Review: A Dominant Character; JBS Haldane by Samanth Subramanian
Samanth Subramanian’s biography of pioneering geneticist JBS Haldane sheds light on a fascinating twentieth century personalityUpdated: Mar 06, 2020, 19:25 IST
“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past,” Karl Marx writes in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. The trajectory of the life of JBS Haldane, himself a Marxist, which Samanth Subramanian has beautifully captured in his biographical account, is a testimony to the quoted lines.
This book ought to be read not just because it sheds light on a fascinating twentieth century personality and his many contributions to science but because Haldane’s actions and the circumstances he faced forces the reader to ask questions that are extremely relevant for our society, politics, and quest of knowledge. These are questions that have been relegated to the background today. Haldane’s life story is awe-inspiring yet sobering at the same time because, brilliant as he was, much like everyone else, he wasn’t perfect or infallible in his work and conduct.
At the age of 10, his father took him to a coal mine, where he realized, while unsuccessfully trying to recite Mark Antony’s funeral oration from Julius Caesar, his body short of oxygen, that it was safer to breathe air near the ground. As methane is lighter than oxygen, it pooled near the ceiling. This, Subramanian argues made the young Haldane aware of the importance of the basic principles of science in the lives of the poorest people.
His professional life was a physical and intellectual struggle to make sure the benefits of science were made available to those who needed it the most. He did not care whether it involved locking himself up with rising carbon dioxide levels inside mini submarine models to advance safety in naval submarines or continuously criticizing the British government during the Second World War, even at the risk of being labelled as someone who was “playing Hitler’s games”, to demand better bomb shelters.
And yet, his acts of omission are most glaring in his views on Soviet communism, the regime, which, according to him, was supposed to be championing equality, both intellectual and material. Haldane, who would not socialise with those who, even indirectly, supported fascism, refused to believe (true) allegations of Soviet purges of scientists made by his own wife. His view did evolve over time and he eventually quit the communist party in Britain, which kept asking him to lend his personal credibility to justify political propaganda. But then Haldane should have known. “I began to realize that even if the professors leave politics alone, politics won’t leave the professors alone”, he had said years before.
Though he ceased to be a card-carrying communist, his life always followed the socialist principle of from each according to his ability to each according to his need. Whether it was volunteering to go to Spain to assist the anti-fascist struggle or paying for the air tickets of his junior researchers at ISI Calcutta, he was willing to share and risk everything he had for the larger good. In these acts of rebellion he liked to see himself as challenging the decadent elite consensus which was inimical to larger social goals.
And yet, Haldane knew where, how and when exactly to rebel. While he attributed his resignation from University College, London, in 1956 to a British, French and Israeli attack on the Suez Canal, he had almost secured academic positions for him and his wife at ISI Kolkata, before resigning. He would give provocative speeches at road side meetings in London, asking crowds to almost lay siege to the government, and then go back to his research for days without even thinking about political activity. All his egalitarian and progressive ideas in public life did not prevent him from being extremely petty in private matters. It was perhaps Haldane’s bitterness over not having a child of his own, which led to his scolding his sister, who had come seeking comfort after losing her child to meningitis. He instilled so much guilt in her that she crashed her car on the way back.
Watch: In conversation with Samanth Subramanian
The book also tells us a lot about the times in which Haldane lived. Though he was sharply critical of the government and espoused an ideology which was deemed suspicious, he advised the British government on some of the most strategic war-time efforts. Professionalism, which he brought to the war effort, was not sacrificed at the altar of political partisanship. This is a question which is relevant across the world today. Subramanian rightly notes that Haldane’s evolution as a scientist and as a great public intellectual espousing the cause of science came from his diverse intellectual and social pursuits. The author rightly asks if today’s educational practices, which equate excellence with acquiring more and more expertise in increasingly narrow areas, do justice to Haldane’s view which saw “a unity to all knowledge”.
What has the world lost in these changes from Haldane’s times? The book offers an account of Haldane evoking a tale from the Mahabharata to defend his refusal to critique Stalin. “The moral,” Haldane wrote, “is the wholly admirable one that a man must not do an action which he regards as dishonourable even if ordered to by the chief of the gods in person.”
A society which considers ideology as baggage also runs the risk of increasingly shortening the list of “dishonourable” actions. This, as Haldane believed, will never lead towards heaven.