Book Reviews - Summer 2020

Mysterious Inheritance

A new biography of the founder of population genetics

By David Brown | June 2, 2020
From left: J.B.S. Haldane; his father, J.S. Haldane; and their Oxford colleague H.W. Davies, in the laboratory, c. 1920 (Courtesy of the publisher)
From left: J.B.S. Haldane; his father, J.S. Haldane; and their Oxford colleague H.W. Davies, in the laboratory, c. 1920 (Courtesy of the publisher)

A Dominant Character: The Radical Science and Restless Politics of J. B. S. Haldane by Samanth Subramanian; Norton, 400 pp., $40

Say what you will about communism, it had a way of fooling a lot of smart people. For a long time, it was as much an opiate of the intellectuals as—to quote its cofounder, Karl Marx—religion was an opiate of the masses. There’s no better example than J. B. S. Haldane.

A British mathematician and biologist, Haldane is best known for refining the rules of genetic inheritance that Gregor Mendel set forth (and strategically oversimplified). In so doing, he helped explain the mechanics of natural selection, Charles Darwin’s revolutionary idea. He made the first estimate of the mutation rate of human genes, long before DNA was known to be the genetic material. He was a founding father of population genetics. He was a tireless teacher of the scientific method, writing popular books and hundreds of newspaper columns.

At the same time, Haldane was an incurious fan of the Soviet Union, chairman of the editorial board of The Daily Worker, and member of the Communist Party of Great Britain (departing only in 1950). To the astonishment of his peers, he even defended Trofim Lysenko, Stalin’s favorite biologist, who said he could make a cultivar of wheat permanently cold-tolerant by burying a sack of its seeds in a snow bank for a month. Haldane surely knew that inheritance of acquired characteristics was bogus and contradicted his own research.

Samanth Subramanian’s excellent new biography, A Dominant Character, starts with that strange episode—Haldane’s defense of Lysenko in a BBC broadcast in 1948.

“The Lysenko affair,” he writes, “had become about something other than science; it had become political, calling into question not Haldane’s reasoning but his emotional attachment to the party. Admitting he was wrong about Lysenko would mean admitting he was wrong about communism and the nature of Stalin’s regime. He was prepared to hold this hill and fight upon it.”

Subramanian neither excuses Haldane nor issues him a moral death sentence. Haldane’s Soviet blind spot was just the biggest of several contradictions in a larger-than-life story.

Haldane was the best-respected English scientist of the 1920s and 1930s but is little remembered today. That’s not surprising—scientific advancement tends to sweep away the names of all but a few discoverers (Newton, Einstein, Darwin, Freud, Watson, Crick). Ironically, he may be best known for a quip that can’t be attributed to him with certainty. Asked what he’d learned about God from his study of nature, Haldane supposedly said: “He has an inordinate fondness for beetles.” (Beyond that, he was agnostic.)

Subramanian, an Indian journalist who’s written for The New Yorker and The Guardian, among other publications, recognizes the hazards of writing a book about a person few have heard of. He’s wisely made Haldane’s life a vehicle for telling the story of several eras and the events that defined them. These include the trauma of the Great War, the romance of communism and the Spanish Civil War, the rise and fall of the eugenics movement, the popularization of science, and the end of colonialism. Haldane had a role in all of them.

John “Jack” Burdon Sanderson Haldane was born in 1892 to a family that valued science and social consciousness equally. His father, John Scott Haldane, was a “demonstrator” at Oxford specializing in the physiology of respiration, which became one of his son’s lifelong interests, too. J. S. created decompression protocols for the Admiralty’s divers so that they wouldn’t get the bends. He analyzed air in the tenements of the Scottish mill city Dundee and found it loaded with bacteria and mold, and more carbon dioxide than in the sewers under the Houses of Parliament. “His experience of the Dundee slums may not have made him a radical, but it kept him one,” his son wrote.

Young Jack was enlisted in his father’s research (as was his younger sister, Naomi, albeit less frequently, to her lifelong regret). At 13, he almost drowned in a hard-hat diving accident in Scotland. Later, he was overcome by methane in a coal mine. He coauthored his first paper at 19, crunching the numbers for his father’s studies of hemoglobin’s varying affinity for oxygen and carbon monoxide.

Haldane went to Eton, where the experience of being bullied cemented his sympathy for victims, and then went on to study mathematics and classics at Oxford’s New College. By January 1915, he was on the Western Front, firing a trench mortar and communing with working people. It was, he later wrote, just about the best time of his life: “I think war is a monstrous evil, and yet admit that I enjoy it. This is an internal contradiction in my mind.”

Haldane’s contributions to military science, in fact, were considerable. He went to Spain three times to advise the factions fighting Franco on gas mask design and the screening of transfused blood. When a submarine sank in the Irish Sea in 1939, killing 99 men, the British government enlisted him to do research on respiratory physiology and rescue gear. Later, he advised on the mathematics of air raids.

During his long career, Haldane worked out the numerical relationship between a mutation’s reproductive advantage (“fitness”) and the number of generations it takes for the trait to become fixed in a population. He suggested that the mutation causing thalassemia, a blood disorder similar to sickle cell anemia, might have been “preserved” by natural selection because it protected against fatal malaria. He thought that our bodies rejected transplanted tissue because of a gene-based immune response—an insight that foreshadowed today’s human leukocyte antigen (HLA) matching of donor and recipient. The year before his death, he speculated that RNA might have been the original molecule of life, as is now widely accepted.

Subramanian salts Haldane’s scientific contributions through the book, but the reader finishes wondering: “Well, what exactly did he do?” A chapter devoted to detailing the most important of his achievements would have been useful.

Nevertheless, A Dominant Character, despite its oddly flat title, is full of insight and felicitous writing. “By gaining a numerical grip on linkage [between color blindness and hemophilia on the X chromosome],” Subramanian writes, “Bell and Haldane became cartographers, penciling the very first squiggle of coast upon humankind’s gene map.”

In 1957, Haldane and his second wife, Helen Spurway, moved to India. He’d spent time there during the Great War, recuperating from a wound he’d received in Mesopotamia after being transferred from France. He liked the place. MI5, Britain’s domestic security agency, had been keeping a file on him since 1928, and he was tired of it. He wanted to help train a postcolonial community of scientists.

Predictably, and as in England, he clashed with his academic employers. But he stayed and died there of colorectal cancer in 1964. He gave his organs to a medical school, and his skeleton was wired together for display “in an anatomy museum.”

I hope it’s still there someplace, teaching biology.

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