John Burdon Sanderson Haldane, FRS [1892-1964] was one of the three main founders of modern population genetics, along with Sir Ronald Fisher and Sewall Wright.

In his life he played many parts: biochemist, physiologist, geneticist, soldier, popularizer of science, and spy. On occasion, he was even a fictional character.

Son of Britain’s most prominent physiologist, (John Scott Haldane, another eccentric polymath) he worked in his father’s lab by age 8 and was already acting as a human guinea pig. He attended the Dragon School, Eton (which he hated) and Oxford, which he loved. He mastered Latin, Greek, French and German and received a double first in mathematics and classics, although his interest was already turning to science. He was fascinated by the newly rediscovered Mendelian theory of genetics and made a significant discovery before graduation – genetic linkage, which occurs when different alleles are inherited jointly because of their proximity on the same chromosome. He discovered this by analyzing his younger sister Naomi’s guinea-pig colony. That early work was interrupted by the First World War, in which he served as an officer of the Black Watch – a Scottish regiment known by the Germans as the “Ladies from Hell”, because of their kilted ferocity. JBS Haldane in no way detracted from the regiment’s reputation: he was often in combat and actually enjoyed it. In fact he reveled in killing the enemy, personally delivering bombs behind enemy lines. His commander called him the “bravest and dirtiest officer in my Army.”

After service in France and Iraq, with occasional time outs for recovery from wounds and experiments in which his father exposed him to chlorine gas in order to test new gas masks, he resumed his research work, first as a fellow at Oxford and then accepting a Readership in Biochemistry at Cambridge where he taught until 1932. During that time at Cambridge he did most of his systematic work on evolutionary genetics. He was the first to estimate the mutation rate of a human gene and introduced the concept of genetic load, the net effect of the substandard genes in a population.

In 1927, he showed that the chance of fixation – reaching 100% frequency – of a single copy of an advantageous allele with advantage s is 2s. This key insight explains why a very limited amount of hybridization with another species is bound to result in the acquisition of most of their favorable alleles, and also plays a role in our analysis of the recent acceleration of human evolution. The work of this period is summed up in his classic The Causes of Evolution.

Of course helping to found the central theory of biology could not fully occupy his time. He made major contributions to enzyme chemistry. He acquired a wife, not without some trouble and strife, since she (Charlotte Burghes) was inconveniently married to someone else at the time. He was the first to suggest the possibility of ‘test-tube babies’ and the currently fashionable ‘hydrogen economy’. His famous essay “On Being the Right Size” elegantly shows how size itself (through the square-cube law) determines fundamental biological features.

His speculative writings such as Daedalus inspired works of science fiction, in particular Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men. He even shows up as the villain: Weston, in C. S. Lewis’s interplanetary trilogy, is thought to be modeled (in part) on Haldane.

In 1933 he became professor of genetics at University College, London. Naturally, since he was now a professional geneticist, he spent more and more time on other subjects. He did important work in chemical genetics, which served as a foundation for modern biochemical genetics. He spent much of his efforts on the popularization of science, writing hundreds of essays. This included almost 400 essays in the Daily Worker, the publication of the Communist Party – no coincidence, as Pravda used to say. He had become a Socialist during his time in the trenches and had drifted left over the years, eventually joining the Party and becoming a member of the Daily Worker’s editorial board. Party loyalty resulted in ridiculous attempts at defending Lysenko’s genetic theories about the inheritance of acquired characteristics, which he of course knew to be nonsense.

During World War II, his war work involved experiments (including experiments on himself, as usual) at high atmospheric pressure aimed at protecting submariners, a continuation of his and his father’s work in the physiology of respiration. At the same time he appears to have been an active Soviet agent (code name Intelligensia), judging from the Venona decryptions of coded Soviet messages. This is by no means surprising: Haldane, born without fear, always acted on his beliefs. Unfortunately, as Mahanti says, although in science he was the most open-minded of men, in politics he was dogmatism incarnate.

His first wife broke with Communism around this time after visiting the Soviet Union and learning far too much about it; their divorce soon followed, and he married Helen Spurway, a young geneticist who shared his political delusions.

Fortunately for the progress of science, the authorities did not become aware of his treason during his lifetime. He continued to do important work: in 1948 he came up with the idea that sickle-cell anemia and other hereditary disorders of red cells were most likely an evolutionary response to malaria – more generally, that infectious disease must have been a potent influence on human evolution. Those fertile ideas have since been abundantly confirmed – we have a few things to say on that topic later in this book.

Also in 1948, Lysenko managed to have Mendelian genetics banned in the Soviet Union, something which even Haldane could not swallow (although he had managed to tolerate the death by starvation in the Gulag of his colleague Vavilov). This led him to leave the Communist Party in 1950 and stop his endless blathering about dialectical materialism – although as late as 1962, he still thought of Stalin as “a very great man who did a very good job.” You know, like Tamerlane.

One of his most important achievements in later life was training and inspiring his graduate student John Maynard Smith, who became one of the most prominent biologists of the last half of the 20th century. He’s said to have told Maynard Smith that he would lay down his life for two brothers or eight cousins, anticipating the theory of kin selection.

He spent the last years of his life in India, claiming that he had left Great Britain because of the Suez crisis, but actually motivated more by a general distaste for the Establishment and by interest in India’s flora and fauna. In that period he wrote a famous, influential, and wrong paper on the ‘cost of natural selection’, concluding that one substitution every three hundred generations was the maximum possible rate of evolution: as it turns out, the human race over the past few thousand years has been evolving at roughly one hundred times that maximum rate. In India, Haldane found it impossible to get along with any kind of authority or administration, as had been the case for all his life: this limited his success there.

He contracted colon cancer in 1963, at the age of 72, and died on December 1, 1964.

We think that people have underestimated the importance of Haldane’s work for several reasons. The first is that his work had such breadth that few non-polymaths could fully appreciate or evaluate it. The second is that he was an intensely annoying person. For example, in his work on respiration he learned how to speak while inhaling as easily as while exhaling – which allowed him to speak continuously. More than that, we think that his contemporaries were irritated by the way in which he wasted his talent. Although he was “probably the most erudite biologist of his generation, and perhaps of the century” (White 1965), legendary for his memory and originality, he would spend his time on politics, on endless petty rebellions against every kind of authority, and worst of all on science popularization. And yet he still accomplished more than they did – what could be more irritating than that?

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43 Responses to Haldane

  1. Gorbachev says:

    “For example, in his work on respiration he learned how to speak while inhaling as easily as while exhaling – which allowed him to speak continuously”

    Thank you for this, all of it. I nearly embarrassed myself at work by laughing.

    That said, it’s good that someone summed up his career in a balanced fashion. He was a fully human, bizarre character, one who could admire a brutal killer and be one while embracing human life so fully. Few people embodied the full scope of the human condition as JBS Haldane.

    Of course, he was also a genius. But even geniuses can be wrong, very wrong, and this is also very interesting.

  2. On hearing his surname, a person once asked him: “Are you related to J.B.S. Haldane?” He replied: “It depends upon whether you consider identity to be a relationship”

    Of course he irritated people. Fun, though.

  3. Karlus Rider says:

    Interesting man, and interesting eyes. His photo above is one of those where you can see distinct personalities in each. The left eye is being used by his inner Stalinist.

    He’s also mentioned at the end of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies (1930), when the hero clutches a “Huxdane-Halley bomb (for the dissemination of leprosy germs)”. That’s a blend of Haldane and Huxley. I think Haldane argued somewhere that poison gas made war more humane by making it more deadly, and so quicker resolved. Haven’t been able to track it down, but the title of the paper was a classical reference.

    • Rob King says:

      The work in question is called Callinicus: A defence of chemical warfare. As with everything else by Haldane its always provactive and always worth a read–whether one agrees with him or not. Just watching his mind at work is a pleasure.

    • You might look up Haldane’s “Callinicus, A defense of chemical warfare” 1926, for his advocacy of chemical warfare.

  4. Gorbachev says:

    Haldane was one of those rare people who was easily dislikable and likable – simultaneously. The truth is that if you’re going to be a Stalinist, then you might as well be a genius. But Stalin, I don’t think, really had this guy fooled. He was a political idealist, and despite the very dirty hands he was willing to get, like most thinkers actual facts (brutal oppressive ideology, people, cats, small objects) really exist more or less only to serve ideas. This is why the left is so dangerous, but also why it’s so emblematic of the actual human condition, and while reprehensible, also stereotypical of human behavior. So it’s fine to fault him, but really it just adds to the bizarre polymath of his overall genius. A deeper question is why so many brilliant people seem to be duped by an ideology that is so elitist and operationally murderous.

  5. Jason Malloy says:

    Here’s Haldane narrating my favorite Soviet Mad Science video.

    Haldane represented the soft consensus of UK biologists, who didn’t challenge Lysenkoist insanity with any kind of public integrity because of their seditious faith in Stalin. Cyril Darlington was one of the very few major scientists to vocally oppose authoritarianism.

    Of course Darlington’s reputation is much more tarnished by his hereditarianism than his colleagues’ reputations are by their aid and comfort to a genocidal dictator, but that’s because the public face of science is composed of the same breed of cowards and moral cripples as it was back then.

    • David Ashton says:

      Well said. The tyranny of PC egalitarianism over human biological science is an outrage. Still, Haldane was a leftist eugenicist like Muller, Wells and some early Soviet scientists. His “Inequality of Man” is worth reading today nearly as much as Darlington’s “Genetics and Man”,

  6. Ben Atlas says:

    There are four small clips about Haldane, Maynard Smith talking about his teacher from the lengthy and significant interview by Richard Dawkins:


  7. Anonymous says:

    “Those fertile ideas have since been abundantly confirmed – we have a few things to say on that topic later in this book”

    Is this an excerpt from your new book?

  8. bruce says:

    >’Haldane argued somewhere that poison gas made war more humane’

    ‘Callinicus; A Defence of Chemical Warfare’. Excellent little book. He believed Greek Fire to be a poison gas using sulphur. He does mention some odd details about guys too tough for most mustard gas – ‘a very resistant class’ of 20% of whites and 80% of Negroes.
    Maybe he was right about poison gas being less nasty than bullets. He’d seen a lot of gas gangrene.

    Haldane’s defense of Lysenko said, as I recall, that the people Lysenko was accused of having the Cheka kill were people who disappeared in the Battle of Leningrad. For all I know it could be true- people get jealous of ignorant crooks, people are unhappy when their friends die, next thing you know they’ve connected the dots.

    Parallel lives: Al Gore really wanted a Big Sciency disaster to preach about; Lysenko really wanted a Big Sciency discovery that let Russia grow wheat in the Arctic circle.

  9. Greying Wanderer says:

    Interesting face. Big skull.

  10. Jim says:

    Maybe global warming will let Russia grow wheat in the Arctic circle making both Al Gore and the ghost of Lysenko happy.

  11. Jim says:

    Speaking of speaking while inhaling I understand that there are a few cases of genuine inhalation phonemes in natural human languages but they are very rare. Click or velar suction sounds are very easy to produce so it is odd that their use in natural languages is very unusual except in the Khoisan languages in which they are very common.

  12. That Guy says:

    O/T: But in term of aging, I just saw this:

    “Our findings suggest that the high degree of heteroplasmy observed in centenarians is genetically controlled, and that such genetic control is independent of mtDNA variability and likely due to the nuclear genome”

    I happen to have an mtDNA Heteroplasmy, T9482Y, and my mother’s maternal aunt lived to 104 yo – are these related?

  13. Dystopia Max says:

    Religion was made for the common people, theology to prevent people like this from destroying their virtues in the pursuit of power and its novelties.

  14. JamesG says:

    ’Haldane argued somewhere that poison gas made war more humane’

    While an Officer Candidate at Fort Benning’s Infantry School during the Korean War I sat through a lecture by an enthusiastic Chemical Warfare officer who argued that poison gas could have been used humanely in World War Two. He mentioned Iwo Jima where a favorite tool in dealing with fortified Japanese positions was the flame thrower.

  15. Cloudswrest says:

    I never understood why poison gas – bad; phosphorus bombs, napalm, etc. – good.

  16. Jim says:

    I accidentally inhaled a whiff of chlorine gas in chemistry lab when I was an undergraduate and it was pretty nasty but but getting burned to death by phosphorous doesn’t seem any more humane.

  17. dearieme says:

    That’s all very well, but how good was he at cricket?

  18. Jim says:

    Too tough for mustard gas? That’s hard to believe. Is that for real?

    • bruce says:

      “. . .a very resistant class, comprising 20% of the white men tried, but no less than 80% of the negroes. This is intelligible, as the symptoms of mustard gas, blistering, and sun-burn are very similar, and negroes are pretty well immune to sun-burn. It looks therefore as if, after a slight preliminary test, it should be possible to obtain coloured troops who would all be resistant to mustard gas blistering in concentrations harmful to most white men.” ‘Callinicus’ pp 45-6.

      I don’t think ‘immune to sunburn’ holds up, quite, but suppose Haldane was right? He knew WWI gas warfare better than either of us. And suppose the war lasted through the execution of Plan 1919, and the boys come home to the postwar race riots with a regiment of African American troops accustomed to using mustard gas? Game Changer.

  19. dave chamberlin says:

    I only heard one person speak continuously, breathing in and out, it was my brother and he thought he was being eaten by a bear. Fortunately he was awoken out of a dead sleep by a dog licking his face, we were camping in bear country and the pooch from a distance of six inches was a dead ringer for a bear. It was a horrible noise, I could understand what he was saying but I can’t imagine anyone actually doing that on purpose on a regular basis. Haldane has said it is the duty of every citizen to be a nuisance to the government and the man was a born natural nuisance.

  20. CS Lewis in a private correspondence: “What immediately spurred me to write was Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men and an essay in J.B.S. Haldane’s Possible Worlds both of which seemed to take the idea of such [space] travel seriously and to have the desperately immoral outlook which I try to pillory in Weston. I like the whole interplanetary ideas as a mythology and simply wished to conquer for my own point of view what has always hitherto been used by the opposite side. I think H. G. Wells’s First Men in the Moon the best of the sort I have read…”

    Weston also makes statements straight out of George Bernard Shaw, especially in the first book. As with all Lewis’s characters, and indeed most author’s characters, Weston slowly fills out and becomes himself, rather than a parody.

    I had never questioned that space colonisation and perpetuation of the species were not only benign but unquestioned goods until I read the end of Out of the Silent Planet. The sci-fi I read largely assumed it. Only after reading Ransom’s paraphrase of Weston’s philosophy did I ever ask “Why the hell should we support that? We don’t know what those people will be like, and I might not approve of the acts of even my direct descendants even a few generations out. Come to think of it, I’ll bet my own ancestors would be horrified at some of my relatives and wish they’d never bothered to have children.” The too-easy acceptance may stem from the European history of colonisation and the belief we improved the world. Even if so, there’s no guarantee that will happen again.

    That Haldane’s utopian beliefs would incorporate both his science and his politics is not surprising. We would all likely do the same. As many very brilliant people in the 20th C were taken in by communism – the man-in-the-street resisted it far more easily, even in countries where it took hold, and the governments had to quickly resort to cults of personality to maintain power – I wonder if utopianism in general, or specific features of some, appeal to the intelligent in particular. Perhaps an arrogance of wishing all those doltish others would smarten up and do what is best for them leads too easily to schemes of making them do it.

  21. ghazi-less says:

    “he still thought of Stalin as ‘a very great man who did a very good job.’ You know, like Tamerlane.”

    Good one!
    OK, Haldane was a character, and you did a good job presenting him. But Ronald Fisher is one of the most puzzling people to have ever lived: creator of two scientific fields (mathematical statistics and population genetics); eugenicist; devout Anglican. A man living with many, many contradictions–to understand how he reconciled them would be… well, helpful…

  22. Jim says:

    Calling Ronald Fisher the “creator” of mathematical statistics is bizarre.

  23. In 1944 I enjoyed the doubtful fortune to be an undergraduate at UCL where Haldane delivered some genetics lectures to the first year biology students. We were, of course all agog at being addressed by such an eminent personage.
    I recall that he strode into the lecture room, a huge, shaggy fellow in a rough tweed jacket, nothing like the handsome chap in your illustration. He delivered his words directly at the blackboard, drawing inheritance diagrams as he did so.
    “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, never once facing the students until he ended his last talk, some eight lectures later.
    His last lecture, as I recall, still delivered straight to the blackboard were, “And so you see ladies and gentlemen, Queen Victoria played her own part in aiding the cause of revolution.” And with that he galumphed out of the room.
    Although I already had some elementary knowledge of genetics at the time, I really didn’t understand one word of what he said until long afterwards.
    Having now learned for the first time of his gift for speaking while inhaling, that may explain my difficulty in comprehending his arguments so long ago.

  24. Five Jays says:

    J.B.S. Haldane on film…


  25. Karlus Rider says:

    @bruce. Thanks for info.

    >’Haldane argued somewhere that poison gas made war more humane’

    ‘Callinicus; A Defence of Chemical Warfare’. Excellent little book. He believed Greek Fire to be a poison gas using sulphur. He does mention some odd details about guys too tough for most mustard gas – ‘a very resistant class’ of 20% of whites and 80% of Negroes.
    Maybe he was right about poison gas being less nasty than bullets. He’d seen a lot of gas gangrene.

  26. Pingback: A week of links - Evolving Economics

  27. Rob King says:

    In preparing a course at my university on genetics I had occasion to go back over Haldanes mathematical treatment of natural selection. There are ten parts to this and most are freely available. However, some bastards have put the first two behind a paywall. If there is an uplink function for this site then I am more than happy to share them with all and sundry

    • Krishna says:

      You can freely find the first two parts in my book: (ed) “Selected Genetic Papers of JBS Haldane”, New York: Garland, 1990 (reprinted by Routledge, London, 2014).

  28. Nyall says:

    While JBS Haldane may or may not have been an active Soviet agent, the identification of him as the agent codenamed INTELLIGENTSIA in the VENONA transcripts is now untenable. Transcripts made available by the UK National Archives include portions blanked out in the original NSA releases and these clearly identify INTELLIGENTSIA as Ivor Montagu . That said Montagu was a friend of Haldane’s and did provide the Soviets with a copy of a report of Haldane’s to the Admiralty, but whether Haldane knew this is an open question.

    • gcochran9 says:

      “Yet the 1930s and 1940s were particularly challenging times to be a communist geneticist. ” It’s always hard.

      “The eminent physicist Freeman Dyson has claimed that Einstein and Haldane were the first two scientists to place a firm emphasis on the importance of ethical issues in relation to scientific advance. ”

      Nothing like being a big fan of Joseph Stalin to show your dedication to ethics. Haldane was no slouch , in fact a genius, but as far as being ethical, there must have been more than two billion people ahead of him. I like Freeman Dyson but sometimes I wonder about him.

  29. I finally got around to completing my book on Haldane, using the original unredacted VENONA intercepts and the MI5 files, as well as the Haldane Archives at UCL. His more general communist connections, his treatment of Vavilov and support for Lysenko are gone into in some detail. Much of the information that has been bruited about on this has been inaccurate. I have made it all freely available at http://mugu.com/haldane/tredoux/ The site also includes facsimiles of Haldane’s major works, his unfinished autobiography and complete transcripts of the VENONA intercepts and other primary source material.

  30. Thiago Ribeiro says:

    “You know, like Tamerlane.”
    More like Genghis Khan.

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  32. Minor quibble: “developed colon cancer” would be more appropriate than “contracted colon cancer”, since at least at this point we do not regard it as an infectious disease. (to be fair, some people do use the term for non-infectious diseases, but it seems to imply “catching” something, so it is more appropriate for infections)

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