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Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov...

(Simon & Schuster), by Peter Pringle

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   Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov wanted to feed the world, but died of starvation in the Soviet Gulag. British journalist Peter Pringle reconstructs Vavilov’s attempts to revolutionize agriculture by breeding hardier crops through plant genetics. Pringle paints the dapper, courageous Vavilov as a real-life Indiana Jones, searching dark corners of the world for knowledge while battling bad guys. Chief among them was Stalin’s favorite biologist, Trofim Lysenko, who as a good Marxist believed that the natural as well as the social environment could be reconstructed according to ironclad laws. Sadly for Vavilov, his story wasn’t scripted in Hollywood and the ending was unhappy. One can argue that Pringle strays into hyperbole by ranking Vavilov with the greatest scientists of the last century, but there can be no doubt that he was a pioneer in genetics who understood the importance of biodiversity long before the term became popular.