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A Johnsonian Scientist

The lives of scientists, considered as Lives, almost always make dull reading. For one thing, the careers of the famous and the merely ordinary fall into much the same pattern, give or take an honorary degree or two, or (in European countries) an honorific Order. It could hardly be otherwise. Academics can only seldom lead lives that are spacious or exciting in a worldly sense. They need laboratories or libraries and the company of other academics. Their work is in no way made deeper or more cogent by privation, distress, or worldly buffetings. Their private lives may be unhappy, strangely mixed up or comic, but not in ways that tell us anything special about the nature or direction of their work. Academics lie outside the devastation area of the literary convention according to which the lives of artists and men of letters are intrinsically interesting, a source of cultural insight in themselves. If a scientist were to cut his ear off, no one would take it as evidence of a heightened sensibility; if an historian were to fail (as Ruskin did) to consummate his marriage, we should not suppose that our understanding of historical scholarship had somehow been enriched.

The lives of writers, however, give out a low rumble of cultural portents. One day this summer The Times of London devoted a whole column on its front page to new discoveries about the circumstances under which Joseph Conrad came to be discharged by the captain of the Riversdale, in which he was serving as first mate—discoveries described as “extremely important” for the understanding of Conrad and his art, because traces of the incident are to be discerned in Conrad’s fiction. (But what are we to make of a scale of values in which such a discovery ranks as extremely important? Would it not have been of epoch-making significance—nay, downright interesting—if Conrad had not used his experience of shipboard life in writing his stories about the sea?)

YET J. B. S. Haldane’s life, as Ronald Clark recounts it,* is fascinating from end to end. Unless one is in the know already, there is no foretelling at one moment what comes next. Haldane had a flying start in life. His father was a famous physiologist; his uncle translated Schopenhauer and became Lord Chancellor and Minister of War; his aunt was a distinguished social reformer, and his sister Naomi Mitchison (the dedicatee, incidentally, of The Double Helix) is a well-known writer and, among other things, an honorary member of the Bakgatla tribe. Even the house he was brought up in is being transformed into an Oxford College.

The Dragon School, Eton, and Oxford gave Haldane about the best education a man of his generation could have. At Oxford he was an authentic “Double First,” for having taken first class honors in Mathematical Moderations, he switched to philosophy and ancient history and took a first class degree in Greats, the most prestigious thing an Oxford undergraduate could do. Haldane could have made a success of any one of half a dozen careers—as mathematician, classical scholar, philosopher, scientist, journalist, or imaginative writer. In unequal proportions he was in fact all of these. On his life’s showing he could not have been a politician, administrator (heavens, no!), jurist or, I think, a critic of any kind. In the outcome he became one of the three or four most influential biologists of his generation.

In some respects—quickness of grasp, and the power to connect things in his mind in completely unexpected ways—he was the cleverest man I ever knew. He had something novel and theoretically illuminating to say on every scientific subject he chose to give his mind to: on the kinetics of enzyme action, on infectious disease as a factor in evolution, on the relationship between antigens and genes, and on the impairment of reasoning by prolonged exposure to high concentrations of carbon dioxide. Haldane was the first to describe the genetic phenomenon of linkage in animals generally, and the first to estimate the mutation rate in man. His greatest work began in the 1920s, when independently of Sewall Wright and R. A. Fisher he undertook to refound Darwinism upon the concepts of Mendelian genetics. It should have caused a great awakening of Darwinian theory, and in due course it did so; but at the time it did no more than make Darwinism stir in its dogmatic slumbers, and even today, on the Continent, what passes for Darwinism is essentially the Darwinism of fifty years ago. (The same goes for the Neo-Darwinism denounced by modern nature-philosophers, who are handicapped by the fact that the mathematical theory of natural selection is too difficult for them to understand.)

THE GIST of the newer evolutionism was as follows. In principle, every living organism can be allotted a formula representing its genetic constitution, its makeup in terms of “genes.” In a natural population of some one species, each gene represented in the population will have a certain frequency of occurrence, because it will often occur in some members but not in others, and the population considered as a whole will therefore itself have a certain genetic makeup, definable in terms of the frequency of genes. In 1908 the mathematician G. H. Hardy announced the following fundamental theorem: that although, through the workings of Mendelian heredity, a virtually infinite variety of new combinations and reassortments of genes will turn up in members of the population, yet if mating is at random, and all organisms have an equal chance of leaving offspring, the frequency of each gene in the population will necessarily remain constant from one generation to the next. We must therefore look to some impressed “force” acting over the population as a whole if the gene frequency is to change in some systematic (i.e., other than merely random) way—if, in short, the population is to evolve. The most important of these forces is Natural Selection, a compendious name for all the agencies that cause one section of the population to make a disproportionately large contribution to the ancestry of future generations. The rate of change of gene frequency is therefore a measure of the magnitude of the force of natural selection.

In the light of this new conception, Haldane, Fisher, and Wright were able for the first time to describe the phenomenon of evolution in a genetic language, and to reveal the delicacy and subtlety of a population’s response to selective forces. In this scheme of thinking, “mutation” occupies a certain special place. Mutation adds to genetic diversity, and therefore enlarges the candidature for evolutionary change. This is quite different from saying (as older Darwinians and modern nature-philosophers say) that the mutant organism is itself the candidate for evolution, the hopeful variant that is selected or rejected as the case may be. The newer evolution theory represents a revolution of thought of the same general kind and the same stature as that which led to the development of statistical mechanics in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

This then is “classical” work, assimilated into all the standard textbooks. If he had done nothing else, Haldane would still be classified as one of the grand masters of modern evolution theory. Yet he was not a profoundly original thinker. His genius was to enrich the soil, not to bring new land into cultivation. He was not himself the author of any great new biological conception, nor did his ideas arouse the misgivings and resentment so often stirred up by what is revolutionary or profoundly original. On the contrary, everything he said was at once recognized as fruitful and illuminating, something one would have been proud and delighted to have thought of oneself, even if later research should prove it to be mistaken.

Haldane had the reputation for being a bad experimenter, anyhow in the narrower, manipulative sense. I never saw him in the traditional laboratory uniform of white or once-white coat, and he gave the impression of being clumsy with his hands. He could design experiments, of course, and guide others in their execution, but he was not by nature an experimentalist; he did not translate scientific problems into a language of conjecture and refutation. His great strength was to see connections, to put two and two together, to work out the deeper or remoter consequences of taking certain theoretical views. If he had been a physicist he would have been a theoretical physicist (and in a small way he actually was), but experimentalists liked talking to him (“Let’s try it out on the Prof.”), and only the obtuse could have failed to derive benefit from what he said.

Between his First in Greats in 1914 and his return to Oxford in 1919 to study physiology, Haldane was away at the wars. I knew Haldane only during the latter half of his life, and had not realized until I read Clark’s biography how thoroughly Haldane enjoyed everything that went with war. The First World War seems to have been the happiest period of Haldane’s life; we have his word for it that he disliked Eton, and he was not yet victim of the many vexations, real or imagined, that took the edge off his enjoyment of professional life. Haldane described life in the front line as “truly enviable”; he enjoyed the comradeship of war and even (if what he says is anything to go by) the experience of killing people: “I get a definitely enhanced sense of life when my life is in moderate danger.” Courage he disclaimed, but he was to all appearances fearless. His bravery, as I construe it, was the product of a superb intellectual arrogance—of a complete confidence in the accuracy of his assessment of degrees of risk. Like Houdini, he judged safe the exploits that to others seemed suicidal: “I once bicycled across a gap in full view of the Germans, having foreseen that they would be too surprised to open fire.” When the Germans started using chlorine in 1915, Haldane was taken out of the front line to help his father study its physiological effects—research of the utmost importance which showed up Haldane at his very best, and carried out at some risk (which he underestimated) to himself and his physiological colleagues.

WHAT are we to make of Haldane as a human being? The first thing to be said in answer to such a question is that we are under no obligation to make anything of him at all. It makes no difference now. It might have made a difference if Haldane in his lifetime could have been made to realize the degree to which his work was obstructed by his own perversity. He was so ignorant of anything to do with administration that he did not even know how to call the authorities’ attention to the contempt in which he held them. When he burst into terrible anger about his grievances, it was over the heads of minor functionaries and clerks. The cleaners were terrified of him, and the electricians were said to have demanded danger money for working in his room. His room was therefore never cleaned; it became a sort of showpiece, littered with fossil specimens undergoing a second burial.

Clark describes a scene which those who knew him came to regard as typical. On behalf of one of his students Haldane applied for one of the Agricultural Research Council’s postgraduate awards. These awards are made provisionally, and are confirmed if the candidate gets a high enough degree. To speed things, one of the Council’s junior officers rang up Haldane’s secretary to find out what class of degree the candidate had in fact been given. As it happened, the class lists had not yet been published, so the reasonable answer would have been “I’m sorry, we can’t tell you yet because the results aren’t out.” Instead Haldane accused the Council of blackmail and an attempt to violate the secrecy of exams: “I refuse to give you the information, and withdraw my request for a grant. I shall pay for her out of my own pocket.” Yet more than once he scored an important victory: over the Sex Viri, for example, a sort of buffo male voice sextet that tried to deprive him of his readership at Cambridge on the grounds of immorality. Indeed, the scenes accompanying the divorce that freed Charlotte Burghes to become Haldane’s first wife read like the libretto of a comic opera, including an adultery that was chaste in spite of all appearances to the contrary.

In America, Haldane was notorious for his communist professions: he was ideologically a communist during the latter part of his life, joining the party officially in 1942 and leaving it furtively around 1948, though he continued to write for the Daily Worker until 1950. Clark quotes a draft letter of resignation from the Party written in 1948, but perhaps never posted. The reasons he gave for wanting to leave the Party were so utterly trivial—a squabble about royalties, and various accusations of bad faith—as to make one question the seriousness and solemnity of the motives that led him to join it in the first place. In his public professions Haldane was the complete party man. Lysenko he thought “a very fine biologist,” so Clark tells us; and I know from conversation with him that he thought it quite likely that Beria, then lately disgraced, had been in the pay of the Americans, and that Slansky and Clementis, the victims of ritual hangings in Czechoslovakia, had got the punishment they deserved.

People were wont to ask how such a clever man could be so completely taken in by Communist propaganda, but Haldane was not clever in respect of any faculty that enters into political judgment. He was totally lacking in worldly sense, a sulky innocent, a whole-hearted believer in Them—the agents of that hidden conspiracy against ordinary decent people, the authorities who withheld the grants he had never asked for and who broke the promises they had never made.

We must not take all Haldane’s protestations at their face value. His declaration that he left England to live in India because of the disgrace of Suez was an effective way of expressing his contempt for the Suez adventure, but it simply wasn’t true. I remember Haldane’s once going back on a firm promise to chair a lecture given by a distinguished American scientist on the grounds that it would be too embarrassing for the lecturer: he had once been the victim of a sexual assault by the lecturer’s wife. The accusation was utterly ridiculous, and Haldane did not in the least resent my saying so. He didn’t want to be bothered with the chairmanship, and could not bring himself to say so in the usual way. But the trouble was that his extravagances became self-defeating. He became a “character,” and people began laughing in anticipation of what he would say or be up to next. It is a sort of Anglo-Saxon form of liquidation, more humane but politically not much less effective than the form of liquidation he condoned. In the Russia of Haldane’s day, as Mr. Clark makes clear, Haldane would have been much more offensive and with very much better reasons, but he would not have lasted anything like so long.

Physical bravery, but sometimes moral cowardice; intelligence and folly, reasonableness and obstinacy, kindness and aggressiveness, generosity and pettiness—it is like a formulary for all mankind: Haldane was a Johnsonian figure, a with-knobs-on variant of us all; but unless we are bored with life or altogether fed up with human beings, we shall not tire of reading how lofty thoughts can go with silly opinions, or how a man may strive for freedom and yet sometimes condone the work of its enemies.

  1. *

    J. B. S. The Life and Work of J. B. S. Haldane, Hodder & Stoughton, 288 pp., 50s; to be published by Coward McCann in February.

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