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A Dominant Character - Samanth Subramanian ****

When a science book does well in the mainstream press, the science content is often weak. In this biography of geneticist J. B. S. Haldane, Samanth Subramanian manages to get enough science in to make it worthwhile as popular science, but also piles on the biographical details, particularly on Haldane's political side, which unusually for a scientist dominated his life.

Haldane, it seems, was a classic posh boy who thinks he knows what's good for working folk - a communist who quoted the classics - and along with his irascible, blunt (well, rude really) personality, delight in shocking others and apparent enthusiasm for the dangers of warfare, comes across as a fascinating, if sometimes repulsive study (on the whole, Subramanian takes a more forgiving view, though without holding back on Haldane's faults).

Apart from his decades-long enthusiasm for the Soviet Union and ruthless (and fearless) approach to military life, we see how Haldane's science brought huge strides in the very early days of genetics, when they didn't yet really know what a gene was, but could deduce aspects of what was happening mathematically. In what was at the time a very descriptive science, Haldane always brought mathematical rigour. Although there's a bit of a dip in the book around the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War, where the writing droops a bit, generally this is put across in a truly engaging fashion - if it weren't for this dip, the book would get a solid five stars.

Subramanian has clearly put a huge amount of effort in, going into extravagant detail, such as checking bank statements, to uncover the minutiae of Haldane's life. It's a shame the same care wasn't applied to finding out about the University of Cambridge. At one point we read that Haldane's future first wife, Charlotte 'killed time, walking around the campus...' - despite living several years in Cambridge, I never found a campus. We are also told that the university did not award Haldane a fellowship at Trinity College - missing that that's down to Trinity, not the university. There is also a large chunk of the early part of the book on Haldane's father - certainly interesting in his own right, but too much for me: I wanted to get onto the subject. And though much of Haldane's science is covered, I would have liked some more exploration of what the science actually meant, perhaps at the expense of a touch less verbiage on his political life.

A good book then, to find out more about a figure that most who are interested in science will have heard of as a name, but probably without much appreciation of either exactly what his scientific work covered, or how much he was a dupe of Moscow for a significant part of his life. At one point in the 1940s, when Lysenko was destroying Soviet science (and scientists), Haldane took part in a BBC radio broadcast where he used weasel words to defend the Soviet stance, putting his politics above his scientific and humanitarian side. A flawed, interesting character who, despite at the time being up there with the big names of science internationally, is now largely forgotten by the general public in a way that far less substantial literary types of the period, such as the Bloomsbury set, aren't.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

  1. I will take your word for it that he is largely forgotten by the general public. For those interested in population genetics, he is very much remembered for his part in laying down the groundwork of the subject, including numerical analysis of one of its most attractive examples, industrial melanism in the speckled moth

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    Replies
    1. Indeed - as with any discipline there are big names in the field who everyone with an interest knows. But the difference is how much Haldane was a well recognised name to the general public in his day, but it is no longer the case.

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  2. I remember coming across JBS as a kid in the late 60s via reading his children's book "My Friend Mr Leakey". Then I later found out hie was the son of JS Haldane when I was interested in the latter's work on respiratory physiology, inc dividing, mines, etc. I often quote JBS' famous quip about "If there is a God, he seems to have been inordinately fond of beetles"

    Apart from the science and the politics JBS was an important science popularizer in his day - a surprisingly amount of what he wrote in that line is actually around online if you hunt for it a bit.

    Always surprised JBS hasn't had a full bio before. My theory is that this is because all his personal papers (which he'd taken to India where he worked in his last yrs) were left in a hut after his death and eaten by termites, leaving a biographer w little personal to go on.

    Austin Elliott

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    Replies
    1. The book does suggest that the beetles quote may be apocryphal. The author seems to have accessed a lot of original material - I can only assume that some of his papers were preserved.

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    2. I found an archive entry at the Wellcome Collection for his stuff from UCL, so I guess Haldane left a lot of his work-related papers there. So sounds like it was only the personal and work stuff that went to India that got the termite treatment. The place where I read about the termites was a biography of JBS' father.
      https://wellcomecollection.org/works/g6djvdbe

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