A Dominant Character captures the thoughts of British-Indian scientist JBS Haldane

Samanth Subramanian’s latest biography, A Dominant Character, captures the British-Indian scientist’s thoughts on how science and politics play off each other

When British-Indian scientist John Burdon Sanderson (JBS) Haldane moved to India with his wife, Helen, he carried along with him a dozen jars of live fish in the cabin hold. The fluctuating temperature in the baggage hold would kill them, he explained to an ISI official, assuring him that “they will be sealed up and will not smell.”

In many ways, this was typical of the British-Indian scientist best known for his work in physiology, genetics, evolutionary biology and statistics — he bent the rules and defied authority consistently. “He had a lack of tolerance for idiots,” agrees journalist and writer Samanth Subramanian, whose latest book, a biography of Haldane, titled A Dominant Character: The Radical Science and Restless Politics of JBS Haldane, is peppered with incidents such as this one. Written in evocative prose that makes a reader cringe, laugh out loud, and get emotionally invested in the life of this layered, complex man, the book focusses on what Haldane “thought about science and politics and how they would play off each other.”

A dominant character

“I knew him first as a British biologist who moved to India, and that in itself was intriguing,” says Subramanian, who was in Chennai to launch his book. “There were all these little witty things that would come up in my reading,” says Subramanian of the “instantly quotable” man.

The title of the book — A Dominant Character — is both a nod to Haldane’s personality and the science he loved (dominant and recessive inheritance patterns are essential to Mendelian genetics). But this was not the original title of the book, says Subramanian. “For two years I kept the title as The Last Man Who Knew Everything because one of his students/associates called him that,” he says. Then, another book with the same name was released, and he had to change the title.

Haldane was indeed a Renaissance man, a polymath of vast and varied interests. He wrote cutting opinion pieces on politics, his own boisterous life, his views on government and philosophy, history and literature. And science, always science: “columns that unpicked the convolutions of science for the inexpert reader,” writes Subramanian, going on to quote Arthur C Clarke who described Haldane as “the most brilliant scientific populariser of his generation.”

A life well lived

Haldane’s life — lived not in an ivory tower of scientific research, but in the real world — had all the elements of a great story.

He fought in the First World War and Spanish Civil War. His first wife was a much-married woman, his second he met when he was still married to his first. Then there was the tragic irony of never being able to have children, despite being obsessed with genes. And the moral dilemma of the Lysenko affair, which pitted his politics and science against each other. “That was his one misstep,” says Subramanian. A deviation, almost, from all the values he had espoused; he was against imperialism, rampant capitalism, racism or eugenics.

Throw in his personal evolution. A diary, written when he was ten, for instance, may have echoed his mother’s conservative, empire-lauding politics. But he left Britain for India at 65, because he thought that the country’s involvement in the Suez Affair made it a “criminal state”. And add a dash of acerbic wit: “One of my reasons for settling in India was to avoid wearing socks.”

“There is great scope for dramatic narration there,” agrees Subramanian, who admits to becoming inordinately fond of the man, over the four years it took to research and write about him.

This is Subramanian’s first stab at a biography; his previous two books, Following Fish and This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War, were a travelogue and a narrative history of post-war Sri Lanka respectively. “I first thought of it as an expansion of a long-form profile,” he says. But he soon discovered there was a different craft to it. “I had to learn from scratch. But playing with form is something I’m fond of,” he says.

Unlike his previous books, where he had the luxury of the first-person experience to enliven his narrative, Subramanian cobbled together Haldane’s story from archives mostly. “I spoke to only three people in this book, but consulted 18 archives across the world,” he says. It was incredibly satisfying “sitting in an archive and having all this information come to you,” he says.

One of his most significant sources of information was Haldane’s own writing — detailed and illustrative if a trifle illegible. (“His handwriting resembled ants somersaulting through snow”). Thankfully, his writing was mostly typed up by his secretary.

And it makes for a fascinating read. Take, for instance, his essay titled On Being the Right Size. He mocks the two giants — Pope and Pagan — of John Bunyan’s Christian allegory, Pilgrim’s Progress(no doubt, his atheism played a part in his derision of them, he disliked CS Lewis for precisely that reason). “As the human thigh-bone breaks under about ten times the human weight, Pope and Pagan would have broken their thighs every time they took a step. This was doubtless why they were sitting down in the picture I remember. But it lessens one’s respect for Christian and Jack the Giant Killer,” he writes, in lucid, if sardonic, prose.

“Haldane was the model of a scientist who was 100% engaged with the world. That isn’t common now,” says Subramanian. In the age of genetic manipulation and designer babies, questions raised around these things aren’t just scientific; they are political and ethical, he says.

“It is important for scientists to resume that role of a public intellectual.”

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Printable version | Apr 3, 2020 11:38:35 PM |

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