Even after Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published, there was a good deal to be discovered about how animals evolved over time. Along with Darwin’s approach, which stated that nature favored variations that helped the individual survive long enough to reproduce, there was also Lamarck’s theory. He believed something that was subtly, but significantly, different. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck believed that animals inherited traits that were acquired by their parents. What he believed was that if an animal changed due to its environment, its children would inherit that change. This was no slow process of natural selection over millions of years, but one that could take place in a fraction of that period. For example, Lamarckism says that if you cut the tail off a lizard, that lizard’s offspring will have slightly shorter tails. If you cut the tails off that generation, the next generation of lizards would have tails that were even shorter. Eventually, if you cut off enough tails, the baby lizards will be born without one. This contrasts with how Darwin explained the giraffe’s long neck by stating that the giraffe’s longer necks gave them an edge in eating, and so they were healthier and had more babies who shared their long neck characteristic. Lamarck said that because the parents stretched their necks by trying to eat leaves high on a tree, their offspring were born with longer necks.

Almost every real scientist rejected Lamarckism because it simply does not test out in the laboratory: The tails stay long. Changing the body of an animal or the attitudes of one person does not change his or her genes. But the theory found acceptance in one nation in the 1920s. This was Soviet Russia. Lenin was aware of it and favored it. Lamarckism underlay his theories of how a state evolved and how communism could bring about a paradise on earth. In the 1920s, another leader decided that Lamarckism, no matter how scientifically bad, was correct. That made all the difference because that one man was Joseph Stalin. Why Stalin preferred Lamarck’s theory is obvious. Communism intended to change humanity and make it into something better. Under Lamarckism, all the horrors of the Stalin era were acceptable if they changed the next generation to be more communist, to be more aware and group-minded. And the generation after that would be even more communist thinking because their parents were forced to be. And in just a few generations everyone would be born good, selfless communists, and the need for the state would go away. If millions died being shipped to Siberia so that their farms could be collectivized, that was okay because in a few generations the descendants of those who remained would be perfect collective thinkers. This theory justified any action, because if you stressed or pushed humans in the right way, you could quickly change their very nature. The end justified the means.

By the 1940s, Lamarckism was the only acceptable view of evolution and genetics allowed in the Soviet Union. Pushed by a poorly educated animal breeder named Lysenko, any scientist who disagreed with the theory or attempted to use any other theory in their laboratories was fired or even sent to a gulag, where most died. With Lysenko in charge, politics, not science, was the basis of all scientific papers and teaching. Real genetics was effectively banned and ideology replaced experimentation. Another destructive result Lamarckism had on Russia came from its having been the basis of the techniques used to improve crops and in animal husbandry. This invalid basis guaranteed failures, which had to have added to the food shortages that recurred throughout the Stalin era. It was not until a full decade after Stalin died, in 1965, that Lamarckism was finally condemned publicly by scientists in Russia. The theory of Lamarckism was known to be just bad science by 1900, but its theories suited Stalin and justified his murdering millions of humans.

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