When he knew he was dying, the scientist JBS Haldane wrote that he hadn’t walked on the seafloor from England to France, but he had been wounded in war, known the love of two women, tried heroin and bhang, eaten 60g of hexahydrated strontium chloride in an attempt to change the acidity of his blood, and spent 48 hours in a miniature submarine.
His spine was permanently damaged by the convulsions brought on by more than 100 self-experiments, during the Second World War, inside decompression chambers filled with various gases, trying to understand how to save submariners’ lives.
Gassing oneself was the family business. Haldane’s father, John Scott Haldane, was a leading physiologist who, among other things, found out the hard way that excess carbon dioxide, not lack of oxygen, is what causes loss of consciousness in confined spaces. Haldane Sr also worked out how to prevent divers getting the bends, sending his 13-year-old son from the deck of a warship (HMS Spanker!) to the bottom of a Scottish sea loch in a weighted diving suit that leaked before raising him very slowly to the surface just in time. He took his son down a coalmine to make him try, while breathing methane, to recite Mark Antony’s funeral speech from Julius Caesar without blacking out. He got five lines in before fainting.
During the First World War father and son experimented on themselves with poison gas to understand its effects, its antidotes and how to design gas masks. This was after the son’s spell as a Black Watch officer in the trenches, where he became an expert on the design and use of mortar bombs. He thoroughly enjoyed the front line, rather more so than the soldiers whose stretch of front he drew retaliatory fire upon. Later he dodged death in the Spanish Civil War when a woman was killed by a shell sitting on the bench next to him.
Yet all this bonkers courage is a mere footnote to Haldane’s extraordinary life (1892-1964), which was dominated by two obsessions that eventually came into painful conflict: genetics and communism. Haldane was one of three scientists (the others were Ronald Fisher and Sewall Wright) who reconciled Darwinian natural selection with Mendelian genetics in the early part of the 20th century, in what became known as the new synthesis. He showed that far from the two theories being in conflict, the discovery of discrete “genes” was essential to explain the process of natural selection.
Haldane has a longer list of genetic insights to his name than probably any other scientist, including genetic linkage in mammals and kin selection (that animals sacrifice themselves for close relatives because of shared genes). He was responsible for calculating mutation rates and how they are faster in men, working out the mathematics of how one version of a gene displaces another during survival of the fittest, suggesting that sickle-cell anaemia genes can prevent malaria, mapping haemophilia and colour blindness to the X chromosome and showing how it is the sex with unequal sex chromosomes that is sterile in hybrids (males in mammals, females in birds and butterflies).
Relentlessly logical, obsessively mathematical and pugnaciously confident, Haldane did not suffer fools. He resisted the prevailing fashion for eugenics better than most biologists. So it is all the more baffling that he chose in the 1940s to defend the Soviet scientist Trofim Lysenko, long after everybody else in the West had recognised that this charlatan faked his results and had his rivals arrested and killed.
Lysenko argued, in direct contradiction of many of Haldane’s discoveries, that plants and animals could inherit changes forced on their bodies, not just their germ cells, in their lifetime. So wheat could be trained, rather than bred, to be frost resistant and could even be turned into rye by being cultivated in the “appropriate” way. He ordered sugar beet planted on a massive scale in semi-desert soil and blamed its total failure — which contributed to millions of Russians starving — on Trotskyite sabotage. Nikolai Vavilov, a brilliant geneticist who had hosted Haldane in Moscow, was arrested at Lysenko’s behest and died in jail, yet still Haldane defended Lysenko, most infamously in a BBC broadcast in 1948.
If Stalin thought Lysenko was right, that was good enough for Haldane. His only visit to the Soviet Union, in 1928, had coincided with the highly publicised trial of 53 engineers for supposedly sabotaging the productivity of coalmines in the town of Shakhty, effectively the first of the show trials that purged so many innocent victims throughout society. Yet Haldane “saw only what he cared to see”, his biographer Samanth Subramanian writes. In 1940 he appeared in a Soviet film endorsing the work of another pseudoscientist named Sergei Brukhonenko who claimed to keep alive the heads of decapitated dogs.
In 1942, enraged by fascism, Haldane had joined the British Communist Party, having embarked on a new career as a public speaker and activist, almost inciting a riot at the German embassy in 1938. In 1948 he was under pressure from the party to come to Lysenko’s defence, but this seems, for a man of such humanity, courage and independence of thought, a feeble reason for defending Lysenko. Even Haldane’s estranged wife, Charlotte, who was a party member before him, had by now left the party in protest at the treatment of Vavilov. Eventually, in the 1950s, the contradictions became too much even for Haldane. He resigned quietly from the party and stopped chairing the editorial board of the Daily Worker.
Subramanian’s superb biography of this extraordinary man begins with this troubling episode, arguing that “the Lysenko affair is an oddly perfect way to understand Haldane. A man stepped outside his character, and in so doing, revealed that character to us.” Admitting that he was wrong about Lysenko would mean admitting that he was wrong about Stalin and communism, Subramanian says. It will have to do as an explanation.
Subramanian does a masterly job of summarising a rich and rough life. He uses sharp analogies and arresting images. Haldane’s handwriting was like “ants somersaulting through snow”. His columns for the Daily Worker were like “razor blades in print”. He writes that in his thirties “the various streams of his experience pooled within the basin of his character”. Haldane would have approved. Look for a familiar analogy, he wrote in “How to write a popular scientific article”. But, both illustrating and contradicting the point, he also wrote “an ounce of algebra is worth a ton of verbal argument”.
Haldane was nonetheless a prolific and fluent generator of tons of verbal arguments, drawing on his Greats degree and deep draughts of philosophy and poetry in his essays and journalism. Some of his sayings have passed into legend. “The world is not only queerer than anyone has imagined, but queerer than anyone can imagine,” he wrote in a letter to Robert Graves. Whether Haldane actually said that the Creator “has an inordinate fondness for beetles” Subramanian is unable to confirm, disappointingly. But it sounds like him.
In 1956 Haldane emigrated to India, attracted more by Nehru’s socialism than anything else. Also, to avoid wearing socks: “Sixty years in socks is enough.” He soon fell out with the bureaucracy in the Indian Statistical Institute near Calcutta, moving to Bhubaneswar to run his own genetics institute. In 1963, while travelling in London, he was operated on for rectal cancer, writing what is possibly the funniest medical poem in existence, which Subramanian rightly quotes in full (sample rhyme: “My rectum is a serious loss to me/ But I’ve a very neat colostomy”). He died, aged 72, in December 1964.
Subramanian summarises Haldane’s contribution as “an incandescent persona: the man who lifted the arras that hid the work of nature; the man who stepped down, into the everyday world, from his tower of ivory; the man who shrugged away convention and defied authority”. Haldane deserves a biographer who is eloquent, intelligent, fair, but unsparing and as good at explaining science as politics. Not an easy combination, but he has got one.
A Dominant Character: The Radical Science and Restless Politics of JBS Haldane by Samanth Subramanian, Atlantic, 384pp; £20