WEDNESDAY JUNE 17, 2020
Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov was a Soviet geneticist, botanist and agronomist, and collector of one of the world’s largest seed banks, who was sentenced to death in July 1941 for defending scientific truths about genetics. While he escaped his death sentence, he lived the last twenty years of his life in a Soviet labour camp, disgraced and ostracised. His crime was to have criticised Lamarckian inheritance–the notion that changes to an organism in its lifetime can be passed on to offspring via genetics. Because Lamarckian inheritance emphasised the importance of the environment it was the favoured evolutionary theory among the socialists and communists of the time, and thanks to the advocacy of Trofim Lysenko, scientists who departed from this orthodoxy were shunned, persecuted, and in the case of Vavilov, sent to a gulag. When the siege of Leningrad occurred, Vavilov and a group of botanists who were holed up in a secret vault, famously chose to starve themselves before consuming their seeds, which they were preserving for the sake of humanity. While Vavilov died in obscurity, he is now recognised as one of the greatest Russian scientists of all time.
Thankfully in 2020, geneticists are not forced to conform to pseudoscientific orthodoxies, no communist dictatorship exists in the West, and nobody is at risk of being sent to a labour camp to spend decades of their life in obscurity. Lysenkoism does not prevail, and scientists accept the reality of Mendelian genetics, most of the time. Nevertheless, ideas of environmental determinism do remain surprisingly persistent. Pseudoscientific ideas that deny biological or evolutionary truths are discussed in Quillette on a weekly basis. If you are reading this now, you will be familiar with them. The most recent example we have highlighted was the “controversy” surrounding JK Rowling for emphasising the reality of biological sex.
Today, another scientist is being persecuted for discussing scientific truths. His name is Stephen Hsu, and he does not work in Russia, or China, but in the United States of America, at Michigan State University. He is being targeted by a Twitter mob and group of post-graduate students for his research and writing, and is being misrepresented and slandered as a “racist” and “sexist” despite condemning racism and sexism repeatedly in his public blog posts and interviews.
You can read the case against Professor Hsu here (keep in mind that many of these allegations are misrepresentations and exaggerations of his work) and Stephen’s reply to the charges here. I have been informed that Professor Hsu’s job is at risk, and that he may lose his livelihood as early as this Friday.
The mob demanding Hsu’s defenestration is being led by a student named Kevin Bird, through his capacity as the President of Michigan State University’s Graduate Employee’s Union. Bird has said that he is targeting Hsu because he holds an administrative position as the Head of Research and Graduate Studies, yet no evidence of any bias in Hsu’s professional activities, let alone sexual or racial discrimination, has been presented, as far as I am aware. On the contrary, many women and people of colour who’ve worked with him have testified to his professional integrity.
Bird describes himself as a “democratic socialist” and can be seen on social media celebrating arson and vandalism:
Posted following correspondence with Quiilette EIC, Claire Lehman, in the effort to support this important petition