Tuesday, November 29, 2011

J B S Haldane: The Life of a Scientific Beast

“I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”

-Possible Worlds and Other Papers

John Burdon Sanders Haldane is well known for many achievements. Of his numerous achievements, his contribution to the founding of population genetics is most recognized, but to limit Haldane’s brilliance to so small a subject does him great injustice. Even attempting to summarize his life into words is somewhat of a fruitless act. From the time he was born in 1892 until his death in 1964, he dedicated his life and body to science.
"My body has been used for both purposes during my lifetime and after my death, whether I continue to exist or not, I shall have no further use for it, and desire that it shall be used by others. Its refrigeration, if this is possible, should be a first charge on my estate."

Haldane was born into a family of aristocrats and scientists. He inherited a knack for scientific self-experimenting from his father, John Scott Haldane, a Scottish physiologist known for his extensive research on the dangers of natural gases to the human body. During his early education, Haldane excelled at mathematics, and after graduating from Eton, received a mathematics scholarship to New College at Oxford. After being wounded during the First World War, Haldane was taken to India to recover, a place to which he would return in 1957.
At Oxford, in order to relax from mathematical studies, Haldane attended E S Goodrich’s course in Zoology which led to his eventual study of genetics. In addition to his studies of genetics, Haldane took up the study of the classics and writing, allowing him to become one of the, still, few skilled scientific writers. A few of Haldane’s most well known publications include Daedalus (1924), Enzymes (1930­), Animal Biology (1929), The Causes of Evolution (1932), On Being the Right Size (1926), and perhaps the most influential of all his publications, A Mathematical Theory of Natural and Artificial Selection (1924). Haldane’s skill in writing stayed in him until his death. Even in India, his pupils noted that he was not only an extremely good writer, but spent a good part of the day writing letters and answering mail. “He believed that a written communication gave the writer time to think carefully before expressing his thoughts and was then less likely to be influenced by emotions. Also he felt that a statement in writing eliminated possible disputes in what had been said or not said….he was known to use certain abbreviations involving numbers and letters, for example, best wishes 2 U” (Dronamraju).

Having a strong knowledge of mathematics allowed Haldane to become a leading contributor to the study of population genetics. He was a major contributor to the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis. In A Mathematical Theory of Natural and Artificial Selection, Haldane analyzed the processes of natural selection from a mathematical point of view. During his occupation at University College, London from 1937 to 1957, Haldane was able to devise methods to calculate human mutation rates, prepare linkage maps for human chromosomes, better understand different modes of inheritance, measure the degree or intensity of natural selection operating in human populations, study the effects of close inbreeding, and even developed a better understanding of nature and nurture and the genetic basis of psychological and other behavioral characteristics.

Although much of Haldane’s work was theoretical, he was as much of a keen experimenter has his father. Early on in his scientific career, Haldane subjected his body to many rigorous and dangerous scientific experiments. He stated “An experimental animal is not capable of describing the physiological reactions of pain, smell and so on….and make no serious attempt to cooperate with the scientists” (Dronamraju). In one experiment to test the theory that carbon dioxide in the human blood enabled the regulation of breathing under different conditions, he ingested large quantities of bicarbonate of soda to raise the alkalinity in h is blood stream and drank ammonium chloride to raise the acidity. In another he tested the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning in mines, a subject his father rigorously studied.

Haldane left University College, London in 1957 and moved to India where he stayed until his death in 1964. In the 1950’s, Haldane grew dissatisfied with his life in England, finding the political situation intolerable. Although many colleagues in England considered his move scientific suicide, Haldane quickly embraced the new customs. He became an Indian citizen and grew interested in Hinduism. To his pupils in India, Haldane’s life in India was a sort of second life to the one he had in England. In 1962, Haldane moved to Bhubaneswar, India to carry out his last projects before succumbing to cancer in 1964.

Clark, Ronald. J. B. S.: The Life and Work of J.B.S. Haldane. 1st. Oxford University Press, 1984. Print.

Dronamraju, Krishna. Haldane: The life and work of JBS Haldane with special reference to India. 1st. Aberdeen: Aberdeen Univeristy Press, 1985. Print.


  1. Haldane’s life seems to be a very interesting one. I found it intriguing that he came from a strong mathematical background and applied his knowledge to a very different field and ended up being one of the top contributors to the world of evolution. What I did know about Haldane’s work was that his publication Daedalus (which was about test tubes babies and life without pregnancies) inspired the book Brave New World by Huxley, which was pretty okay. I am pretty interested to find out more on what kind of findings he got from self experimenting, and were they worth it? (What kind of damage did he take?) And were any of these finding used for later experiments?

  2. Very well written piece on Haldane! From reading through the many things that he worked on it seems like he truly contributed greatly to the modern synthesis. It’s cool to read back on who the actual scientists where after avidly studying the many things they discovered. I found it very interesting that he often performed experiments on himself at the cost of risking his own life! That’s pretty intense. I guess to come up with these new concepts you had to really set yourself apart from the rest of the crowd and take it to the extreme. This brings up the question whether it was his father who pushed him to do these things or if it was truly from his own interests?

    I especially like the quote at the beginning. I find myself thinking about this kind of thing often. Comparing what I used to know about science to what I know now is sort of analogous to the amount of advancement in science society has achieved over the past couple of century’s. The more and more I learn the more bizarre the world becomes. Life seems nearly limitless in its diversity and complexity. Anything one can imagine probably exists somewhere in this world. The quote alludes to the fact that we as humans have a limited extent to which we can imagine because we can only work with what we have experienced and our innate mental programmings. To put it another way in reference to the quote, possibilities exists that we can’t suppose, or even think about right now or ever will be able to even imagine. There are things out there that we will soon know but we have to build up to the understanding of those things using previous acquired knowledge.

  3. One of my favorite Haldane quotes was describing how the perforated eardrums he suffered as a result of experimenting on himself in a decompression chambers:
    “The drum generally heals up; and if a hole remains in it, although one is somewhat deaf, one can blow tobacco smoke out of the ear in question, which is a social accomplishment.”

  4. From reading this biography of Haldane, it seems as though Haldane lived an exceptionally interesting and ironic life. He appears to be a very well-rounded individual with many interests, which probably helped in applying his mathematical prestige to genetics and natural selection. He even took it the extreme and risked his own life for scientific experiments! Did this by chance affect his health?

    It is really impressive that he took such a liking to writing, and excelled in it. I myself enjoy writing, but have found that the majority of people with science backgrounds do not tend to thoroughly enjoy writing. Writing has proved to be vital in science not only for scientific journals, but in informing the public of new discoveries through science writing. His outstanding writing style is evident through his witty and thought-provoking quotes. I really appreciate the first quote because it is absolutely true. The human mind is an incredible thing that has the capability to do so much, but not even the mind in all its complexity can wrap itself around the corners of the Universe that have yet to be explained or discovered. It is amazing that from growing up in an aristocratic household, he found his last years of life back in India, living much more simplistically.

  5. After reading this post Haldane's contribution to evolution makes a lot more sense since he has such a strong mathematical background. Also, I found it amusing that instead of conducting an experiment on people or animals he conducted it on himself. Now that is dedication to science.

  6. In reading this, I drew analogies between the scientific upbringings of J.B.S. Haldane and Linus Pauling. As Haldane was educated in mathematics, and went on to found the field of population genetics, and become one of the main contrbutors to evolutionary studies, Pauling was educated in chemistry and contributed to biology, biochemistry, genetics, medicine, and founded the field of orthomollecular medicine. Both of these iconic scientists achieved great accomplishments in fields far from those that they receieved their initial education in. I think that it is important for scientists not only to collaborate with peers of different disciplines, but also to educate themselves in different disciplines in order to extend their understanding and maximize the advances they can make. A geneticist with a background in mathematics will likely approach things differently than a geneticist with a background in biology, and Haldane is proof of this in that his unique perspective allowed him to discover things that no other geneticists had at the time. Haldane and Pauling are great examples of the benefits of multidisciplinary research and education.