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JBS Haldane: the man who knew almost everything

The pioneering geneticist saw through problems in mathematics and science, but was less clear-sighted in his politics.

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JBS Haldane – “Jack” to his family and friends – was once described as “the last man who might know all there was to be known”. His reputation was built on his work in genetics, but his expertise was extraordinarily wide-ranging. As an undergraduate at Oxford, he studied mathematics and classics. He never gained any kind of degree in science, but he could explain the latest work in physics, chemistry, biology and a host of other disciplines. He could recite great swathes of poetry in English, French, German, Latin and Ancient Greek. A big man (another description of him is “a large woolly rhinoceros of uncertain temper”), he was unafraid to take anyone on in a fight and, equally, could drink anyone under the table.

In his lifetime (he died in 1964 at the age of 72), Haldane was very well known because of his journalism, his appearances on the radio, his bestselling books of popular science and his promotion of communism. Today, what most people know about him is often confined to the probably apocryphal story that, when asked what his studies of nature had taught him about the Creator, he replied that He has “an inordinate fondness for beetles”.

Samanth Subramanian’s energetic account of Haldane’s life, politics and science might just revive interest in this extraordinary man. It has, though, a significant rival. Ronald Clark’s The Life and Work of JBS Haldane, published in 1984, is still in print. The two books are very different and provide a fascinating contrast in biographical styles. Clark’s workmanlike book is conventionally structured, strictly adhering to chronology in a way that seems a little unambitious and dull, but is also reassuring and satisfying. You know where you are with a biography that begins: “John Burdon Sanderson Haldane was born on 5 November 1892.”

Subramanian’s book has a rather more cryptic opening, the point of which seems to be to set up what he evidently believes is the defining conflict of Haldane’s life: his commitment to scientific rigour and objectivity on the one hand, and his loyalty to Soviet communism on the other. For about ten pages, Haldane disappears altogether as Subramanian provides us with an account of the meeting of the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences in 1948 at which its president, Trofim Lysenko, gave an ideologically driven speech that turned the meeting into an inquisition, and allowed the science of genetics in the Soviet Union to be guided by Stalinism rather than by truth. A few months after Lysenko’s purge, the BBC broadcast a discussion featuring Haldane, who disappointed his family, friends and fellow scientists by being equivocal rather than robustly denouncing Lysenko.

The affair, writes Subramanian, “is an oddly perfect way to understand Haldane. A man stepped outside his character, and in so doing, revealed that character to us. We peer through this keyhole, and we see all of Haldane.” If this were true, it would indeed be the perfect way to begin this book. Sadly, it is not. But luckily, Subramanian is too good a writer and too good a biographer to allow himself to be trapped in the straitjacket of this introductory chapter.

Where Subramanian improves on Clark is in conveying Haldane’s enthusiasm for science, tracing it back to his relationship with his father John Scott Haldane, a physiologist who carried out many important investigations into the respiratory disorders suffered by a variety of people, including slum dwellers, miners, fishermen and sewer workers. From him, Jack acquired not only a relish for empirical investigations – especially for experimenting on oneself – but also a respect for, and sympathy with, the working class.

The Haldanes were a distinguished family, with notable scientists, writers and statesmen among its members. Jack’s uncle was Richard Burdon Haldane, who became the first Viscount Haldane in 1911 and who lived in the grand Cloan House in Perthshire, where Jack and his family would frequently stay. However, though he had the bearing and accent of a member of the British upper classes, from an early age Jack considered himself in rebellion against the establishment.

Subramanian’s novelistic style works well in depicting the relationship between Jack and his father and the sometimes perilous experiments they performed together. In 1906, they travelled on the HMS Spanker off the west coast of Scotland, investigating a condition known as “the bends” which often afflicted divers if they were brought up to the surface too quickly. Haldane Senior’s task was to work out the optimal speed at which divers should rise to minimise the chance of decompression sickness. To do this, he made detailed observations on the dives made by his assistants, one of whom was his 13-year-old son. Jack avoided the bends, but because his suit was too loose it filled with water, and by the time he was back on deck, he was shivering with cold and fear. His father, Subramanian says, “dosed Jack with whisky and put him to bed”.

Subramanian is also good on Jack’s precocity as a child, some details of which seem quite literally incredible. “Before he was five,” Subramanian tells us, “Jack was reading aloud the newspaper reports of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.” A year before that, according to family legend, Jack looked intently at the blood trickling out of a cut on his forehead and asked: “Is it oxyhaemoglobin or carbohaemoglobin?”

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Jack’s introduction to the science of genetics came at the age of eight, when his father took him to the Oxford University Junior Scientific Club, where the biologist Arthur Darbishire was giving a lecture on Mendel’s laws of inheritance. (Here, Subramanian inserts a long account of Mendel’s theories: the book’s narrative structure suffers from his tendency to introduce ideas too early, allude to things he hasn’t yet described, and repeat himself.) At the Oxford Preparatory School, then widely known as “Lynam’s” after its headmaster, Jack excelled across the whole range of subjects, and at the age of 13 he entered Eton as its top-ranked King’s Scholar. Haldane emphasised many times later in life how much he hated Eton. It was too snobbish, there was too much religion and patriotism and not enough science, and, for the first few years at least, until he grew strong enough to protect himself, he was bullied.

Nevertheless, in his last year he seems to have fitted in rather well. He was Captain of the School, Captain of the Boats, winner of several prizes and the boy chosen to deliver the students’ address to George V when the king visited the school. He also won a scholarship to read mathematics at New College, Oxford.

Subramanian seems strangely uninterested in Haldane’s time as an undergraduate and devotes less than two pages to it. Far more about this period in his life can be learned from Clark’s book. After his first year, Haldane gained a First in maths. He also became a published co-author, having contributed some mathematical analysis to a paper he and his father wrote for the Journal of Physiology. He was much happier at Oxford than at Eton and made several good friends, including Aldous Huxley and Dick Mitchison, who was to marry Jack’s younger sister, Naomi. (She went on to publish more than 90 books, including works of historical fiction and fantasy, and became as well known as her celebrated brother.)

For his second year, Haldane switched from mathematics to Greats. This might seem an odd thing to do, but, as Clark says, “the companionship of the classics was to be a solace in an otherwise aesthetically bleak life”. It also taught him “to write clearly, comprehensibly and with an economy that was to serve him well”. The plan was to switch to physiology after Greats, but when, on 4 August 1914, Haldane learned he had graduated with a First, the news was, as he later put it, “somewhat overshadowed by other events”.

Haldane, who had been an enthusiastic member of the Officers’ Training Corps at Oxford, volunteered for the army as soon as war was declared, asking to serve with the Scottish regiment, the Black Watch. His wish was granted and, after four months of training, he was posted to France as a lieutenant with the regiment’s First Battalion. He was made the battalion’s trench mortar officer, leading small groups of men to throw hand-bombs into enemy trenches. Though it was dangerous and frightening, he had never been happier. He had always enjoyed explosions, and now he discovered that he found coming under fire and attacking others thrilling. “I was well aware,” he later wrote, “that I might die in these flat, featureless fields, and that a huge waste of human values was going on there. Nevertheless, I found the experience enjoyable.” He was popular with the men and with his superior officers. General Haig, no less, described him as “the bravest and dirtiest officer in my army”.

[see also: Hermione Lee on how to write a life]

From the Western Front, Haldane kept up a correspondence with Naomi about experiments they were conducting together on the genetics of mice. The result was a jointly authored paper that appeared in the Journal of Genetics, making him, he boasted, “the only officer to complete a scientific paper from a forward position of the Black Watch”.

After being injured by artillery fire, Haldane was sent back to Scotland, where he set up a Bombing School to teach Black Watch soldiers how to use grenades. In the autumn of 1916, he was sent to Mesopotamia. There he was wounded by a British bomb, keeping him out of active service for the rest of the war. He spent the last two years of it in India, where he was sent to recuperate. By the time he returned home, he had acquired a deep and abiding love of the country, its people and its culture.

Before the end of the war, Haldane had been offered a fellowship at New College, Oxford, which he took up in 1919. There he lectured on physiology, which he had never formally studied himself. Four years later he moved to Trinity College, Cambridge, as reader in biochemistry. In that position he published important work on enzymes, but his research became increasingly focused on using mathematics to address problems in theoretical genetics. The results of this research are contained in a series of ten papers, “Mathematical Contributions to the Theory of Natural Selection”, which he published between 1924 and 1934 and which many scientists regard as his most important work. It was in these papers that he provided his solution to the problem of how to incorporate Mendelian genetics into Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Gregor Mendel, now recognised as the founder of the science of genetics, died in 1884 in relative obscurity. Only in the 20th century was the importance of his investigations of the rules of heredity acknowledged. In 1886, he published the results of his painstaking observations on the inherited characteristics of pea plants of various heights, pod shapes, seed colours, etc. He discovered that if you cross breed, say, a yellow pea plant with a green one, then the resulting plants will all be yellow. However, in the next generation, there will be a mixture of three yellow plants to every green one. This gave rise to the theory of “recessive” and “dominant” traits, familiar now to every school student of biology. The problem Haldane tackled was how to incorporate this theory into Darwin’s theory of natural selection. What he provided was a piece of mathematics that modelled Mendel’s laws of heredity and the Darwinian notion of “the survival of the fittest”. The biologist Julian Huxley (brother of Aldous and friend of Haldane) named this solution “the modern synthesis”.

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During this period, Haldane began his career as a populariser of science. His slim book, Daedalus, or Science and the Future, was published in 1924 and was a huge success, going through five impressions in its first year. Among its most enthusiastic readers was a young married woman called Charlotte Burghes, who was writing a novel set in a world in which the human race would be able to choose the sex of its children. She wanted to meet Haldane to discuss whether the science in her novel was plausible. Receiving no reply to a letter she sent, she went straight to Trinity to interview him. Within a year, she divorced her husband and married Haldane.

So began a new era in Haldane’s life in which politics played an increasingly important part. His and Charlotte’s home became a meeting place for liberal and socialist students and staff, and, encouraged by Charlotte, Haldane became increasingly left wing. In 1928, they visited the Soviet Union, where Haldane became friends with Nikolai Vavilov, later one of Lysenko’s victims. On his return, Haldane spoke with great warmth about the USSR, though he did not join the Communist Party until 1942.

In 1933, Haldane moved from Cambridge to University College London to become its professor of genetics (later professor of biometry). In the same year, Hitler became chancellor of Germany. “I began to realise,” Haldane later wrote, “that even if professors leave politics alone, politics won’t leave professors alone.” As the 1930s wore on, he was pushed further into politics and yet further to the left. During the Spanish Civil War, he advised the republicans on precautions against gas attack and visited the front as an observer, seeing for himself the devastating effects of air raids. In 1937, he became the science correspondent of the Daily Worker. Between then and 1950 he contributed nearly 350 articles, mixing scientific popularisation with propaganda.

Subramanian is evidently very interested in Haldane’s politics, but he does not quite succeed in making sense of them. Perhaps no sense can be made of them. Perhaps it will forever remain a mystery why someone as intelligent and critical as Haldane would declare allegiance to the Soviet Union and the Communist Party, even after the purges, the show trials, the non-aggression pact with the Nazis, the attacks on scientists and the repression of freedom. We should, however, bear in mind that he was only a member of the party for eight years. He was not, as is often said, an apologist for Lysenko. On the contrary, the Lysenko affair clearly shook him. Largely because of it, he distanced himself from communism after 1948 and left the party altogether in 1950.

He remained fiercely left wing, however, and in 1956 he announced publicly that, together with his second wife Helen, he was leaving Britain for India because of the Suez Crisis. This was not the real reason. Neither was it true, as he said later, that he was settling in India in order to be free of the tyranny of wearing socks (“60 years in socks is enough”). He was drawn to India because of its socialism, its culture and its climate. He died there in 1964 of a cancer that he immortalised in a poem entitled “Cancer’s a Funny Thing” which Subramanian reproduces in full, beginning: “I wish I had the voice of Homer/To sing of rectal carcinoma.” For all its faults, Subramanian’s biography does allow Haldane’s booming voice to be heard, and, for all Haldane’s faults, it remains a voice worth listening to. 

A Dominant Character: The Radical Science and Restless Politics of JBS Haldane
Samanth Subramanian
Atlantic, 400pp, £20

Ray Monk is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Southampton University

This article appears in the 06 November 2020 issue of the New Statesman, American chaos