The colorful and erudite J.B.S. Haldane: my take and a new biography

August 15, 2020 • 10:30 am

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.

69 thoughts on “The colorful and erudite J.B.S. Haldane: my take and a new biography

  1. Haldane Effect –

    First described by John Scott Haldane – J.B.S.’s father with one of the best moustaches ever :

    … of course, I’ll add that to my list of “things waiting to be unnamed”.

    J.B.S. Haldane contributed to enzyme kinetics:

    The Haldane of Briggs-Haldane kinetics and the Haldane equation is named …”for” him, I guess. Also on my list of “things waiting to be unnamed”.

  2. Haldane’s son Jack (known as JBS) was no less eccentric, conducting experiments on himself that resulted in his dental fillings exploded. In A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson writes, “Sent on a simulated descent, his wife once had a fit that lasted thirteen minutes. When at last she stopped bouncing across the floor, she was helped to her feet and sent home to cook dinner”.

  3. I have read the new biography, and I highly recommend it. The prose is superb and you get a true sense of the man, as well as his science. I too wish I could have met him, but like Jerry, was too young.

    However, I did get to hear a lecture by Sewall Wright at the University of Georgia. I still remember how he started off: “When I wrote this paper back in 1918…”, and that was in 1977! Now, I may have that first date off just a bit, but it definitely was around that time. My jaw dropped when I heard that.

      1. The earliest attribution to Haldane appears to be by John Maynard Smith in the 1970s after Haldane’s death. The quote seems to have all the attributes of being apocryphal, but it is so great that one would think the person who actually said it, if not Haldane, would take credit for it.

        1. If John Maynard Smith is the first person to be recordied using the phrase and he knew JBS Haldane and he claims it was Haldane who first said it, I’d be completely happy with the attribution.

  4. A must read for me. Haldane, though brilliant, had a number of strange ideas. For one, he denied a materialistic science of the mind, even declaring that the brain could not consist of atoms. His undisciplined intellect contributed to his creativity, no doubt.

  5. I’d say that Lord Monboddo (1714-1799) gives Haldane a run for the money re eccentric evolutionary biologists, though Monboddo predated Darwin: “Our legal heritage: Lord Monboddo, the nudist judge who pre-empted Darwin’s theory of evolution”

    Lord Neaves epitaph:

    Though Darwin now proclaims the law
    And spreads it far abroad, O!
    The man that first the secret saw
    Was honest old Monboddo.
    The architect precedence takes
    Of him that bears the hod, O!
    So up and at them, Land of Cakes,
    We’ll vindicate Monboddo.

    Wikipedia has a good article on Monboddo:,_Lord_Monboddo and his many eccentricities of behavior and thought (for instance, he thought that humans were born with tails and midwives removed them at birth but later retracted that belief.

    1. Evolution–or natural selection? Maybe not entirely clear to them.

      I seem to recall one of Charles Darwin’s grandfathers advocating for the evolution of new species from old. But that also would be later than the nudist judge.

  6. I didn’t meet Haldane, but I saw him give a lecture at the University of Wisconsin in late 1963, when I was an undergraduate. I also saw him in a smaller seminar that he gave where Sewall Wright was present. In contrast to the enmity between Fisher and Wright, they were quite polite to each other, but we students had expected to hear great wisdom flow from communication between them. But as usual Wright mumbled on to nobody in particular about his 1929 paper and his 1943 paper, and so on, while Haldane concentrated on making the worst puns he could think of. I read Subramanian’s book in a proof copy and provided him with one other anecdote about Haldane’s visit to Madison, and one from Dick Lewontin about Haldane’s visit to Rochester — they’re in the book.

    1. With regard to the Fisher-Wright enmity, Maynard Smith, in a discussion of one of the points of contention between them, began by noting the enmity, and then continued, “As a student of Haldane,…”, thus establishing his impartiality!


  7. People that strike me as having similar unusually remarkable career paths would be :

    Jared Diamond
    Ed Witten
    Jeffrey C. Hall

    … I might think of a few more…. I wonder if the modern academic structure and resources have room for individuals in recent generations to have the freedom to so broadly venture, or occupy different domains … or maybe once tenure is granted, they’re all set?…

    1. I just realized :

      Matthew Cobb wrote “The Resistance” and “Eleven Days in August” – pretty for removed subjects from “The Idea of the Brain” or “Life’s Greatest Secret”.

      1. … now very apologetic- after reviewing Prof. Cobb’s materials, I don’t know if the middle “C.” is appropriate, or indeed how I got it in my head.

  8. This is among the types of content I come to this site for, but please don’t tell me the beetles quote is apocryphal. I guess one of the consolations of being dead would be people continuing to say witty things for you.

    1. There is another quote about kin selection, to the effect: “I would be prepared to lay down my life for eight cousins or two brothers”. Like others, it seems hard to absolutely verify. But the great words have to come from somewhere!

      1. The full story, as I heard it, goes like this:

        Haldane is in a pub. It comes up that in the news recently there was a story about a man who was drowning in the Thames, and another man jumped in and saved him. Someone asks Haldane if he would jump into the Thames to save a drowning man. Haldane does not reply immediately, but begins to scribble on a napkin. After a few moments, he looks up from the napkin, and says, “No, but I would for two brothers or eight first cousins.”

        This of course would show that Haldane had a quantitative appreciation of “Hamilton’s Rule” before Hamilton had formulated it.


        1. Does that mean Haldane would *die* for the cousins or brothers? Because if he remained alive,, assuming everyone survived, wouldn’t that mean he could include more kin in his tally?

          1. Yes – you’d expect the outcome to be more than yourself alone so 3 brothers (or sisters) & 9 cousins. There has to me more than a balance or status quo. Diderum down… If the gain is equal to the loss there is still a net loss of those genes!

            1. Isn’t it likely that, if one person ventured to save someone who is truly at risk of dying from drowning, they BOTH will die?

              That is, someone drowning could likely grab on to the would-be rescuer and sadly drown them both?

              Thus, I think Haldane’s proposal that , diving into the Thames, he would die *but the drowning victim survives* is implausible.

              I know that’s not the point of the pithy statement, but … I tend to puzzle over things, and get in trouble…

            1. I believe that the original question was whether he would lay down his life for his brother. Haldane had no brothers, but one sister, the novelist Naomi Mitchison. She outlived him by many years. He did discuss this issue in 1955 in a paper in New Biology. There is a discussion (here) of this issue, with the relevant passage from the Haldane 1955 paper. See also the link there to my own commentary on his calculation, and the Wikipedia page on “kin selection”.

              1. I am guessing Haldane was one of those people who had so many brilliant ideas, he never bothered to write them all up. Same with his idea about palm leaf spirality and coconut yield.

              2. Thanks, Joe and Dom (see comment 15), for pointing to the original reference to the story. My version, set in a pub, is clearly derived from Maynard Smith’s (I’ll be sure to use “envelope” instead of “napkin” in future tellings!). I can’t recall who first told me the story. (There’s a small chance it might even have been Maynard Smith himself: I once spent an evening at a pub with him.)


  9. Besides Clark’s biography of Haldane (which I read and enjoyed, but, as Jerry notes, has little about his science), there have been two other recent ones:

    Popularizing Science: The Life and Work of JBS Haldane, by Krishna Dronamraju, which I’ve not seen (2017, OUP; on Amazon); and

    Comrade Haldane is Too Busy to Go on Holiday: the Genius Who Spied for Stalin, by Gavan Tredoux (2018; book’s website). I’ve not seen this one either, but there’s a lot of material on the associated website. This book apparently documents Haldane’s close connection to the Soviets; I’ve read an otherwise sympathetic review which concludes that the author does not prove the subtitle– the evidence that Haldane passed a document to the Russians is questionable, and at any event the British and Russians were allies at the time.

    I too am a fan of Haldane, and tell Haldane stories to my evolution class. Geneticist-physiologist-soldier-pacifist-communist-Hindu-atheist-patriot-expatriate, he was the original most interesting man in the world.


  10. Thanks for this post…another book on the list.

    Does anyone know what the contraption is Haldane is crawling out of on the book cover?

    1. I believe that is the pressure chamber constructed by his father John Scott Haldane. John Scott did pioneering experiments on decompression. His subjects included goats, himself and his son J.B.S. I might be wrong but that could be a photograph of his father, not J.B.S. They looked alike.

          1. It’s definitely JBS, not JS (and I have seen JBS, and yes, he looked like that). JBS Haldane continued his father’s work on diving, and during World War II was asked by the British Admiralty to investigate this and consult on escape from submarine accidents and the construction of the mini-subs that were used to attack the German battleship Tirpitz. Wikipedia got it wrong. It also once ran a photo of JS Haldane as the photo of JBS at its page on JBS.

              1. Yeah, I noticed that but figured it was a malleable feature and maybe the old man had a mustache like his son’s at some point. But I am now fully convinced it is J.B.S. It would have been embarrassing for the publishers of A Dominant Character had it been otherwise.

    2. Thanks all for the clarification. Evolutionary biologist and pressure chamber…who can know what makes up the right stuff.

  11. That’s a great poem by J.B.S.. Here’s another great poem sent to Bertrand Russell while he was in jail (1917) (translation from the original Chinese):”Sent as a present from Amman/a red cockatoo/color’d like the peach tree blossom/and speaking with the speech of men/and they did to it/what is always done/ to the learned and eloquent/they took a cage with stout bars/and shut it up inside.”

  12. Yes I read the review in the Sunday Times a few weeks ago. It says the book has a look at his views on eugenics so it will be interesting. There was a pub he used to go to in Euston Rd I am sure, long gone, & I seem to recall it was connected with a story about him.
    Aha! It was in the Orange Tree – & it was where he said who he’d lay down his life for! Maynard Smith-
    “I first heard the idea in the now-demolished Orange Tree off the Euston Road; J. B. S. Haldane who had been calculating on the back of an envelope for some minutes, announced that he was prepared to lay down his life for eight cousins or two brothers. This remark contained the essence of an idea which W. D. Hamilton, a lecturer in zoology at Imperial College, London, was later to generalise. Unfortunately, Haldane, although he referred to the idea in an article in Penguin New Biology, did not follow it up, and may not have appreciated its importance.“

    The full story in The Quote Investigator with his original statement on kin selection –
    What a great bloke… I will be reading it… I love this history. Of biology…

  13. Thank you, Dr. Coyne. Since my knowledge is so limited in science, I had heard of Haldane but knew very little about him. What a fascinating man.

    And I appreciated both poems. Especially the one to Bertrand Russell.

    Since genes were mentioned. I recently read about a set of identical twin sisters married to identical twin brothers, both females of whom are expecting. I can’t find the article now, but the genetic relationship of the babies seemed to have been considered special. Would anyone know about this?

  14. From Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘Technology and the Future’ (1967):

    “Which brings a poignant memory to mind. The last letter I ever received from that great scientist Professor J. B. S. Haldane1 was written when he was dying of cancer and in considerable pain from his operations. In it, he said what a boon the weightless environment of a space hospital would be to patients like himself—not to mention burn victims, sufferers from heart complaints, and those afflicted with muscle diseases. I am convinced that research in space will open up unguessed regions of medical knowledge and give us a vast range of new therapies. So I get pretty mad when I hear ignorant but well-intentioned people ask, ‘Why not spend the space budget on something useful—like cancer research?’ When we do find a cancer cure, part of the basic knowledge will have come from space. And ultimately we will find even more important secrets there: perhaps, someday, a cure for death itself….”

  15. And if anyone feels like reading Haldane’s own words, Daedalus (1923) is here:

    A sample: “There does not seem to be any particular reason why a religion should not arise with an ethic as fluid as Hindu mythology, but it has not yet arisen. Christianity has probably the most flexible morals of any religion, because Jesus left no code of law behind him like Moses or Muhammad, and his moral precepts are so different from those of ordinary life that no society has ever made any serious attempt to carry them out, such as was possible in the case of Israel and Islam. But every Christian church has tried to impose a code of morals of some kind for which it has claimed divine sanction. As these codes have always been opposed to those of the gospels a loophole has been left for moral progress such as hardly exists in other religions. This is no doubt an argument for Christianity as against other religions, but not as against none at all, or as against a religion which will frankly admit that its mythology and morals are provisional. That is the only sort of religion that would satisfy the scientific mind, and it is very doubtful whether it could properly be called a religion at all.”

  16. I’ve always tried not to concern myself about the “human side” of scientists, but to focus on their contribution to scientific knowledge…. but somehow I’ve never been able to manage this. I’ve especially been a great admirer of Haldane… both the work he did and the man himself. So I’m offering this touching video perspective… an interview of John Maynard Smith by Richard Dawkins – the subject Haldane-the man. I find it rather marvelous… the human side of three great evolutionary scientists in touching perspective

  17. The physiology department at UCL was very proud of Haldane when I was there in the 70’s. The main laboratory and a lecture theatre were named for him.

  18. Haldane in aerogramme:
    “..mathematics are grim..”

    He’s gotta be right and me wrong–I’d always thought of “mathematics” as singular, not plural.

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