Jbs Haldane


(Biologist and Geneticist, 1892-1964)

John Burdon Scott Haldane, the man who could justifiably be called Dolly the Sheep’s Great Grandfather, was the eccentric genius son of an eccentric genius father.

His Daddy was John Scott Haldane (1860-1936), the physiologist who is considered to be the father of modern decompression theory and whose pioneering work in this field resulted in the dive tables that determine the rate at which a deep-sea diver can safely ascend without getting the “bends”.

Haldane Senior’s absent-minded eccentricity is amply demonstrated by an occasion on which he and his wife hosted a dinner party. The story goes that Mrs Haldane sent him upstairs to change into more suitable attire. When he failed to return, the man was discovered asleep in bed in his pyjamas. Once roused, his explanation was that he had found himself disrobing and assumed it was bedtime.

Like his father, JBS Haldane was born in Edinburgh and, also like his father, he was immensely cultivated, mastering Latin, Greek, French and German while still a student.

Languages, however, were a mere side-show for JBS (he always preferred to be known by his initials rather than his Christian name, presumably to avoid confusion with his famous father). For him, science was where the real action was.

It was action of an entirely different kind that dominated his early adulthood though, in the shape of the First World War.

He volunteered for the 3rd Battalion of the Black Watch and was sent to the front where he discovered, much to his own surprise, that he possessed yet another talent.

He actually revelled in killing the enemy.

He personally delivered bombs and engaged in sabotage behind enemy lines, prompting his Commanding Officer to call him “the dirtiest officer in my Army”.

After the war, no doubt much to the relief of Germans everywhere, he returned to his first love, the study of science, and his contributions to chemistry, biology, mathematics and genetics mark JBS Haldane out as a true colossus in the furtherance of human understanding in the scientific field.

To list his many achievements and discoveries here would serve merely to turn this article into an incomprehensible garble of scientific jargon and we have no wish to spoil a good story for the sake of such detail. (For example, Haldane’s book “The Causes of Evolution” was the first major work of what came to be known as the “modern evolutionary synthesis” re-establishing natural selection as the premier mechanism of evolution by explaining it in terms of the mathematical consequences of Mendelian genetics. Had enough? We thought so.)

In 1924, Haldane published a truly remarkable work of fiction entitled “Daedalus”.

What made it so remarkable was that it introduced the concept and scientific feasibility of “test-tube babies” brought to life without sexual intercourse or pregnancy. At the time, of course, it was regarded as nothing more than shocking science fiction.

But Haldane himself knew very well that his theory would in all probability one day become a reality.

“Daedalus” was a hugely popular and influential book. It was the inspiration for Alduous Huxley’s “Brave New World” (Huxley and Haldane were friends), published in 1932, in which a society based on test-tube babies turns out to be less than ideal.

By the mid-1930’s, leading geneticists announced that “in vitro” (“in glass”) fertilisations would soon be possible and within 40 years the first test-tube baby was science fact.

Ironically, in spite of his predicting its feasibility, Haldane became a fierce critic of eugenics (the science of tampering with the hereditary qualities of a race or breed), complaining that he suspected it was being distorted for political ends by what he called “ferocious enemies of human liberty”. The later work of “Doctor Death” Josef Mengele certainly demonstrated that his fears were entirely justified.

As a microcosmic example of Haldane’s massive influence on modern genetics, in one of the last speeches of his life, “Biological Possibilities for the Human Species of the Next Ten Thousand Years” (1963), Haldane coined the word “clone” for the first time, from the Greek word for twig.

Shortly before his death in 1964, Haldane wrote an outrageous poem, entitled “Cancer’s A Funny Thing”, mocking his own imminent demise.

“I wish I had the voice of Homer
To sing of rectal carcinoma,
Which kills a lot more chaps, in fact,
Than were bumped off when Troy was sacked….”

Let’s just be grateful he was a better scientist than he was a poet.

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