Life in the Deep End of the Gene Pool: Making the Case for the Evolution of Altruism under Interrogation (1932) and in the Private Letters (1988) of V. P. Efroimson

Yvonne Howell, University of Richmond

In 1932, five former students of the renowned Russian biologist Nikolaj Kol’cov were arrested and charged with participation in a counterrevolutionary terrorist organization. In this paper, I compare minutes of the interrogation of one defendant, the then 25-year old Vladimir Pavlovič Efroimson, with his autobiographical reminiscences of the case as he recorded them in personal correspondence in 1988, the year before he died. My presentation will be restricted to this specific case study, based on recently obtained primary documents. In a larger context, V. P. Efroimson’s case suggests that a young generation of Moscow biologists had both personal and scientific reasons for believing that Bolshevik policies would adversely effect the genetic endowment of the Russian population. Moreover, they tried to rally the new science of population genetics to their genuinely liberal political cause – an anti-Bolshevik vision of individual freedom and social democracy. The tension between their pessimistic prediction of the degeneration of the Russian gene pool and their utopian intellectual ideals finds its reflection in much of the literature of the 1920s, in particular the writings of Babel’, Zamjatin, and Bulgakov.