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John Burdon Sanderson Haldane
The Ideal of a Polymath
 
 
 
Dr Subodh Mahanti

 

“I am a part of nature, and, like other natural objects, from a lightning flash to a mountain range, I shall last out my time and then finish. This prospect does not worry me, because some of my work will not die when I do so.”

J.B.S. Haldane

“Haldane is one of the most eccentric figures in modern science. If his life has a theme, it is of bringing talents in one field of work to the solution of problems in quite a different area. He was self-confident, unpredictable and difficult to work with. His family was wealthy and talented, and his father was Britain’s leading physiologist.”

The Cambridge Dictionary of Scientists (2nd Edition), 2002


To many, John Burdon Sanderson Haldane needs no introduction. ‘However, our aim is to introduce Haldane’s life and work to younger people and a lay-audience and we feel that many of them may not be knowing who Haldane was and what he did. Many of the traits of Haldane’s personality are truly inspiring. His concerns and views on the development of science and its relationship with society, the importance of the method of science, education, welfare of fellow human beings etc., are very much relevant even today. He spent last five years of his life in India and became an Indian citizen. Here we have attempted to highlight some aspects of Haldane’s life and work. For obvious reasons it cannot be a definitive and comprehensive account.

As a scientist his best known contributions are in the mathematical theory of evolution. He is one of the founders of population genetics. He was a polymath in the truest sense. Haldane was actually interested in almost all the sciences. Besides all the sciences, he was interested in western classics, Hindu philosophy, linguistics, Marxism, economics and so on.

He was a man of massive contradictions. While in science Haldane was the most open minded of men but in politics he was dogmatism incarnate. He could be the rudest man as well as the kindest. He was thrifty and never wasted anything. He disliked formalities and always meant business. He had no liking for social visits and non-scientific conversations.

J.B.S. Haldane was born in Oxford, England, on November 5, 1892. Haldane’s family traces it ancestry to the mid-thirteenth century. His father John Scott Haldane (1860-1936) was a physiologist, noted for his investigations of human respiration. He established that the rate of breathing was regulated according to the concentrations of carbon dioxide in the blood. He also investigated the effects of high altitude deep-sea pressure on respiration and improved mine safety by demonstrating toxic effects of carbon monoxide.

His mother Louisa Kathleen Haldane (nee Trotter) was involved in activities aimed at relieving the “human predicament”. Haldane was very much influenced by his parents; particularly by his father. He once observed: “I owe my success very largely to my father”. Haldane received his initial scientific training from his father whom he assisted from childhood in the latter’s private laboratory. Thus he later observed: “I learned much of my science by apprenticeship, assisting my father from the age of eight onwards and my university degree is for classics, not for science.”

About his childhood Haldane wrote: ”As a child I was not brought up in tenets of any religion, but in a household where science and philosophy took the place of faith. As a boy I had very free access to contemporary thought, so that I do not to-day find Einstein unintelligible, or Freud shocking. As a youth I fought through the war and learned to appreciate sides of human character with which the ordinary intellectual is not brought into contact. As a man I am a biologist, and see the world from an angle which gives me an unaccustomed perspective, but not, I think, a wholly misleading one.

“At school I deserted “classics”, that is to say the study of Latin and Greek, at the age of fourteen and studied chemistry, physics, history, and biology, with my father’s full backing but to the annoyance of the headmaster, who said I was becoming “a mere smarter.”

Haldane had a great regard for literature. We are told that he was fond of Shakespeare (1564-1616); Dante (1265-1321); Shelly, (1797-1851); Keats (1795-1821); Rimbaud (1854-91) and Balzac (1799-1850). He also used to read Dostoevsky (1821-81) and Tolstoy (1828-1910). He was friendly with G.B. Shaw (1856-1950) and H.G. Wells (1866-1946). He could read eleven languages and make public speeches in three.

In 1911 he went to Oxford on a mathematics scholarship and took first-class honours in mathematical moderation. In his first year at Oxford; he also attended the final honours course in Zoology. At a seminar for Zoology students in 1911, Haldane announced his by discovery (based on the analysis of the data published by others) of the first case of what is now called linkage between genes in vertebrates. However, his evidence was not adequate and has had to wait till 1916 to get it published.

Before he could obtain a formal scientific degree, he had to leave Oxford and join the British army in 1914, as the First World War (1914-18) broke. On returning to Oxford after the war, he was elected a Fellow of New College and started teaching physiology. Besides his teaching assignment he started working on physiology and genetics.

Haldane’s major contributions to science were in three different fields, i.e. physiology, biochemistry and genetics. He studied various aspects of human physiology, often acting as his own experimental animal. In fact Haldane is noted for his willingness to serve as “his own chief guinea pig”, Haldane’s work on regulation of blood alkalinity is basic textbook material.

In 1922, on invitation from Frederick Gowland Hopkins (1861-1947), Haldane joined the Cambridge University as Reader in biochemistry. He spent 10 years there. At Cambridge he concentrated on the study of enzymes and using some elegant mathematics he calculated the rate at which enzyme reaction takes place. Haldane (in collaboration with G.E. Brigs) showed that enzyme reactions obey the laws of thermodynamics. On his contribution to biochemistry Haldane wrote: “Perhaps my own most important discovery was that a substance, for which carbon monoxide competes with oxygen, now called cytochrome oxides, was found in plant seedling, moths and rats. The most remarkable thing about this discovery was that I was able to find out a good deal about a substance in the brain of moths without cutting them up or killing. However, my enunciation of some of the general laws of enzyme chemistry may have been more important.”

Haldane is considered as one of the founders of population genetics. His main genetic discovery at Cambridge was the rule to determine the sex of the hybrid animal: “The rule that if one sex in a first generation of hybrids is rare, absent or sterile, then it is the heterogamatic sex”. In 1933 Haldane left Cambridge for the University College of London where he was mostly preoccupied with human genetics. He prepared (1935) a provisional map of the X chromosome which showed the positions on it of the genes causing colour blindness, a particular skin disease and two varieties of eye peculiarity. His work on the mathematical theory of natural selection is a must for students of genetics and biology. In 1932, in his book, The Causes of Evolution, Haldane published the first estimate of a human-mutation rate. Another important contributions of Haldane to the field of genetics was his work for the Journal of Genetics, which he edited.

Haldane and A.I. Operin independently suggested a plausible mechanism for the origin of life in an anaerobic pre-biotic world. Perhaps the most important aspect of Haldane’s contributions to science was that he was able to bring to new fields the equipments and concepts he had acquired in other disciplines.

In Haldane’s own words his scientific contribution may be summarised as follows: “My scientific work has been varied. In the field of human physiology I am best known for my work on the effects of taking large amounts of ammonium chloride and ether salts. This has had some application in treating lead and radium poisoning. In the field of genetics I was the first to discover linkage in mammals, to map a human chromosome, and (with Penrose) to measure the mutation rate of a human gene. I have also made some minor discoveries in mathematics”.

Haldane was an outstanding science populariser. His popular writing was remarkably lucid. He had the ability to present complicated concepts of science in a simple way without distorting their meaning. His articles, lectures and broadcasts made him one of the best known scientists in the world.

He stressed the social responsibilities of science. Haldane considered it an important duty of a scientist to render science intelligible to ordinary people. He wrote volumes of essays explaining science to the layman. To science communicators Haldane advised: “You are not trying to show off; nor are you aiming at such accuracy that your readers will be able to carry out some operation. You want to interest or even excite them, but not to give them complete information. You must therefore know a very great deal more about your subject than you put on paper. Out of this you must choose the items which will make a coherent story. This does not mean that you must write for an audience of fools. It means that you must certainly be returning from the unfamiliar facts of science to those of everyday experience…When you have done your article, give it to a friend, if possible a fairly ignorant one. Or put it away for six months and see if you still understand it yourself. You will probably find that some of the sentences which seemed simple when you wrote them, now appear very involved. Here are some hints on combing them out …Can you get in a full stop instead of a comma or a semi-colon? If so, get in it. It gives your reader a chance to draw his breath. Can you use an active verb instead of a passive verb or verbal noun?” He believed that the non-scientific audience “…. has a right to know what goes on inside the laboratories, for some of which it pays.”

He was a great advocate of the concept of learning by doing. For example once he wrote: “A feeling for numbers can only be acquired by practice. What should the practice be? As an example I want our students to make a census of all the trees in the compounds of number 203 and 204 B.T. Road. They will come up against real difficulties. Is this a tree or bush? Is this one banana plant or a dozen? This is no harder than deciding what is a factory or a household. I estimate that there are rather under 100 betel-nut palms in the compound of No. 203. I may be wrong. I haven’t counted them. But I want our boys and girls to get the feel of what a hundred trees look like, and constantly to be asked `How many?’, `How often?’, How powerful ?’ and so on.”

He advised his students to highlight the relation between abstract scientific concepts and real-life experience, which he himself did throughout his life. Thus he noted: “You must constantly be returning from the unfamiliar facts of science to those of every day experience.”

Haldane’s comments on the then existing educational system are still worth considering. He observed: “Our present educational system is unjust to children because the majority of them don’t get a fair chance and practically none are taught the truth of science from a human point of view. Science teaching should begin, not with a mythical body in rest or uniform motion, but with the human body. Mine did so begin at the age of three.”

“Between different men and women there are immense inborn differences which no amount of education can overcome. I do not believe that any training could have made Ramsay MacDonald into Jack Hobbs, or vice versa. The ideal society would enable every man and woman to make the best of their inborn possibilities. Hence it must have two characteristics. First, liberty, which would allow people to develop along their individual lines, and not attempt to force all into one mould, however admirable. Second, equality of opportunity which would mean that, as far as is humanly possible, every man and woman would be able to obtain the position in society for which they are best suited by nature. The waste of human beings under our present system is a far worse evil than any merely economic waste.”

J.B.S. Haldane was very much concerned with human welfare. Being a liberal in his student days at Oxford, he moved towards left and finally formally joined the Communist Party in 1942. But before this, he wrote The Marxist Philosophy and the Sciences (1938) and a preface and notes (1940) for translation of Engles’ Dialectics of Nature which had been left uncompleted in 1882. It seems Haldane was very much impressed by Engles’ views. Thus he wrote, “Had his (Engles) remarks on Darwinism been greatly known, I for one would have been saved a certain amount of muddled thinking.” He had become the Chairman of the editorial board of the Daily Worker for which he wrote more than 300 articles on scientific themes often mixed with political comments. He also wrote more than 100 articles in left-wing papers such as a the Reynolds News. Haldane became socialist because he wanted to see his fellow men and women enjoying the advantages, which he himself enjoyed. His social and political outlook was very much influenced by his rigidly quantitative approach, his immense knowledge of genetics, and his sense of duty. Haldane could not agree with the Communist Party’s total lack of skepticism and moved away from it quietly.

In 1957 Haldane moved to India, ostensibly in protest against the Anglo-French invasion of Suez. His decision to move to India was also influenced by the country’s facilities for research in genetics and biometry. He joined the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), Calcutta, at the invitation of P.C. Mahalanobis. At ISI he gave great impetus to the theoretical and applied research by initiating several research projects on quantitative biology. He was also instrumental in formulating (jointly with P.C. Mahalanobis) the academic programmes for Bachelor of Statistics (Honours) course at the Institute.

On his association with the Indian Statistical Institute Haldane observed: “I owe a great deal to this institute but I undoubtedly owe most is the opportunity it has given me of making some important discoveries, namely, the discoveries of a number of younger men than myself, who, I think are in the great tradition of scientific research.” He resigned from the Indian Statistical Institute in 1961 and set up a research unit in his residence with the financial assistance from the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and with the cooperation of his several colleagues. In 1962 he moved to Bhubaneshwar to set-up a Genetics and Biometry Laboratory.

Haldane had a deep appreciation of the Indian culture and he wrote extensively on its relations to modern science. He was deeply engrossed in Indian Philosophy. He had a good knowledge of Sanskrit. In April 1961 he became an Indian citizen. Commenting on why Haldane chose to migrate to India, Asit Kumar Bhattacharyya wrote: “Why did Haldane come to India to settle down permanently? What led him to become an Indian citizen? He had fought for Britain in two world wars and never regretted it. Still he always had a deep aversion for the British establishment and its imperialism—his conversion to communism in the thirties showed it clearly. However, the Lysenko affair after the second world war, disenchanted him. He realized that absolute power wielded by the erstwhile Soviet State under communism inevitably led to abuse of power. He found it imperative to distance himself from it. It was at this juncture that he was drawn to Nehruvian socialism in India. Its rationalist ethic, based on the deep reverence for life bequeathed by the Hindu-Buddhist tradition enshrined by Gandhi, appealed to him. So did the wide tolerance of different life styles and cults in India.

Indeed, he had a profound appreciation of the Indian culture. His popular articles on the subject relating it to developments in modern science that came out regularly in The Hindu and later compiled in the volume Science and Indian Culture bring it out clearly. The idea of non-attachment to material possessions appealed to this philosophical materialist. To my mind, his definition of moksha—the need to go beyond all needs—remains final. That was the need he felt within and finally renounced much of his past, leaving his concern for science and humanity as his legacy.”

Haldane wrote on varied subjects. He continued to write till he died in 1964. He wrote twenty-four books (including science fiction and stories for children) more than 400 scientific research papers and innumerable popular articles. On his writings Haldane wrote: “Besides scientific books I have written a number of popular works, including a book on children’s stories. I consider that a scientist, if he can do, should help to render science intelligible to ordinary people and have done my best to popularise it”. Some of his important works are: Daedalus; or Science and the Future (1924); Callinicus: A defense of Chemical warfare (1925); The Last Judgment (1927); Animal Biology (1927 with J.S. Huxley); Possible Worlds and other Essays (1927); The Origin of Life in Rationalist Annual (1929 pp. 3-10); Science & Ethics (1928); Enzymes (1930); The Inequality of Man and Other Essay (1932), Science and Human Life (1933); Fact and Faith (1934); The Causes of Evolution (1933). Science and the Supernatural (1935 -–with A Lunn); My Friend: Mr. Leakey (1937 – for children); The Marxist Philosophy and the Sciences (1938); Heredity and Politics (1938); Science and You (1939); Science and Everyday Life (1940); Preface and Notes to Dialectics of Nature (F. Engels, translated and edited by C. Dutta, 1940); Science in Peace and War (1940); New Paths in Genetics (1941); Science Advances (1947); What is Life (1947).

For his outstanding contribution Haldane received many recognitions. Haldane was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1932. The Royal Society awarded him its Darwin Medal in 1953" in recognition of his initiation of the modern phase of study of the evolution of living population”. The French Government gave him the Legion of Honour in 1937 and the Academia Nazionale dei Lincei gave him the Feltrinelli Prize (1961). The other awards he received were: Weldon Memorial Prize from Oxford University; the Darwin Wallace Medal of the Linnean Society; the Huxley Memorial Medal of the Anthropological Institute and Kimbler Genetics Award of the US National Academy of Sciences. He was President of the Genetical Society (1932-36).

He died on December 1, 1964. As per his will his body was sent to the Rangaraya Medical College, Kakinada. “My body has been used for both purposes during my lifetime”, Haldane wrote in his will, “and after my death, whether I continue to exist or not, I shall have no further use for it, and desire that it shall be used by others. Its refrigeration, if this is possible, should be a first charge on my estate”.

References

  1. N. Mitchison, The Conquered, London: Jonathan Cape, 1923. (Noami Mitchison is J.B.S Haldane’s sister)
  2. N. Mitchison, The Bull and Calves, Londone: Jonathan Cape, 1947.
  3. Haldane, L.K., Friends and Kindred, London: Faber and Faber Ltd., 1961 (The reminiscences of JBS Haldane’s mother, Louisa Kathleen Haldane).
  4. Haldane J.B.S. An autobiography in brief, Bombay: Illustrated Weekly of India, 1961.
  5. Science Reporter, New Delhi: Publication and information Directorate (now renamed as National Institute of Science Communication and Information Resources), 2, 1965 (a special Haldane number containing articles on his life and work).
  6. N.W. Pirie, in Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, London, 12, 1966.
  7. Dronamraju, K.R., (Ed.) Haldane and Modern Biology, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1968.
  8. Ronald W. Clark, J.B.S.: The Life and Work of J.B.S.Haldane, New York: Hodder and Stoughton Ltd., 1968.
  9. Wright, S., Haldane’s Contribution to Population and Evolutionary Genetics, Proc. XII Intern., Genet., 3:445-451, 1969.
  10. Dronamraju, K.R., Haldane: The life and Work of J.B.S. Haldane with special reference to India. Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press-Pergamon Press, 1985.
  11. Dronamraju, K.R., (Ed.) Selected Genetic Papers of J.B.S. Haldane, New York: Garland Publishing, Inc, 1990.
  12. J.B.S. Haldane: A Tribute, Calcutta: Indian Statistical Institute, 1992.
  13. The Cambridge Dictionary of Scientists (2nd edition). David, Ian, John & Margaret Millar. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  14. A Dictionary of Scientists Oxford: Oxford University Press,1999.