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Monday, May 25, 2020

Why JBS Haldane was one of the finest biologists of the 20th century

A new biography, A Dominant Character, explores how the British-Indian scientist’s influence remained long after he was gone

Published: March 29, 2020 9:30:40 am
This is a book for scientists, science writers, bureaucrats who administer science programmes, and anyone who receives email alerts from high-impact science journals.

Being a non-fiction writer, I pick up biographies with reluctance. Most biographers write because of their enchantment for a person whose body of work may have shaped their discipline, or biographies read almost as a paean to a standalone episode, a period in time, a decade or even a year that exerted tremendous influence on the course of history. There are biographies focused on great speeches by statesmen that changed the course of nations, or valiant acts of generals and their troop, or major developments in art and architecture. These have the ability to stir the soul and fill the reader’s heart with admiration, but most often biographies about people, time or place end up as hagiographies.

This is because publishers often get hacks to write about people who have made trivial contributions to history but are the flavour of the moment. This seems to be the norm for biographies written in India, especially in recent years. Browse recent biographies, and they can be grouped broadly under the following heads: ageing businessmen and venture capitalists, mafia dons and despotic politicians, cricketers and Bollywood starlets. Others are more commemorative, concerning the World Wars, the sesquicentennial of a forgotten historical event, or a long-dead ideologue. Therefore, most serious nonfiction writers are suspicious of biographers, as many of them are neither good journalists nor good historians. This suspicion is not new. For generations, biographers have been loathed — Henry James labelled them as predators, Vladimir Nabokov termed them as voyeurs and Saul Bellow thought of them as coffin-makers.

Having said this, several good biographies are published each year which are added to lists of the ‘greats’, although their numbers seem to be dwindling with every passing year. Biography is obviously involved with another person’s life. Writing about someone else takes a piece of the biographer with it. It is an affair, an obsession, a very complex relationship between research and writing. An essential ingredient of a good biography is not just how it is pegged in the context of the times, but also how it intertwines with histories of other great men and women. Such biographies also pose counterfactuals and in doing this, leave the reader with a much deeper understanding of not just the person they are reading about, but also of the times in which the person lived.

This is exactly where Samanth Subramanian’s A Dominant Character: The Radical Science and Restless Politics of JBS Haldane succeeds. The structure of A Dominant Character — and much of its worth — has to do with the diligence of Subramanian’s investigations. Besides the labour of poring through archives and corresponding with relatives, peers and students who worked in labs with Haldane, Subramanian also goes through letters to the editor in old journals, hitherto unseen correspondence, and marginalia and revisions in manuscripts. He veers close to Carlyle’s observation: “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.” A Dominant Character not only succeeds in documenting the life and times of JBS, it tells us about prior times and influences that shaped him, and explores how JBS in turn shaped the science and politics of the institutions where he worked during his time, and how his influence persisted long after he was gone. The narrative moves smoothly between time periods and changes voice without jarring on the ear. Subramanian has the art of getting you hooked at the start of a chapter with a question that hangs like heavy fog, and proceeds to cut through it with razor-sharp observations and delicious descriptions.

I can only commend Subramanian for wanting to preserve every little detail of information about JBS, including gossip of his days in Moscow. His generous end notes, archival sources and bibliography show that he loves to ferret for information. More importantly, he tells anecdotes transporting the reader back and forth across decades, without making them feel disoriented. The intimate life of JBS is as important as his public persona and its relevance to science, scientific institutions and politics is unquestioned. As a biographer, Subramanian analyses the social, political, scientific and personal experience of JBS in order to establish and interpret his achievement, and he does this with aplomb. This is especially apparent in the final chapter (titled ‘Ten Thousand Years’, after a lecture JBS gave in London in November 1962) where he concludes that Haldane was person with ‘a voice… [that] ushered people into the deep elegant mysteries of science’. And this is precisely what Subramanian achieves himself.

This is a book for scientists, science writers, bureaucrats who administer science programmes, and anyone who receives email alerts from high-impact science journals. The penultimate chapter (simply titled ‘India’) provides a glimpse into the condition of science in India in the mid-1960s, which has sadly stayed in that rut ever since — primitive in its methods, parochial, casteist, under-funded and myopic, and utterly bureaucratic, all of which stifle creativity and independence. JBS called India’s apex science institution the Council for Suppression of Independent Research.
This is also a book for anyone who aspires to be a writer. It is a triumph of the craft of literary biography, a masterclass for writing nonfiction, particularly biography. As the first biography that I have read this year, I am going to benchmark all the biographies, and, perhaps, the nonfiction books that I shall read, on this volume.


Pranay Lal is the author of Indica: A Deep Natural History of the Indian Subcontinent

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