JBS Haldane: An enquiry into an uncommon mind

Vineetha Mokkil | Updated on December 20, 2019 Published on December 19, 2019

Ahead of his time: Described as one of the most learned scientists of his time, JBS Haldane found India a secular nation that encouraged discussion and debate   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Samanth Subramanian’s latest book ‘A Dominant Character’ delves into the life and times of trail-blazing British scientist JBS Haldane

JBS Haldane (1892–1964) was a “Darwinian preacher leading his tribe, setting down the virtues of reason, experiment, and clarity... ushering people into the deep, elegant mysteries of science”. Samanth Subramanian’s latest book A Dominant Character is a riveting biography about this trail-blazing British geneticist and physiologist, whom the philosopher CP Snow called the “most learned scientist of his time”. What made Haldane one of the most famous scientists of his age was “not just his science but also his writing and politics — the first clear and illuminating, the second unbending and forthright, both deeply attractive during a time of shifting, murky moralities”.

A Dominant Character; Samanth Subramanian; Non-fiction; Simon & Schuster ; ₹799


Haldane wrote extensively in newspapers and magazines, reaching out to readers through columns and incisive opinion pieces, relishing his role as “a communicator of scientific truth”. He was a rare breed of scientist — deeply involved in politics and deeply committed to popularising science and opening up scientific research to the public. A Marxist, Haldane believed science must strive to “improve or perfect the way people lived”.

Subramanian, journalist and the author of two incisive books of reportage, Following Fish and This Divided Island, brings his outspoken, strong-willed and gifted subject to life on the pages of A Dominant Character. Meticulously researched using archival material from diverse sources including Haldane’s own papers, provided to him by the scientist’s grand nieces and nephews, this biography charts the course of Haldane’s tumultuous life, which was packed with “enough danger and drama for a dozen ordinary humans”. The accounts of his formative years — spent as an apprentice to his scientist father, and his close relationship with his mother and sister, both formidable intellects — make interesting reading. A precocious boy who asked a lot of questions, he was taught by his mother to read. Before he turned five, the prodigy could read the newspaper reports about the meetings of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Thanks to his father’s hands-on approach to science, the young Haldane was able to meet people from various walks of life, such as miners, soldiers, sailors, and railwaymen. These encounters shaped his consciousness and helped him understand the workings of class politics. Haldane eventually joined the British Communist Party in 1942. Marxism appealed to him because, according to him, Marxists studied history and economics with “objective curiosity”, so they could then “predict and control events” and bring about material change in society.

There is no dearth of published or unpublished material on the Haldane family. Haldane’s mother, Louisa, published a memoir titled Friends and Kindred. His sister, Naomi, was a prolific writer and social activist whose circle of friends included prominent writers and thinkers such as Aldous Huxley, WH Auden and EM Forster. Naomi’s insights into Haldane after he returned from fighting in the trenches in World War I are especially poignant. She wrote about her brother in an unpublished manuscript, “Jack had been killing people for several years, apart from the breaks which followed their attempts to kill him. That does something to shift one’s personality... return is slow. Nothing any more looks innocent.”

The army sent Haldane to Pune to recuperate after he was wounded. From Pune, he travelled to Shimla and then to Delhi. In India, his “twitchy curiosity came alive”. He learnt some Urdu, went to the Kumbh Mela, observed the meetings of the legislative council in Delhi. India gifted him a rich variety of experience and a “potent political education”. Though he expressed some enthusiasm for the colonial project of ‘civilising’ India and recruiting Indian officers to the army, he realised that the Raj was fundamentally an “exploitative project” and the British empire had turned Indian genius “sterile”.

Years later, in 1957, Haldane and wife Helen Spurway (his former student and biologist) moved to India permanently and took up a professorship and a readership, respectively, at the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), Calcutta. Haldane had visited India many times and made a number of friends in the country, including PC Mahalanobis, the director of ISI. He was keen on researching across a range of topics, including Indian plant and animal life. He also had an abiding interest in Hinduism and its core philosophy. Hailing Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s scientific-socialist vision for India, Haldane viewed the country as “a vast experiment to see how a wise application of science could advance the lives of hundreds of millions of people”. The Soviet Union had been a similar experiment, but the destruction of democratic norms by Stalin had shattered his faith in it. India “gave him hope” because it was a secular nation that encouraged discussion and debate.

His India stint — unfolding during his sunset years — is every bit as adventurous and unpredictable as the ones featured at the start of the book. The bureaucratic machine at ISI frustrated him and he rebelled against the hierarchies put in place at ISI by Mahalanobis. The two friends had a falling out and both the Haldanes quit ISI in 1961. JBS Haldane went on to join The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research at Calcutta, but red-tape stifled him there too. Finally, he moved to Bhubaneswar, accepting the invitation of then Orissa chief minister Biju Patnaik to set up a new genetics laboratory.

A Dominant Character maps one of the greatest minds of modern science and skilfully commemorates the life and genius of Haldane and his many contributions. Biographer Richard Holmes defined the task of a biographer as a “kind of pursuit... writing about that fleeting figure in such a way as to bring them alive in the present”. Subramanian does a fine job in bringing alive Haldane in our time. This book is a major contribution to modern intellectual history as well as an insightful and moving biography.

Vineetha Mokkil is the author of A Happy Place And Other Stories

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Published on December 19, 2019
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