Hit by Donald Duck

Oliver Hill-Andrews

  • Popularising Science: The Life and Work of J.B.S. Haldane by Krishna Dronamraju
    Oxford, 367 pp, £26.99, February 2017, ISBN 978 0 19 933392 9

The evolutionary biologist John Maynard Smith believed that his former supervisor J.B.S. Haldane ‘wasn’t an ordinary mortal’. Haldane moved between the fields of physiology, biochemistry, genetics and evolutionary biology, making contributions to each that would ‘satisfy half a dozen ordinary mortals’, and also wrote scientific articles and books aimed at non-specialists. In the 1930s, he was one of Britain’s most famous communist-sympathising intellectuals and, through his pieces in the Daily Worker, the most famous of the ‘red scientists’, a loose affiliation of individuals – including the biologists J.D. Bernal, Lancelot Hogben and Joseph Needham – united by their belief that science under socialism could provide an age of plenty. The challenge for the biographer is to do justice to this multifarious activity, which ultimately dissipated Haldane’s overall achievement. Krishna Dronamraju – another of Haldane’s students, whom he apparently treated ‘like a son’ – mostly ducks the challenge, giving us a disjointed biography that isolates Haldane from his context. Popularising Science has further, more serious problems: it is littered with self-aggrandising remarks; whole sections from one chapter are reproduced verbatim in another; and it follows Ronald Clark’s biography of Haldane from 1968 a little too closely, and without attribution. Dronamraju, a geneticist, is good on Haldane’s scientific achievements, but his use of unexplained technicalities will leave most readers behind.

Born in 1892, Haldane was schooled in biology at an early age by his father, John Scott Haldane, a physiologist at New College, Oxford. There was a laboratory on the ground floor of the house where J.B.S. and his younger sister, Naomi (later, as Naomi Mitchison, a prolific writer and political campaigner), grew up. Haldane wrote later that from an early age he had associated scientific experiments with play. Soon, he even joined his father in carrying out physiological research in coal mines. He was sent to Eton – ‘not usually thought of as pre-eminently a scientist’s school’ (in 1905 there were eight times as many classics as science masters) – on a scholarship, then studied mathematics at Oxford, switching to Greats after his first year. He attended the zoology lectures given there by E.S. Goodrich, who was (like M.D. Hill, one of his science masters at Eton) a disciple of Edwin Ray Lankester and a believer in natural selection at a time when other modes of evolution seemed to many equally, if not more, persuasive (saltationism, for example, which held evolutionary changes to be abrupt, or neo-Lamarckism, the idea that an organism’s acquired characteristics were passed on to its offspring). Haldane never had a formal scientific training, and didn’t have the degree increasingly seen as a prerequisite for entry into the profession.

He sat his final exams in 1914 and joined the army, but Dronamraju has little to say about Haldane’s experiences during the First World War, which is surprising given the war’s importance in undermining the red scientists’ confidence in the 19th-century version of progress. Haldane joined the Black Watch, taught officers how to use hand grenades, and was wounded twice, first on the Western Front and then in Iraq. He found grenade-throwing ‘the next most exciting thing to being under fire’ and told his sister he was ‘enjoying life very much’, yet admitted that if ‘I hadn’t to use my brains when out … I should be either very frightened or very excited or both.’ He earned a reputation as ‘a proper wild man’, something he cultivated to increase his authority with his platoon. Though he enjoyed war, he did not approve of it, as he made clear in a handful of poems written at the front:

… the maddening mind
Forgets that life was good once, and fate kind,
Remembering only these long years of war,
The great grim battles by the northern shore,
The comrades dead and maimed and mad and blind.

He found much to admire in his comrades, and their example pushed him further from his mother’s conservatism. ‘We are a very democratic lot,’ he wrote to Naomi, and in a letter complained to her that there were ‘rather a lot of Tories’ in Lloyd George’s coalition government. ‘I wd. like to see some Radical & Socialist comments on the ministry.’

It was not obvious what Haldane would do after the war: he was interested in the classics and poetry at least as much as in science. The lack of a science degree was not an insuperable problem for someone with Haldane’s surname, especially as his mathematical skills had already been put to use in a paper on haemoglobin, which appeared in 1912 with his father as the co-author, and one on genetic linkage in mammals (the tendency for particular traits to be inherited together), which appeared in 1915 with A.D. Sprunt and Naomi as co-authors. He ended up pursuing both physiological and genetic research as a fellow of New College, before being appointed at the age of thirty to a biochemistry readership at Cambridge.

It was there that Haldane began to produce the series of articles that comprise his most important scientific work. This work, which used mathematics to model the roles and interaction of natural selection and Mendelian genetics, established him as one of the founders of population genetics and a key figure in what Julian Huxley later called the modern evolutionary synthesis, in which the theories of natural selection (which assumed small, continuous variations between organisms) and Mendelian inheritance (which initially postulated large, discontinuous variations) were seen as complementary. ‘Quantitative work shows clearly that natural selection is a reality,’ Haldane wrote in 1929, ‘and that, among other things, it selects Mendelian genes, which are known to be distributed at random through wild populations, and to follow the laws of chance in their distribution to offspring. In other words, they are an agency producing variation of the kind which Darwin postulated as the raw material on which selection acts.’

The synthesis involved more than this – a union of laboratory methods and fieldwork; a consensus that the natural world should be studied experimentally and quantitatively – but population genetics played a crucial part. Haldane’s contribution defies generalisation, as he continued his evolutionary work until his death and tackled problems in an ad hoc manner. In his earliest and most important articles on the subject, he attempted to establish the number of generations needed to change the frequency of particular genes under the influence of selection, and the length of time required for a mutation to become established in a population. Like Ronald Fisher, and to a lesser extent Sewall Wright, the other pioneers in this field, Haldane made certain assumptions to simplify his calculations, including that organisms mated at random in large populations. (Tracing the fortunes of a gene, conceived of as an individual unit, in what might uncharitably be described as a make-believe population, was later described as ‘beanbag’ genetics.)

Recently, historians of the synthesis have been examining the seemingly mundane fieldwork and practical breeding that made Haldane’s theorising possible. He looked, for example, at the reason for the appearance of a new variant of the peppered moth (then called Amphidasys betularia). The black variant of the moth first appeared in Manchester in 1848 but its population increased as industrialisation caused trees to become sootier; against a dark background, the standard pale moth stood out to predators. Haldane worked out that fifty per cent more of the black moths’ offspring must survive in order to explain the observed change in population. This was typical of Haldane’s work. He lacked the patience to cultivate an experimental organism (Wright bred guinea pigs). C.D. Darlington of the John Innes Horticultural Institution, where Haldane worked part-time from 1927, remembered him spending most of his time doing sums. He was even less suited to experimental work. The scientific journalist J.G. Crowther felt that ‘the fiddling bits of apparatus’ made him ‘look rather like a great bear with a small but weighty cannonball tied to his leg’. But even those who had uneasy personal relations with Haldane (a not inconsiderable number) admired his evolutionary work: the working-class Hogben, who disliked his Etonian swagger, judged it ‘a contribution of really outstanding importance’ that was more likely to be remembered than Haldane’s other research.

It was at this point that Haldane emerged as a public figure, a ‘romantic’ biologist just like the hero of his influential pamphlet Daedalus; or Science and the Future (1923). Haldane realised that biology would be the science of the 20th century; he also predicted that the first ‘ectogenetic’ birth – outside the womb – would occur by 1951, leading to a ‘separation of sexual love and reproduction’ and a solution to the problem of the rapidly multiplying poor. Two years later, in another pamphlet, Callinicus: A Defence of Chemical Warfare, he put forward the unattractive argument that chemical warfare was more humane than conventional, explosive-based methods, because it caused less pain (this was before the development of nerve agents). He gained a justified reputation for being a rationalist who used science to torpedo sentiment, leaving controversy in his wake. As far as he was concerned, he represented and practised the science of the future.

Meanwhile, he moved further to the left, partly as a result of the influence of the Daily Express journalist Charlotte Burghes, whom he met in 1924 and married during the General Strike in 1926, having successfully appealed against his dismissal from Cambridge for his involvement with her (she was married when it began). Haldane told his sister that he wanted ‘a wife who considers the work I am doing to be of some value & interest, and will accept my aberrations from the normal and even try to adapt herself to them’. Their house became a meeting place for talented undergraduates. William Empson was one visitor (he asked Haldane for help after he was thrown out of Cambridge when condoms were found in his room). Haldane and Charlotte divorced in 1945, and he married one of his PhD students, Helen Spurway. Dronamraju devotes a chapter to Spurway, in which he discusses her research on genetics and animal behaviour as well as her ‘masculine clothes and … very short haircut’. Their house, he remarks, was ‘devoid of the usual decorations and feminine touches one normally expects in a home’.

By 1935, now attached to University College London, Haldane was describing himself as a ‘not too thoroughgoing Marxist’. He feared that capitalism threatened the progress of science and of society itself. As he put it in 1940, ‘Donald Duck stepped off the screen and hit me on the jaw. Hitler started dismissing my German colleagues.’ The USSR, which he had visited with Charlotte in 1928, offered a sharp contrast, especially in its support for science generally and genetics in particular. By 1937, he was supporting the Communist Party. In My Friend Mr Leakey, a collection of stories for children published in the same year, he portrayed a magician as a Stalinist scientist in his own mould: arrogant and aloof, yet working for the ultimate benefit of humanity. The Spanish Civil War confirmed Haldane in his communism. He visited Spain to advise the Republican government on gas warfare and the war was the main topic of the thirty or so political speeches he gave in Britain in 1937 and 1938.

As the political situation worsened, it seemed that ‘we probably have not many years, let alone generations, to save our civilisation from collapse.’ To Haldane, Marxism satisfactorily diagnosed ‘the cause of our present distresses’, which had to be sought in the external world. It also assisted his science. A sympathetic reviewer in the Listener described The Marxist Philosophy and the Sciences (1938) as a ‘bright flower that has risen in dialectical antithesis to the carnage’. Dronamraju avoids the question of whether (or how much of) Haldane’s science actually followed from his application of a dialectical method. Haldane himself declared that he benefited from viewing nature as consisting ‘of processes, not things’, and the knowledge that ‘even in what appears to be most stable, such as a mountain or a long-established state, there are internal conflicts which are bound to lead to their transformation.’

*

It was this view of the world that Haldane tried to impart in his Daily Worker articles, which appeared weekly from December 1937 and which he considered ‘much the most important work I do for the Party’. Haldane’s earliest articles for a non-specialist readership had been in the 19th-century tradition of T.H. Huxley, written in the belief that the scientific method, as interpreted in talks and articles, would dissipate fogs of unreason, especially religious ones. The difference now was Haldane’s recognition that ‘without a much broader knowledge of science, democracy cannot be effective in an age when science affects all our lives continually.’ If only people understood the possibilities of science they would, in Bernal’s words, ‘become more reasonably impatient of their present state, and more capable of changing it.’ For Haldane, workers who were not communists were ‘mugs, deluded by the vast weight of propaganda which is poured over them daily’. The reach of his writing remains impressive: Science and Everyday Life, a collection of seventy Daily Worker articles (his first 16 months of contributions), sold more than 66,000 copies in two months in its Pelican edition.

Haldane assumed that interpreting science was also a contribution to science itself. It wasn’t simply that some would-be scientists received their education from such articles (Maynard Smith, writing in the LRB of 17 September 1981 recalled that his science education ‘to the age of almost thirty, depended entirely on reading the popular works of men like Julian Huxley, Wells, Haldane, Jeans, Eddington and Infeld … the ideas I got from them were profound, not superficial’). Haldane intended all his articles to contain information unavailable in textbooks, ‘and which a student leaving a university with an honours degree would not be expected to know’. Sometimes, new research appeared in the Daily Worker before its publication in specialised journals: the discovery of the ‘living fossil’ coelacanth Latimeria, for example, was announced in the Daily Worker ‘two days before a much fuller account appeared in Nature’.

Haldane’s ‘popular’ work also served to acquaint scientists themselves with developments outside their own specialism, at a time when they were becoming aware that increasingly distinct sub-disciplines were in fact ‘so linked up that we cannot tell how they will affect one another’. Julian Huxley recognised as early as 1927 that ‘the progress of biology in Great Britain is being retarded by the failure of specialists in its various branches to appreciate the bearings of work done in other fields than their own.’ The evolutionary synthesis emerged in this space, uniting the work of evolutionary naturalists and experimental biologists, and drawing, as Huxley later put it, on ‘ecology, genetics, palaeontology, geographical distribution, embryology, systematics, comparative anatomy – not to mention reinforcements from other disciplines such as geology, geography and mathematics’. As the historian of biology William Provine pointed out, general publications and broadcasts by the likes of Haldane and Huxley made it possible for scientists to perceive the connections between these different branches of biology. New theories, on the boundaries between disciplines, often appeared in non-specialist periodicals: Haldane’s widely discussed theory about the origin of life appeared in the Rationalist Annual. Here he speculated – based on knowledge of genetics, cosmology, chemistry, biochemistry and viruses – that primitive life evolved in a ‘hot dilute soup’ formed in the oceans after the sun’s ultraviolet rays acted ‘on a mixture of water, carbon dioxide and ammonia’ (the Soviet biochemist Aleksandr Ivanovich Oparin independently arrived at a similar theory). Haldane hinted at the value of knowing what was happening in other disciplines when he said that he ‘published rather more purely scientific work’ when he wrote his Daily Worker articles ‘than I had ever done before’.

During the Second World War, Haldane combined journalism with ‘work for the Services which is quite rightly secret, making about a hundred speeches a year and writing books on other subjects’. The navy asked Haldane to investigate physiological responses to different gases at different pressures, a matter of immediate concern after the sinking of the submarine HMS Thetis during trials in 1939 (resulting in the death of most of the crew from carbon dioxide poisoning). Characteristically, Haldane experimented on himself: mortifying his flesh by lying in a bath of ice and water for half an hour at a time ‘had the effect of dulling my response both to pains and sensual pleasures’, something that ‘many saints, and some revolutionaries (e.g. Blanqui) would have approved of’. In fact, CPGB officials worried that he was working himself to death; one suggested he should give up the dangerous experiments, while Harry Pollitt thought Haldane only kept going ‘by a bit of doping’. The MI5 file on Haldane (which, surprisingly, Dronamraju has chosen not to consult) shows that his relationship with the party was fraught. He complained of not having enough time to prepare a lecture; of unnecessary editorial interventions in his articles; of party sluggishness in finding him a new secretary; and of being given ‘truly futile’ work. Party colleagues described him as a ‘silly old fool’, but also valued his ‘brilliant mind’.

In 1948 the Soviet Union suppressed ‘bourgeois’ genetics, at the same time making Trofim Lysenko’s theories the orthodoxy. Lysenko promised to make Russia a verdant land through vernalisation, a process whereby plants were treated with cold, which accelerated their flowering, allowing winter wheat to be planted in spring; according to Lysenko these changes were inherited by the next generation. Haldane ‘kept an open mind’ about Lysenko’s work, repeatedly asking for more accurate information on his experiments (rather than summaries), and meekly rebutting some of his criticisms of genetics, while admitting others were fair. Responding to reports of the persecution of Soviet scientists, he said that capitalist science was equally ideological: hadn’t Western scientists been dismissed from academic posts? ‘My brother is getting into a tangle,’ Naomi wrote to their friend the science fiction writer Olaf Stapledon, ‘and he has made a great many enemies. The “Liberal” scientists are not nearly as much interested in freedom of speech as they are in downing a rival.’ Behind the scenes, Haldane and the CPGB’s other geneticists attempted to hold their ground, but it is undoubtedly the case that Haldane discredited himself in the eyes of many by not being firmer about Lysenko in public. Dronamraju describes his behav iour as ‘disappointing’. The Lysenko affair probably made Haldane even more irritated at the party’s disciplinary demands, but his ‘break’ with it was neither sudden nor complete. He did not resign in 1949, as Dronamraju claims; instead it seems he let his membership lapse sometime after 1950, though party members hoped he would come ‘back into fraternity again’.

Haldane first visited India when he was sent there to recuperate during the First World War, and wrote to Naomi that it was ‘an odd country, but I feel quite at home here.’ He sent her evocative descriptions of mice, insects and snakes, and wrote that he’d ‘like to Mendel’ the hairy-tailed rats. Forty years later, he decided to move there, partly out of disgust at Suez. As well as being a refuge from Western politics, India offered Haldane a shelter from the professionalised science that had emerged from the Second World War. Research, he said in his final essay, ‘is being more and more debased by team work, in which a large number of workers do what they are told to do, not what they want to do, and the results are remote.’ In India Haldane supervised genetic work, including Dronamraju’s, and attempted to increase the country’s rice yield, which ‘if it comes off, will be the most sensational bit of applied biology since Pasteur’. But India was not entirely paradisiacal. ‘The first thing to realise about this country,’ he wrote to Theodosius Dobzhansky, ‘is that from the “Western” and communist points of view alike its principal occupation is wasting time.’ His own time was largely wasted in railing against bureaucracy.

Haldane died at the age of 72, not long after an operation for bowel cancer. It wasn’t exactly the death he had imagined: he had wanted to die for his convictions at about seventy and laughing (he’d settle for two of the three, he said), and hoped to live ‘to see capitalism overthrown and the workers in power through most of Europe’. He was confident that at least ‘some of my work will not die when I do’. Dronamraju’s book doesn’t re-evaluate that work or the man who produced it, but with any luck it will inspire someone else to do justice to Haldane, in Peter Medawar’s reckoning one of the ‘three or four … most influential biologists of his generation’, who was after all ‘a with-knobs-on variant of us all’.