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Let’s put a dunce in charge of the food supply.

Welcome to “Dumb Ideas that Changed the World.” The views expressed are solely those of the host and do not reflect the opinions of this station or its funders.


Trofim Lysenko was named chief of Soviet agriculture by Joseph Stalin. For thirty years he dictated the Russian food supply, or lack thereof. You see, Mr. Lysenko was an unnatural disaster.


Born a peasant in 1898, Lysenko had just two years of schooling, and remained semi-literate his whole life. But he had one thing going for him. He was a very good communist. The dictator Stalin found in Lysenko the perfect choice to lead Soviet agriculture because of his peasant background and adherence to the party line. A fake scientist, Lysenko rejected Mendelian genetics, insisting that acquired traits could be passed down and that genes don’t exist. He thought he could grow oranges in Siberia, and that Soviet crops could be “educated” into completely new varieties. But nearly everything he touched turned to dust.


Stalin’s collectivist farms were already failing, and Lysenko’s quack theories ensured widespread famine. Science writer Sam Kean says he probably killed more people than any other scientist in history—worse than dynamite, poison gas, and atomic bombs. At least seven million Russians died of famine, and another 30 million Chinese, whose dictator Mao Zedong adopted Lysenko’s methods wholesale. And he got away with it for decades because, as I mentioned, Trofim Lysenko was a very good communist.


American agronomist Norman Borlaug had better ideas, sparking the Green Revolution that saved a billion people from starvation at the same time Russians were dying. And not only the masses. Lysenko deported real scientists to the gulags when they disagreed with his crackpot theories. The great Russian scientist Nicolai Vavilov was starved to death in prison. That’s a crime for which scientists will never forgive the despised Trofim Lysenko. When ideology trumps science, bad things are bound to happen.

I’m Jeff Gentry /truFIM LuSENka/


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Best reference:


Sam Kean. (2017, December 19). The Soviet Era’s Deadliest Scientist Is Regaining Popularity in Russia. Atlantic: Web Edition Articles (USA).


Dumb Ideas that Changed the World copyright 2024 by Jeff Gentry. All rights reserved.

Host of Dumb Ideas the Changed the World
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