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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in