Originally posted by Brian Switek
On February 22, 2009, at 6:18 PM
It would be fair to say that, until a week ago, I knew virtually nothing about J.B.S. Haldane. I knew he was a British biologist who helped form the subdiscipline of population genetics, but that was about it. Then, unexpectedly, Oxford University Press sent me a copy of What I Require From Life: Writings on Science and Life From J.B.S. Haldane.
What I Require From Life is neither an autobiography nor a comprehensive compilation of Haldane’s writings. Instead it is a motley collection of Haldane’s short essays written for the communist newspaper The Daily Worker (1937-1950) and pieces he wrote after he moved to India (1957-1964). Indeed, it is surprising that genetics and are typically mentioned only in passing; the majority of these essays have to do with astronomy, physiology, and animal behavior. In a certain sense they are reminiscent of short posts on a science blog. As the introductory information (contributed by James Crow, Krishna Dronamraju, and the late Arthur C. Clarke) confirms, many of these essays were written while Haldane was in transit from one spot to another or otherwise had a few minutes to while away.
The content and accuracy of these essays varies from one to another. When Haldane covers paleontology, for instance, he sticks to more philosophical issues like the famous “Which came first; the chicken or the egg?” problem. When he gets to astronomy and physiology, however, the facts he brings forward in his writing reveal that he felt he was on surer footing. Even so, the essays in this collection run a wide gamut, from whether life exists elsewhere in our solar system to how he would re-plain London if given the job. Certain threads appear, disappear, and then resurface, but Haldane’s short essays varied more widely than those of just about any other science essayist I have read.
Two major aspects of Haldane’s writing remain fairly constant, however. The larger collection is prefaced by an essay on science writing by Haldane, and in this essay he stressed the importance of knowing your audience. Haldane clearly knew this well, for each essay often includes some tidbit of news or other way for readers to connect with the scientific concepts he introduced. He did not bludgeon his readers with SCIENCE, but rather placed interesting phenomena and problems into the context of the everyday. When writing for The Daily Worker he often tried to connect the glories of science with communism, and while in India he changed his style to include frequent references to the Hindu faith.
Associated to this point, but distinct from it, was Haldane’s enthusiasm for communism. In his Daily Worker essays, in particular, he often shared his hopes that Marxism would become the dominant political philosophy in Europe and elsewhere. Haldane also did much to try and rehabilitate Russia’s political and scientific image in these essays, even if he could be at times naive. In an essay on cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin, the first person in space, Haldane wrote;
Similarly [Gargarin] was no doubt tested with psychological shocks such as loud sounds, flashes of light, and so on, to see that they neither affected his heart nor stopped him doing a job. In both these sets of tests he was probably helped by joining the Communist Party, as he has recently done. The acceptance of Marxism leads to the disappearance of certain kinds of worry, which may play a part in causing gastritis, anomalous heart beats, and so on. And membership of the party might suffice to give an extra few minutes’ endurance of extreme hardship.
This particular statement verges on propaganda, but I did not read this book as a volume meant to highlight how right or wrong Haldane was. He was a prolific writer who clearly took a multidisciplinary interest in science, and What I Require From Life is only a small sample of his work. It is difficult to say who might appreciate this book, for I have to admit that I probably would not have picked it up if it had not been sent to me for review, but when I closed the covers I felt that I had a better understanding of a scientist I previously only knew by name. If you are like me and the name “J.B.S. Haldane” only carries fuzzy associations with population genetics, What I Require From Life may be well worth your while to read.