In the latest episode of Genetics Unzipped, the podcast from the Genetics Society, presenter Kat Arney explores the life of John Burdon Sanderson Haldane – known as JBS or Jack to his friends – whose work, writing and dominant personality made him one of the most interesting characters of 20th century genetics.
As well as being an insightful scientist, fearless self-experimenter and artful communicator, Haldane’s political leanings also affected his approach to science – even at the expense of the scientific rigour that he usually applied to his endeavours.
Kat is joined by Samanth Subramanian, author of the new biography ‘A Dominant Character: The Radical Science and Restless Politics of J.B.S. Haldane’ to delve into Haldane’s history and complex legacy.
Following the example of his father, physiologist JS Haldane who experimented on Jack as a boy, JBS Haldane was a fearless self-experimenter, to the point of nearly killing himself and his colleagues. He fought in the trenches in the First World War and was in Spain during the civil war. He fell out with authority figures and the establishment, was a committed communist and was suspected of being a spy.
Haldane’s mathematically-minded work in genetics and evolutionary biology set the stage for the way we think about evolution today.
“The thing that he’s most remembered for is being part of and helping create what was known as the field of modern synthesis. To understand this we have to go back to the early decades of the 20th century when biologists knew that there were two different strains of thought on how evolution and genetics worked,” Samanth says.
“One was handed down by Darwin and one was handed down by Mendel, the monk who figured out how inheritance happens through genes or genetic units, but they couldn’t figure out how to marry these two disciplines.”
Haldane brought intellectual rigour and clarity to everything he did, with one notable exception: his devotion to the flawed Soviet dogma of Lysenkoism clouded his scientific thinking and set him at odds with his colleagues.
“It was very puzzling to me… this did not seem to be the rational man, the man who emphasised the scientific method, the man who was wedded to facts, who I had come to know. It took me a little while to figure out, and this was a lot of archival work and poring over Haldane’s letters and missives to the communist party of Great Britain, its members, his fellow colleagues in the party,” explains Samanth.
“What Haldane had judged for himself was that this was not the time to publicly abandon the party. This was the time maybe to raise your voice within the party and to decry Lysenko and Stalin within the circles of the party. But I think he thought he would be doing communism, the cause of socialism itself, a great disfavour by criticising Lysenko at this crucial time.”
Listen to the whole episode and find show notes and a full transcript at GeneticsUnzipped.com.
Genetics Unzipped is the podcast from the UK Genetics Society, presented by award-winning science communicator Dr Kat Arney and produced by First Create the Media. Follow Genetics Unzipped on Twitter @geneticsunzip, and the Genetics Society at @GenSocUK