there’d be no Darwin. In fact Darwin used parts of Lamarcks theories.

And in fact, Lamark *may *have been partially right even in his mechanism, in very limited cases:
"*Soma to germ line feedback

In the 1970’s the immunologist Ted Steele, formerly of the University of Wollongong, and colleagues, proposed a neo-Lamarckiam mechanism to try and explain why homologous DNA sequences from the VDJ gene regions of parent mice were found in their germ cells and seemed to persist in the offspring for a few generations. The mechanism involved the somatic selection and clonal amplification of newly acquired antibody gene sequences that were generated via somatic hyper-mutation in B-cells. The mRNA products of these somatically novel genes were captured by retroviruses endogenous to the B-cells and were then transported through the blood stream where they could breach the soma-germ barrier and retrofect (reverse transcribe) the newly acquired genes into the cells of the germ line. Although Steele was advocating this theory for the better part of two decades, little more than indirect evidence was ever acquired to support it. An interesting attribute of this idea is that it strongly resembles Darwin’s own theory of pangenesis, except in the soma to germ line feedback theory, pangenes are replaced with realistic retroviruses.[5]

Epigenetic inheritance

Forms of ‘soft’ or epigenetic inheritance within organisms have been suggested as neo-Lamarckian in nature by such scientists as Eva Jablonka and Marion J. Lamb. In addition to ‘hard’ or genetic inheritance, involving the duplication of genetic material and its segregation during meiosis, there are other hereditary elements that pass into the germ cells also. These include things like methylation patterns in DNA and chromatin marks, both of which regulate the activity of genes. These are considered “Lamarckian” in the sense that they are responsive to environmental stimuli and can differentially effect gene expression adaptively, with phenotypic results that can persist for many generations in certain organisms. Although the reality of epigenetic inheritance is not doubted (as countless experiments have validated it) its significance to the evolutionary process is however uncertain. …
[edit] Lamarckism and single-celled organisms

While Lamarckism has been discredited as an evolutionary influence for larger lifeforms, some scientists controversially argue that it can be observed among microorganisms.[7] Whether such mutations are directed or not also remains a point of contention.

In 1988, John Cairns at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford, England, and a group of other scientists renewed the Lamarckian controversy (which by then had been a dead debate for many years).[8] The group took a mutated strain of E. coli that was unable to consume the sugar lactose and placed it in an environment where lactose was the only food source. They observed over time that mutations occurred within the colony at a rate that suggested the bacteria were overcoming their handicap by altering their own genes. Cairns, among others, dubbed the process adaptive mutagenesis.

If bacteria that had overcome their own inability to consume lactose passed on this “learned” trait to future generations, it could be argued as a form of Lamarckism; though Cairns later chose to distance himself from such a position.[9] More typically, it might be viewed as a form of ontogenic evolution.

There has been some research into Lamarckism and prions. …

Finally, there is growing evidence that cells can activate low-fidelity DNA polymerases in times of stress to induce mutations. While this does not directly confer advantage to the organism on the organismal level, it makes sense at the gene-evolution level. While the acquisition of new genetic traits is random, and selection remains Darwinian, the active process of identifying the necessity to mutate is considered to be Lamarckian."*

This is Lamarckism on a *very *limited scale, of course. But injuries still were not something that Lamarck proposed could be passed on.