Do scientists have a duty to engage with politics? This is a question that animates Samanth Subramanian’s A Dominant Character, an absorbing biography of one of the greatest scientific minds of the twentieth century, JBS Haldane. Haldane’s genius, wit, and passion seem to leap from the pages of this work.

Haldane – whose career included stints at Cambridge, University College in London, and the Indian Statistical Institute – made pioneering contributions to the fields of genetics and evolutionary biology. But he became equally well-known as a public figure: a popular writer, a tireless critic of the British government, and the most prominent intellectual in the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in the 1940s. For Haldane, Subramanian writes, science and politics “were wrapped tight around each other, like strands of a double-helical DNA.” There were times, however, when this delicate weave threatened to unspool itself.

The contrarian

Haldane was practically reared in the laboratory. From an extremely young age, he assisted his father, the Scottish physiologist JS Haldane, who investigated everything from the causes of deaths in coal mine explosions to ways to avoid “the bends” from underwater pressure. Sometimes the laboratory was the open sea, and sometimes JBS was the test subject.

Father ingrained into son the practice of using one’s self as a scientific guinea pig. Through his fifties, JBS would lock himself into chambers and subject himself to carbon dioxide poisoning or high atmospheric pressures. This caused him blackouts, intense vomiting, crushed vertebrae, and even the onset of Kümell’s disease, but it advanced the frontiers of scientific knowledge – and that’s what mattered to Haldane.

In tracking through Haldane’s academic exploits, Subramanian offers us a compelling study of human genius. JBS was a polymath, “the last man who might know all there was to be known,” according to one acquaintance, equally at home discussing biology, astronomy, Greek literature, or history. He launched a scientific career in spite of not studying science at Oxford, where he instead read classics and mathematics. The biologist Julian Huxley once had to tactfully escort him out of his house when he dropped by unannounced and started reciting Homer from memory.

Inevitably, perhaps, Haldane developed into a contrarian, a deeply unorthodox character. His life occasionally jutted at right angles from the general direction of history. During the First World War, when humanity reeled at the spectacle of mindless mass slaughter, Haldane admitted that he thoroughly enjoyed life in the trenches. “I’ve been hit by a shell at last – how funny!” These were his first thoughts after being nearly killed on the Western Front (thereafter he tried to calculate the diameter of the exploded shell).

After the war, amidst fears about how science could destroy the world, he wrote Daedalus, which maintained a rosy optimism about science’s transformative capabilities. And in 1956, on the eve of mass westward emigration from South Asia, Haldane quit Britain in a huff and moved to India, soon becoming a citizen of Nehru’s young republic. He could be brash, thin-skinned, and hot-tempered. “By accident or design,” Subramanian notes, his automobile’s licence plate began with the letters “EGO.”

Leftward drift

Perhaps such egotism was well deserved. Haldane’s masterful scientific contribution was to synthesise Darwinian theory and Mendelian genetics, hammering together ideas of evolution and natural selection with mathematics. “An ounce of algebra is worth a ton of verbal argument,” he liked to say.

With his gift for numbers he mapped out the intricacies of evolution: processes of genetic mutations and a theory for the beginnings of life. He even filled in some of the first blanks in the map of the human genome. Aside from the times when he gassed or poisoned himself, he did little experimentation, instead parsing through other scientists’ data and making new and innovative insights.

Science and genetics directed him towards politics. Amidst near-universal fervour for eugenics in the interwar years, Haldane snuck socialist principles into his rebuttals, arguing that helping the poor and raising their socioeconomic standards would be more effective than the sterilisation drives then in vogue.

His drift leftward was aided by his first wife, Charlotte, with whom he travelled to the Soviet Union in 1928. The Soviets, Haldane convinced himself, truly valued science for its ability to improve society – unlike in the West where politicians used it for war or profit. In the diktats of Marxism, furthermore, Haldane sensed something familiar: the scientific method. Dialectical materialism, like genetics, was about understanding change through rigorous and methodical observation.

Communism helped mould Haldane into a public intellectual. In the Daily Worker, the CPGB’s paper, he wrote columns which married science and socialism, occasionally with quite clumsy results. More often, he brilliantly democratised scientific knowledge, writing about complex subjects in an accessible manner. During the Second World War (he officially joined the CPGB in 1942), Haldane lobbed grenades of splintering criticism against the government, condemning it for not providing adequate civilian shelters during the Luftwaffe’s air raids.

In Nehru’s India

British intelligence tracked him and wondered if he was a Soviet spy. “MI5 became Haldane’s first, if incomplete, biographer,” Subramanian notes. But at the same time, the British government relied heavily upon Haldane’s scientific acumen, especially after the deadly malfunction and sinking of a submarine off Liverpool in 1939. A new round of self-experimentation – into underwater physiology – burnished Haldane’s wartime fame, which was even rendered into poetic verse:

“On sea, on land and in the air, protecting us from harm,
Prof Haldane meets us everywhere, our scientific arm.”

Communism, however, also facilitated the most shameful chapter of his life. Haldane rigorously stuck to the party line, disbelieving reports of Stalin’s terror in the Soviet Union (even from Charlotte; her exit from the CPGB propelled them towards divorce). He glossed over Soviet politicisation of science.

In 1948, Haldane stunned his scientific colleagues by defending Trofim Lysenko, a scientist favoured by Stalin, who had unleashed his own ruthless purge amongst Soviet biologists and geneticists. The brutal irony was that, by defending his politics, Haldane betrayed his science: Lysenko rejected the central concepts of genetics and argued in favour of direct environmental influences upon evolution. Even though Lysenko’s work fundamentally contradicted Haldane’s, Haldane let his political sentiments override his scientific temper.

Such acrobatics were not sustainable. Haldane drifted from the CPGB and eventually quit. Instead, his political antenna directed itself towards India, a country he first encountered in the First World War while recuperating from injuries. In Nehru’s India, he detected a kinder, more democratic experiment for harnessing science for the public good.

As a contribution to the history of science, A Dominant Character helps shed some light on technical institutions in Nehruvian India. Haldane used the Suez Crisis of 1956 as a pretext for renouncing his ties to his natal country and shifting to the Indian Statistical Institute in Calcutta. Here, under PC Mahalanobis’s direction, he was part of an incredibly diverse assemblage of scientists from across the world: China, the United States, the USSR, Iran, Japan, and the Netherlands.

It is hard to think of any institution from that era where scientists from both sides of the Iron Curtain, as well as those from non-aligned countries, rubbed shoulders and shared lab space. And it is even harder to imagine how an Indian institution today could attract a foreign scientist of Haldane’s caliber.

In India, Haldane adopted khadi clothing, became vegetarian, and taught himself Bengali and Sanskrit. Inevitably, he crossed swords with those around him. His temper flared due to inane bureaucratic regulations; his patience wore thin from countless solicitations to deliver votes of thanks. Haldane quit the Indian Statistical Institute in 1961 and relocated to Bhubaneswar. He died there in 1964, an Indian citizen surrounded by Indian graduate students and colleagues.

Subramanian’s biography comes at a particularly opportune moment. Whether it is gaumutra-fuelled pseudoscience in India or climate change denial in America, science is being politicised to an almost unbelievable extent. Science and politics have always been interlinked, Subramanian reminds us, but he deeply regrets that most scientists today have become habitually apolitical and have withdrawn from the public stage.

JBS Haldane’s life, at best, offers a qualified argument for reversing this trend. Communism pushed Haldane to make numerous brave and principled decisions, such as loudly denouncing fascism and rehabilitating exiled scientists from Germany, Austria, and Spain in the 1930s. But, until it was nearly too late, his faith in Marxism blinded him to its egregious abuses and excesses. Science demanded rigour and constant experimentation – Haldane responded by subjecting his own body to various tortures in search of the truth. If only he had applied the same meticulousness scientific temper to his core political beliefs.

A Dominant Character: The Radical Science and Restless Politics of JBS Haldane, Samanth Subramanian, Simon & Schuster India.