Blute Blog

Blute's blog about evolutionary theory: biological, sociocultural and gene-culture.

J. B. S. Hadane’s Biography

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Lately I enjoyed reading Samanth Subramanian’s recently published biography of J. B. S. Haldane, A Dominant Character: The Radical Science and Restless Politics of J. B. S. Haldane published by W. W. Norton in 2020.

Haldane (1892-1964) is largely remembered today along with Ronald Fisher and Sewall Wright as forging the foundations of population genetics, commonly known as neo-Darwinism or “the modern synthesis” uniting Mendel’s theory of heredity with Darwin’s theory of evolution in the nineteen twenties and thirties. According to Subramanian, he got along well with both of them but they did not get along well with each other.

Haldane was obviously a memorable character. He grew up assisting his physiologist father and not uncommonly serving as a subject for his father’s research and continued that tradition in the first world war on the front with respect to the use of munitions and in the second world war experimenting on himself and others seeking solutions to a submarine disaster to the detriment of his health. His first marriage was something of a scandal as she was married with a son when they began their relationship; they were later divorced and he married a research assistant. He regretted never having children. He was always rebellious against authority whether at school, in the various academic institutions that employed him in Britain, and even in the first institute in India that he moved to at age 65 after the Suez crisis, eventually becoming an Indian citizen.

After the war, he was the most visible scientist of his time in Britain, always in demand as a popular writer, speaker and for guest appearances. His popular writings were usually on some scientific point while veering into politics. He was the recipient of many scientific honorary awards from the British, the French and the Americans. He opposed racism and at least coercive eugenics even though his forecast for the future included a lot of positive eugenics including eliminating congenital defects, choosing occupations one is genetically best suited for, in vitro fertilization, cloning and so on.

Haldane believed science, politics and ethics could not be disentangled. He was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and indeed was chair of the editorial board of the party’s paper, The Daily Worker when it was banned for a time. Lysenko and Stalin presented him with a dilemma – tension between his science and Lysenkoism. Although he quit the party in 1950, he never formally renounced Lysenko or Stalin. M15 assiduously followed him around and compiled a large file on him but there is no evidence that he was ever a Soviet spy. He even managed to stir up controversy after his death from cancer when John Maynard Smith, Haldane’s student and fellow communist for a time (Smith quit the party over Lysenko in 1948) reported that Haldane had anticipated Hamilton’s inclusive fitness principle by declaring that he would lay down his life for two siblings or four cousins.

Subramanian effectively admits that the terms “modern” and “synthesis” ring a little hollow these days in light of contemporary findings about epigenetic inheritance and the emphasis on ecology and development as well as heredity leading to calls for a “new” or an “extended” synthesis. Somehow I doubt that Haldane would have minded – he always welcomed unexpected findings.

Written by Marion Blute

October 27, 2020 at 2:46 pm

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