The Groundbreaking Scientist Who Risked All in Pursuit of His Beliefs – The New York Times

I am a man of violence by temperament and training, Haldane once declared. He liked to claim that he was descended from Pedro the Cruel, the king of Castile and Lon. With his passion, his iconoclasm and his willingness to shock, his celebrity grew and grew. People liked his sensational stories of self-experimentation. (He continued his fathers physiological research; a fit of convulsions in one self-designed chamber of horrors broke his back.) They loved reading about his scandalous first marriage to Charlotte Burghes, a journalist, which made the British tabloids and almost got him kicked out of Cambridge, where he had taken a position as a reader in biochemistry. She was married when they met; her divorce was ugly; their own union was unconventionally loose. (His next marriage was to Helen Spurway, a biologist who was 22 years younger than he was.)

In lectures which drew large crowds and in pubs, Haldane tossed off important and futuristic ideas like firecrackers. He wrote a revolutionary paper that helped transform the way biologists think about the origin of life. His vision of what would become known as test-tube babies helped inspire Aldous Huxleys Brave New World. Haldane was a terrific writer in his own right. His political essays were like razor blades in print, Subramanian says. His science essays were superb. In one of his best, On Being the Right Size, Haldane writes, You can drop a mouse down a thousand-yard mine shaft; and, on arriving at the bottom, it gets a slight shock and walks away, provided that the ground is fairly soft. A rat is killed, a man is broken, a horse splashes. What a sentence. That last word shocks you every time and you can hear in it more than a hint of his genetic inheritance from Pedro the Cruel.

At his best, Haldane was a heroic example of the scientist as activist, humanist and idealist. He felt, as we now feel afresh in our century, Subramanian writes, that nations were held rapt by the wealthy, that they were warmongering and venal, that they placed the narrow interests of the powerful above the well-being of the powerless. Many of his views on class and race have aged well. But he picked petty fights wherever he went; and he championed the Soviet Union long after Stalin began slaughtering his people and murdering his geneticists. Haldane put himself through disgraceful intellectual contortions to defend Stalinist pseudoscience.

Marx thought a single theory would someday cover everything from the laws of physics to the laws of human progress: There will be one science. It was Haldanes great accomplishment to help make biology one science, with the modern synthesis. To do more, to explain the tragic messiness of history that kind of synthesis continues to elude us. Its hard enough to sum up the good and the bad in one human being.

A Dominant Character is the best Haldane biography yet. With science so politicized in this country and abroad, the book could be an allegory for every scientist who wants to take a stand. In the past few years, Subramanian writes, as weve witnessed deliberate assaults on fact and truth and as weve realized the failures of the calm weight of scientific evidence to influence government policy, the need for scientists to find their voice has grown even more urgent. Haldanes political principles were unbending and forthright, as Subramanian says, and his science illuminated all of life. In both these ways, for all his failings, he was deeply attractive during a time of shifting, murky moralities.

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The Groundbreaking Scientist Who Risked All in Pursuit of His Beliefs - The New York Times

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