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The Men and women in White Robes (Belye odezhdv), Vladimir Dudinstev's fictional account of the banning of genetics in the Soviet Union, are acutely aware that in the 20th century, the study of the fruit fly is the study of man. The key to unraveling the mystery of human nature lies in the easily observed chromosomes of the forbidden fly (drosophila melanogaster). Under Stalin, the banned geneticists were branded “Morganists” after their hero Thomas Hunt Morgan, the Columbia University researcher who pioneered the technique of mapping locations on drosophila chromosomes to specific traits in the flies. To find the material location (identified as “genes”) that determine traits inspired many intellectuals in the interwar years, not in the least Soviet researchers who were also at the forefront of international advances in genetics during in the first three decades of the 20th century. In her memoirs, Raisa Berg expresses both the urgency of the problems “fly work” might solve —- how much difference among individuals is heritable? what forces preserve the balance between mutant change and stability of type in a given population? — as well as the typical ardor of early Soviet drosophilists:

Fruit flies are marvelous. Looking at them through a binocular microscope is sheer pleasure. Their red, faceted eyes look like burning, pomegranate colored bonfires, their translucent wings shimmer like a rainbow, and the bristles that cover their bodies seem to be made of nylon […] the color of honey or bright aged bronze. (Berg 1988, 40)

Only later in the century would American scientists (Morgan’s former students) pick up the trail that seemed to link genes to more abstract traits, like individual sluggishness, drive, cooperation and aggression. Today, most people accept as commonplace the notion that human behavior including behavior encompassed in our constructions of morality (e.g., altruism, loyalty, courage) — is shaped by a combination of both biological and social factors. In this article I discuss Soviet modes of disciplining and the transformation of the literary hero from a socially conditioned “new Soviet man” to the instinctively individualist protagonist of late Soviet prose.

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Copyright © 2017 Brill. This chapter first appeared in Policing Literary Theory.

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Recommended citation:
Howell, Yvonne. "The Genetics of Morality: Policing Science in Dudintsev’s White Robes." In Policing Literary Theory, edited by Călin-Andrei Mihăilescu and Takayuki Yokota-Murakami, 123-133. London: Brill, 2017.