A red in the lab

Issue: 157

Camilla Royle

A review of Krishna Dronamraju, Popularizing Science: The Life and Work of JBS Haldane (Oxford University Press, 2017), £22.99.

On 22 April 2017 thousands of people around the world joined demonstrations in defence of science. Many of them were, and are, outraged by Donald Trump’s climate denial and cuts to environmental protection. Many are exercised by the possibilities of science, by the hope that the world could be run more rationally, or by the desire that scientists and the work they do is recognised and properly funded. Many of those attending the march in London argued that science should be kept free from politics, that evidence is superior to “ideology” or even that science is inherently a good thing. However, Marxists usually take a more nuanced position, arguing that it is impossible (some would say also undesirable) to separate scientific knowledge from ideology. We can also defend the rights of working scientists as workers, and criticise some of the uses to which science is put; the example of nuclear weapons ought perhaps to raise doubts about whether science is always good or progressive. These ideas have been covered in greater length elsewhere in this journal, including by John Parrington in issue 155. However, since these debates have reopened it is timely that a new biography of JBS Haldane, an eminent biologist and card carrying member of the Communist Party, has been published. Unfortunately though, this book falls short of offering an understanding of Haldane’s science and politics.

Haldane was born into a wealthy family and studied at Eton and Oxford. He was the son of another famous biologist, John Scott Haldane, the brother of the writer Naomi Mitchison, and the nephew of Richard Burdon Haldane, who gave his name to the society of socialist lawyers. JBS was a phenomenal scientist with an extraordinary ability to absorb and combine insights from different fields. He contributed significantly to biology and actually founded several new branches of the discipline. As Krishna Dronamraju explains, Haldane’s “major contribution to science” was that, along with Ronald Fisher and Sewall Wright, he founded population genetics. To put it simply, population genetics combines the theory of evolution established by Charles Darwin with the mathematical rules of how characteristics are passed from a parent to its offspring uncovered by Gregor Mendel. This “modern synthesis” of the two strands of thought, provided a framework on which biology has since been built.

Haldane’s ideas about the origins of life: that early forms of life could have arisen from replicating molecules in a hot, oxygen-free environment (the ­primordial soup), laid the basis for subsequent investigations in the 20th century. He also contributed significantly in several other areas of evolutionary biology, asking questions that seem not to have been considered before. For example why are animals a certain size? Why are there no insects as big as elephants? This biography includes a terrific chapter on his experiments into the effects of breathing various different gases, carried out on himself and his long-suffering graduate students. These experiments were sometimes dangerous and painful. They could lead to convulsions, unconsciousness and, on at least one occasion, a burst lung.

Despite his well-to-do upbringing, Haldane was won over to socialist ideas (describing himself as “a skilled manual worker and a trade unionist”), followed by full-blown Marxism. He became a supporter of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CP), was a regular contributor to the party’s Daily Worker newspaper and visited the Soviet Union in 1928. He joined the party officially in 1942.

However, many of Haldane’s views on the future “betterment of society” would sit uncomfortably with left wing readers today. One of his earliest books was titled Callinicus: A Defence of Chemical Weapons (Callinicus of Heliopolis was the 7th century inventor of a chemical weapon known as Greek fire). Haldane argued that warfare could eventually be abolished if its causes were known but that since more wars were to be expected in the near future, a country ought to arm itself with the most effective weapons and therefore be on the winning side. Although Haldane actively opposed the Nazis, he supported eugenics and saw it as unfortunate that “less able” people were apparently “breeding faster than the skilled classes”. He differed from other eugenicists in that he strongly opposed compulsory sterilisation. He also objected to the assumption that capitalist society is basically benevolent and humanity merely needs to be improved in order to raise it to the level of society. One of his predictions of what a future society might look like involved growing babies in test tubes, extremely controversial at a time when even mentioning birth control was taboo. The idea evidently had an influence on his friend, the author Aldous Huxley.

As Gary Werskey argues convincingly in his 1978 collective biography of red scientists, The Visible College, Haldane never shook off his commitment to the socialism from above that was on offer from the CP. This was a vision of socialism brought about by great leaders rather than through workers’ self-activity. This goes some way to account for Haldane’s militarism. But it also explains some of his scientific determinism. In other words, he seems to have believed that society would progress forwards along a linear path determined by its adoption of new scientific ideas and technologies. As Werskey says, this treats scientists as separate from and sitting above the rest of society. It short-cuts class struggle by suggesting that a more just world can be brought about simply by putting in place better leaders who will listen to the opinions of their scientist advisors.

In later life Haldane moved to India, took an interest in Hinduism and started wearing traditional Indian clothes to cope with the Bombay heat. The author of this new biography is one of his former students at the Indian Statistical Institute in Calcutta and one of the last living people to have worked with him.

A more conventional biography, written chronologically, might have revealed how Haldane’s science developed in line with his shifting political outlook. However, Dronamraju instead deals with different aspects of his life in distinct chapters leading to a narrative that sometimes skips back and forth through time, often confusingly mentioning things in passing that are not dealt with properly until later. The book assumes prior knowledge of genetics. And it could do with a further copy edit. Whole sentences are sometimes annoyingly repeated and there are some glaring errors. For example, Haldane is described as only a year and a half older than his wife Charlotte, followed two pages later with the statement that he was 33 and she 28 when they met. Incidentally, it seems to have been Charlotte who encouraged JBS to take an interest in science popularisation. She had a major influence on his Marxist ideas although she herself would become disillusioned with Stalinism and leave the Communist Party much earlier than he did.

Overall this biography is strong on Haldane’s contribution to biology but has little to say about his politics that can’t be read elsewhere. Readers of this journal would be better off trying to find a copy of Werskey’s classic.

Camilla Royle is a postgraduate student at King’s College London whose research interests include the radical science movements of the 1970s and 1980s.