UPDATE: Greg Mayer noted that Jonathan Weiner reviewed the new Haldane bio in the New York Times, also favorably. The link is below, and here’s one quote from Weiner’s review:
“A Dominant Character” is the best Haldane biography yet. With science so politicized in this country and abroad, the book could be an allegory for every scientist who wants to take a stand. “In the past few years,” Subramanian writes, “as we’ve witnessed deliberate assaults on fact and truth and as we’ve realized the failures of the calm weight of scientific evidence to influence government policy, the need for scientists to find their voice has grown even more urgent.” Haldane’s political principles were “unbending and forthright,” as Subramanian says, and his science illuminated all of life. In both these ways, for all his failings, he was “deeply attractive during a time of shifting, murky moralities.”
J. B. S. Haldane (1892-1964) was probably the most colorful character in the history of modern evolutionary biology. Son of a famous physiologist, he was precocious and brilliant, earning a First in both Greats (classics) and mathematics at Oxford. He went on to become one of the three people (along with R. A. Fisher and Sewall Wright) to provide the mathematical underpinnings of the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis, in particular working out how genes would behave under natural selection.
But he made other substantial contributions, suggesting possible theories for the origin of life, becoming the first person to suggest that the gene for sickle-cell anemia was (in one copy) adaptive in areas where malaria was prevalent (he was right), and was also the first to estimate the mutation rate for a human gene.
He was also the first to notice a phenomenon I worked on much of my career: “Haldane’s rule.” That generalization, which others named after him, was the observation that in crosses between different species, if only one sex of offspring was sterile or inviable (with the other being fertile or viable), it was almost invariably the heterogametic sex: the one that had unlike sex chromosomes. So in flies and mammals, for instance, where males are XY and females XX, if there’s an asymmetry in hybrid sterility or inviability, over 95% of the time it is the males who suffer. In contrast, in birds and butterflies, in which females have unlike sex chromosome and males like ones, it’s the females who suffer among hybrids. Haldane’s explanation for this phenomenon was wrong, but I took up the issue again since it laid fallow since 1922, when Haldane published a short paper on it. It was mainly my students and collaborators, however, who worked out the complete explanation, which has an important bearing on speciation.
Haldane was famous for being a colorful character. Eager to serve in the trenches in World War I, he rode a bicycle along the line, trying to provoke enemy fire. (He apparently knew no fear his whole life.) He was a ferocious drinker, and his student, John Maynard Smith, used to tell me stories about Haldane’s bibulous episodes. One was that, after a night in the pub, the engine of Haldane’s car caught on fire. He immediately urged everyone to douse the fire by urinating on it.
Haldane is also known for his (possibly apocryphal) reply to someone who asked him what one could infer about the creator from the nature of the creation. Haldane’s supposed reply, “An inordinate fondness for beetles.” (Beetles are the most numerous of insect orders—Coleoptera—with over 350,000 species.) My Ph.D. advisor Dick Lewontin told me that he once invited Haldane to Rochester (where Dick held his second academic job), and Haldane insisted on going shopping for underwear for his wife, Helen Spurway. Wearing his characteristic Indian clothes (Haldane had by then moved to India in protest of British policy in the Suez), Haldane embarrassed everyone by asking for black lace panties and bras in his loud, booming voice.
Haldane was also an immensely talented science writer and popularizer, erudite—remember, he had a First in Greats—with a light touch. With his terse prose, he could be considered the Hemingway of popular science. To get a flavor of his writing, read one of his famous essays, “On Being the Right Size,” which you can find free at the link.
By the way, when I graduated from Harvard, Dick gave me, as a graduation present, an aerogramme he’d received from Haldane in response to an invitation to lecture. You can read it for yourself, and see the diversity of J. B. S.’s interests:
Dick also told me that it was when Haldane was visiting Rochester that he noticed blood while defecating, the first sign of the colon cancer that eventually killed him. But even his impending death didn’t bother Haldane that much, and he wrote a really funny poem about his cancer and colostomy called “Cancer’s a funny thing.” You can read it here, but below are a few lines:
I wish I had the voice of Homer
To sing of rectal carcinoma,
Which kills a lot more chaps, in fact,
Than were bumped off when Troy was sacked.
Yet, thanks to modern surgeon’s skills,
It can be killed before it kills
Upon a scientific basis
In nineteen out of twenty cases.
I noticed I was passing blood
(Only a few drops, not a flood).
So pausing on my homeward way
From Tallahassee to Bombay
I asked a doctor, now my friend,
To peer into my hinder end,
To prove or to disprove the rumour
That I had a malignant tumour. . .
. . .So now I am like two-faced Janus
The only* god who sees his anus.
*In India there are several more
With extra faces, up to four,
But both in Brahma and in Shiva
I own myself an unbeliever.
I’ll swear, without the risk of perjury,
It was a snappy bit of surgery.
My rectum is a serious loss to me,
But I’ve a very neat colostomy. . .
Note that Haldane consulted a doctor on his return from Tallahassee, which, as he noted in the aerogramme above, he was visiting after he came to Rochester.
Finally, Haldane was an intensely political animal. He was a Communist, joined the British Communist Party (often giving speeches against the government), and even supported the charlatan Trofim Lysenko and his Lamarckian theories of crop breeding, simply because Lysenko was touted by Stalin. This was a serious misstep for a scientist—especially an evolutionary biologist—but Haldane, disenchanted, eventually left the party. He moved to India in 1956 to join the Indian Statistical Institute in Kolkata, and died in Bhubeneswar, where the aerogramme above was written. After his move, Haldane always dressed in Indian clothes, even when traveling to the West (he said “sixty years in socks is enough!”). Here’s a picture of him (left) with the famous statistician P. C. Mahalanobis:
Wikipedia gives several encomiums tendered by those who knew him or knew of his work:
Arthur C. Clarke credited him as “perhaps the most brilliant science populariser of his generation”. Nobel laureate Peter Medawar called Haldane “the cleverest man I ever knew”. According to Theodosius Dobzhansky, “Haldane was always recognized as a singular case”; and to Michael J. D. White, “the most erudite biologist of his generation, and perhaps of the century.”
I’ve written too much already, as all I intended to do was highlight a new biography of Haldane that was favorably reviewed (by conservative Matt Ridley!), in the London Times. Reader Pyers sent me a transcript, adding, “You might be interested in a new book which is a biography of JBS Haldane. The headline in the review in the London Times sums him up perfectly: ‘The stupidity of a brilliant mind’.”
I’ll send a copy of the review if you’d like to see it.
There was an earlier biography of J. B. S. (that’s what his colleagues and students called him) by Ronald Clark, which is okay but very light on Haldane’s science. Click on the screenshot to go to its Amazon page:
And here’s the new biography (click to go to Amazon page), which came out July 28. The title is a double entendre, as in genetics “a dominant character” is a trait produced by a gene that gives full expression of the trait when the carrier has only one copy of the gene (polydactyly and attached earlobes are two such traits in humans).
Here is the evaluative part of Ridley’s review:
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”.
. . . 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.
I’ll be reading the book, for it’s hard to get enough Haldane. I wish I’d met the man, but he died before I graduated from high school and began studying biology.