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‘A Dominant Character: The Radical Science and Restless Politics of J.B.S. Haldane’ review: An unusual life

It’s rare for a 20th century scientist, who hasn’t bagged a Nobel Prize, to be worthy of a biography. John Burdon Sanderson Haldane (JBS) who died in 1964 already inspired two and A Dominant Character: The Radical Science and Restless Politics of J.B.S. Haldane by journalist Samanth Subramanian, is a new, 21st-century take on the pioneering biologist, ardent Marxist, polymath, anti-establishment newspaper columnist, ordained as the ‘last man who knew all there was to be known’.

Evolution biology

When Europe was in turmoil in the early part of the 20th century, scientists were co-opted by governments at an unprecedented scale to gain an edge on the battlefield. Ideology, nationalism, racism were all stirred with the ladle of evolutionary biology, the other great scientific revolution of its time along with quantum physics.

‘Evo bio’, fashioned by the rudiments of the science of genetics, was a nascent science that probed the mechanism of heredity, the inter-connectedness of life and how this put man in relationship to other beings. One central question was whether genes passed onto offspring could be altered to exhibit desired behaviour. Could winter-varieties of wheat be dunked in cold water and have their genes re-programmed, thereby making them thrive in spring? No, suggested experiments on fruit-flies, observations on the evolution of species and theory — J.B.S. played a major role in explaining all this.

Trofik Lysenko, Soviet biologist and Josef Stalin’s favourite scientist, insisted otherwise. Because he had the dictator’s ear, Soviet scientists who disagreed with Lysenko were isolated, even killed and the redoubtable Haldane, high priest of scientific precision and committed to the dignity and equality of scientists and workers everywhere, was found lacking in his condemnation of Lysenko.

Politics vs. science

J.B.S. was a prominent member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Did politics interfere with his science? He was a patriot — having fought for Britain in World War I and taking on the fascists in Spain — but was also believed to be a Russian spy. Disgusted with Britain, he chose to spend the winter of his life in Bhubaneswar to galvanise biology research in India but true to form, fell out with P.C. Mahalanobis — eminent statistician entrusted with formulating India’s planned economy — who brought J.B.S. to the Indian Statistical Institute.

Wearied by Indian bureaucracy he called the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the network of national labs conceived to aid India's industrial development, the ‘Council for the Suppression of Independent Research.’

Subramanian’s biography is an exquisite literary expedition into J.B.S.’ boyhood, his family history, his schooling. As the son of John Scott Haldane, a physiologist, who didn’t shrink from self-experimentation in the pursuit of scientific truth, J.B.S. imbibed early on that science was about putting oneself at risk to get at the core of deep, interesting questions.

Haldane’s personality, his accomplishment, calibre and the time that he inhabited makes him a naturally compelling subject and much of the facts of his life are well documented, Subramanian gives compelling context.

From the history of the development of biology to the Spanish Civil War, Subramanian skillfully mixes archival research and deep scrutiny of J.B.S.’ work to portray — what can be safely assumed — a breed of scientist almost impossible to imagine today.

A Dominant Character: The Radical Science and Restless Politics of J.B.S. Haldane; Samanth Subramanian, Simon & Schuster, ₹799.

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