Samanth Subramanian: ‘You Don’t Need To Be Apolitical To Be Scientifically Objective’

The writer on how he researched his new book ‘A Dominant Character’, the problems with getting too fond of your subject and the best sentence JBS Haldane ever wrote.
As a journalist, it is always thrilling to have a character to resurrect from obscurity, says Samanth Subramanian.
As a journalist, it is always thrilling to have a character to resurrect from obscurity, says Samanth Subramanian.

In the summer of 1905, when John Burdon Sanderson Haldane was 13, his father, JS, asked him to wear a diving suit weighing 155 pounds and descend into the frigid waters off the western coast of Scotland. JS, a physiologist, had been tasked with solving a perplexing problem. Naval officers were coming up from underwater missions exhausted, disoriented, and sometimes unconscious. Rising too quickly from the depths caused nitrogen to re-emerge in the bloodstream in the form of bubbles, debilitating the diver. The Navy needed to know how slowly they should ascend, and after 85 goats and two of his father’s colleagues had undergone experimentation, it was the teenager’s turn.

By the time the Haldane returned to the deck of the ship from the seabed, the cold water had seeped into his suit from gaps at his wrists and filled up till his neck. The shivering boy went to bed that night with a shot of whisky, and a lifetime of immersion in self-experimentation and discovery waiting for him.

In the pursuit of scientific answers, Haldane went down into mines with dangerously high methane levels, entered chambers filled with chlorine in order to develop masks against German gas attacks in World War I, ingested sodium bicarbonate, magnesium chloride and strontium chloride, and sealed himself in a cylindrical steel chamber, suffering violent convulsions to find out about the physiology of human beings in submarines.

“Some men and women journeyed outwards, risking their lives for glory or wealth… scientists made their expeditions inwards, burrowing into their own bodies to find the secrets they held,” journalist Samanth Subramanian writes in A Dominant Character, his riveting and painstakingly-researched biography of JBS Haldane.

Subramanian might seem like an unlikely chronicler of the life of one of the pioneering genetic scientists of the 20 century. His previous two books, Following Fish and This Divided Island, were works of detailed reportage on India’s coastal societies and the Sri Lankan War, respectively. Yet, to dive into Haldane’s life is not just to unravel the complexities of science but also to probe ethical, political and sociological questions that remain just as pressing today.

The English scientist mapped the genes for colour-blindness and haemophilia, estimated the rate of gene mutations through a population, and was the first to propose the central idea behind in-vitro fertilisation, as well as a viable theory—the “primordial soup”—of how life originated on earth. But it was through his relentless writing for the public that Haldane became a household name in England.

At the peak of his popularity, Subramanian writes, he enjoyed a reputation that matched Einstein’s fame in America. According to his secretary, he received hundreds of letters a week (and once even a dissected caterpillar). Arthur C. Clarke called him “the most brilliant scientific popularizer of his generation”. Aldous Huxley caricatured him in his novel Antic Hay and borrowed Haldane’s concept of ectogenesis for his dystopian classic, Brave New World.

But far from being a venerated national hero, Haldane’s politics (and his belief that it was inextricable from his work as a scientist) placed him in a state of constant friction with the British government. Having spent time with miners underground, with Londoners living in toxic and inhumane housing conditions, and mistrustful of authorities in capitalist societies, the geneticist leaned more and more strongly to the left.

“He wanted science to sweep out of the lab and into the world, to improve or perfect the way people lived,” Subramanian writes. “For Haldane, Marxism was the scientific method as applied to society, and both genetics and Marxism were avenues to a more utopian civilisation.”

“I must have heard about him (Haldane) 10 or 15 years ago, but he was described then only as a British scientist who came to India and lived and worked here. At that time it was really fascinating because you don’t hear much about scientists coming in this direction, it’s usually people from here going overseas.”

Eventually joining the Communist Party of Great Britain, Haldane’s political leanings prompted the MI5 to maintain a decades-long file on him, tracking the scientist’s movements and writings. At one point, he was suspected of being a Soviet spy. While there was never any evidence to suggest collusion with foreign powers, Haldane’s strong political convictions were also the underpinning of one of his greatest flaws—a blunt refusal to believe in the scale of horrific brutalities inflicted by Stalin’s regime. This was exemplified most starkly in a public debate organised by the BBC in which he offered excuses for the infamous Soviet biologist Trofim Lysenko whose work not only contradicted Haldane’s but who led violent and deadly reprisals against scientists who dared to disagree with him.

Finally disenchanted with the Communist Party and fed up of the British government, Haldane took up an invitation from renowned mathematician P.C. Mahalanobis and moved to Calcutta in 1956, joining the landmark Indian Statistical Institute. He discarded his British citizenship, eating habits and clothing—“sixty years in socks is enough,” he said—and died as an Indian citizen eight years later. Today, he remains mostly relegated to hazy memory.

“As a journalist, it is always thrilling to have a character to resurrect from obscurity,” Subramanian said in an interview over the phone. In the four years that it took to research and write the biography, he discovered a man whose ideas are all too relevant today. For all his flaws, Haldane unequivocally railed against fascism and ideas of racial purity, championing genetic and human diversity as “not only desirable but a signal of social liberty”. Subramanian also spoke about the research process behind the biography, developing a paternal relationship with his subject, and why scientists today should take a leaf out of Haldane’s book when it comes to the idea of being “apolitical”.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

Having read the book, it’s not difficult to understand why you decided to write about Haldane—he’s an incredibly fascinating character. But when did you first hear about him and become interested in his story?

I must have heard about him 10 or 15 years ago, but he was described then only as a British scientist who came to India and lived and worked here. At that time it was really fascinating because you don’t hear much about scientists coming in this direction, it’s usually people from here going overseas. I didn’t really follow up on it until four years ago, when I wanted to read more about him. There’s one biography of him, by Ronald Clark, which was written shortly after his death. It’s not very good. Reading it was intriguing but at the same time unsatisfying because it gave me the arc of his life but it didn’t do justice to him.

That’s when I started thinking about the need for a good biography of him. His life was very cinematic because he lived through many big episodes in science and politics. So there was a gap in terms of the narrative, but also an opportunity to revisit him because of the themes raised by his life, which are more relevant today than ever before, even more so than 40 years ago when Clark’s book came out.

Were you thinking of these big themes when you set out to write this book four years ago? Other than the narrative gap and curiosity about the man, why did you think his story needed to be told in this moment?

I got very lucky, or the world got very unlucky, and events sort of caught up with these themes. Initially, I was considering them in a more abstract way. In 2015, for example, Modi had already been elected, and there was Russia and Crimea, and Turkey and Erdogan, and so on. So there were already indications that things were not great with the state of the world and its politics. But at that time, I was really considering Haldane’s life just for its narrative and because it was such a good story. This was a year before Trump got elected; Brexit was getting underway. And as the book evolved, it allowed me to consider how to explore these themes more deeply. If all of this hadn’t happened, it would be a very different book.

It’s astonishing—the book was done in April and it launched in December and a week before the launch, the Citizenship Amendment Act was passed. These questions of who belongs, and who does not, are just more and more urgent ones that somehow Haldane managed to answer 60-70 years ago.

JBS Haldane holds a model of a Haldane shelter, July 1940. © Arthur Tanner
JBS Haldane holds a model of a Haldane shelter, July 1940. © Arthur Tanner

He also wrote and spoke extensively about eugenics, scoffing at the notion of “inferiority” and “superiority” in comparing humans and dismissing nostalgia for “bygone racial perfection”, even though it took him some time to shed his own preconceived notions about race. What do you think he would have made of the situation today when, as Angela Saini puts it, there’s a return of race science? There’s also all this new work that combines genetics and history to form new “understandings of race”. It’s a scientifically exciting but politically fraught time.

You’re right. First of all, I think he would not have been surprised. Throughout his life, he wrote about the fact that as technology advances, we’ll have to find ways to cope with it. I think he would realise that this is a very urgent time to be considering these methods, even more than when he was writing. He’d be disappointed, for example, that no comprehensive ethical system has been set into place on how to deal with these new questions. More than 40 years ago—just around the time that people were starting to be able to do small tweaks to DNA, they could cut and splice, for example—there was actually a conference in California called the Asilomar Conference, where scientists from the US and Western Europe voluntarily crafted a system of ethics on how to go about it. It’s been almost half a century since then and nothing comparable has come up despite all these new developments. I think that would have puzzled and frustrated him.

And all the more urgently, I think, he would have looked at the politics and been devastated by it. It’s funny because we know so much more about the genetic code, that it sometimes varies from person to person within a so-called racial group more than it does between racial groups. Or that more than 99% of the genome is shared between every single member of the human race. All these things are well-established truths. Yet somehow we have not internalised them enough to eliminate basic prejudices that seem to crop up again and again. I think that would have really stymied him.

It stymied me definitely. There’s a great new book coming out called How to Argue With a Racist by Adam Rutherford, a British geneticist, which also says the same thing—that we know a lot about this stuff, we don’t have to be puzzled anymore about race and what it means and doesn’t mean. Science clearly indicates that race is an artificial social category based on how people look on the outside. But this just hasn’t seeped into the vast body of knowledge that human beings share.

Could you talk me through the research process for the book? Especially if there were gaps in existing writing about him?

The biggest boon was that the University College London, where he had worked, carries the bulk of the Haldane archives, and most of that is digitised so anyone can access it from anywhere. Then there were a bunch of smaller archives in the UK and in India.

This is the first time I’ve done a book—or actually even a magazine article—based entirely on archival research. It wasn’t very easy to figure out how to prioritise what I read and be smart about it. After talking to a bunch of people I realised that if you wait until all your research is over, you will never finish. A historian, Alex von Tunzelmann, told me you have to just start writing and the minute you do, you’ll know what to look for and be more intelligent about what documents to find. So, eight months into the research process, I just started writing. I had a structure and themes in mind and anytime I had a hole that I needed to fill with information, I knew I had to seek it out. The first draft of the book was finished in November 2018 and the first big round of edits took place after that and until April, I was still researching and finding new information and seeing where I could slot it.

“Eight months into the research process, I just started writing. I had a structure and themes in mind and anytime I had a hole that I needed to fill with information, I knew I had to seek it out.”

In addition to being a biography of a scientist, the book also traces the evolution of several branches of scientific thought. And it doesn’t shy away from diving into complex details. Do you have a background in science that helped? How did you ensure these details were as accurate as possible yet also accessible?

That was actually what I was most worried about. I stopped studying science after school—my graduate degree was in journalism. I was partly lucky because some of this work was so foundational—it was the start of genetics as a science—that the principles at least are basic enough for people to get even if they don’t have a background in it. But having said that, to wade through Haldane’s papers, which are very math-heavy and stats-heavy, to draw out conclusions, to understand them well enough to then reinterpret them, that was enormously tough. The only way I could do it was to talk to people who knew it much better than me and get them to explain it to me.

I read these papers again and again until I could make sense of them and then write about them. And then I sent the book out to a panel that I had selected to get their inputs. Some of them were friends of mine but others were people I had never met before. I still haven’t met one of them. He just did it based on a cold email. They would tell me what the problems were, what the errors were, and where I should look for more material. I could not have done it without them. The weird thing is that the publishing industry, unlike the magazine industry, doesn’t have fact-checkers. It doesn’t have peer reviewers. So I was paranoid about putting out a book with errors because it would have just undermined the whole project.

But it’s very interesting that you ask this because it struck me while researching the book that this might be the last era in genetics where an outsider can come in and try to understand and communicate it. It’s becoming so specialised these days.

This is your third book, and so far, all three have straddled completely different worlds and genres. Has that been accidental? That you happened to write about what you were drawn to at the time? Or was the writing of a biography something you wanted to experience?

It was very deliberate. The entire shift in genre from book to book has been deliberate. As is the case in my journalism as well, I don’t like being boxed in, I don’t like having a beat. I did want to explore the biography form, that’s definitely true. I wanted to do a book that was based entirely on archival research because it felt like a challenge to do that and still have it be vivid, and have themes and characters. I wondered about that. What is the process of setting up a scene when you’re doing it only depending on stuff you’ve read and not stuff you’ve seen?

You spoke earlier about ever-increasing specialisations when it comes to science. It’s a particularly relevant detail when it comes to Haldane who was clearly a polymath, with multiple interests, skills and areas of knowledge. And of course, in the 21 century, we often say that the age of the polymath is over…

This debate is definitely happening again. People are wondering whether generalists tend to do better or specialists. In the sciences, there’s no doubt. You have no choice but to specialise early on in life. But the argument is certainly being made that even a specialist in, let’s say, biochemistry, is really losing out by not having some kind of grounding in the social sciences or the humanities. So this big sort of Two Cultures argument that CP Snow inaugurated over half a century ago is ever more prevalent now. And one could argue that a lot of the reason why scientists have become so reluctant to be political is because they are divorced from the study and consideration of humanities and society.

Haldane was the perfect antithesis of that. He studied the classics and then he studied math. And because of that, there’s a very strong streak of humanism that goes through all his work and writing. I guess that’s the advantage of being a polymath—you learn to appreciate or empathise with predicaments that other people have, and you can cross-fertilise from one field to another, the way he did quite often.

Now, you might argue that a lot of what he did has been forgotten because he did a lot of different things. So there’s this Hedgehog and Fox concept at play. He‘s been forgotten a little bit because of that. He doesn’t have one big shining discovery that everybody turns to. He did a number of small things. But it seemed to delight him to work like this.

Did you find that he’s remembered more vividly in England because he had a deep involvement in politics and science, and was, at one point, a very popular intellectual there? Or has he faded into obscurity in his country of birth as well?

Actually he seems to strike many more chords in India. In England, when I talk to people about Haldane outside of universities, there is usually a sense of puzzlement. But in India, certain generations like my dad’s remember him because they remember the publicity that attended his arrival, and his exploits here. In England, he’s forgotten to the extent that there isn’t even a blue plaque outside the house that he lived in. There’s a road named after him in Kolkata but not in England.

“In England, when I talk to people about Haldane outside of universities, there is usually a sense of puzzlement. But in India, certain generations like my dad’s remember him because they remember the publicity that attended his arrival, and his exploits here.”

Haldane with a volunteer, demonstrating a gas mask in Spain, c. 1936-37, Source: Imperial War Museum
Haldane with a volunteer, demonstrating a gas mask in Spain, c. 1936-37, Source: Imperial War Museum

You’re trained in this as a journalist, but I’m curious about the effort it took to maintain objectivity and balance in the case of a biography, where you’re so immersed in a person’s life. There’s the question of empathy for your subject of course, or trying to understand what led Haldane to make the decisions he did. But did you find it difficult when you came across something unsavoury or disappointing about him?

I did. I’ve realised you tend to develop almost a paternal relationship with a biography subject. You see this man grow up from being a boy, and you’re almost disappointed in the way a father might be towards his son when he makes a mistake.

The book opens not with an account of his greatest moment, but of a big mistake, and the entire project of the book is to strive to understand why he made this one great mistake and how that explains his life. The empathy comes nevertheless. You tend to be fond of the man despite, or perhaps because of his flaws. This was clearly a man who had great generosity when he felt like it, great courage, loyalty, and integrity, and was motivated essentially by very strong principles. You realise of course, that everybody makes mistakes. He didn’t treat people the way they deserved to be treated many times. Clearly in his initial years he was something of a racist before he allowed his views on that to change. You obviously have to document these flaws because you’re not writing a hagiography but you also want to project him in the kind of light that other people will be as fond of him when they finish the book as you are.

There’s a big debate in biography about whether you should be fond of your subject or whether your subject should be “likeable” or “relatable”. I don’t believe that because then we would never have biographies of people like Stalin or Hitler. But with people like him, I think there is definitely a need to understand, and to communicate the understanding, of why he acted the way he did.

In that opening, when you touch on his views about the Soviet Union, Stalin and Lysenko, you describe his behaviour as being “a pathology of open-mindedness”. Do you think this behaviour also stemmed from a stubborn refusal to believe that something that meant so much to him could be flawed in such a deep way?

Yes, absolutely. I think that’s a very nice way to put it.

“He writes about what happens when you drop animals from great heights and the sentence is: “A rat is killed, a man is broken, a horse splashes.” It’s easily the most literary thing he wrote. That one sub-clause in a very simple sentence—it’s just gorgeous.”

It’s popularly believed that he left the UK because of the country’s involvement in the Suez crisis in 1956. But in the book you write that he accepted an offer to work in India four days before the crisis even broke out. Other than the plethora of flora and fauna in India, and demographic diversity—which he had stated would be invaluable to his work—what do you think spurred his move? Was it to explore living in a socialist state that could possibly be better, considering his disenchantment with the Communist party in England?

I think so. He resigned from the party in the early 1950s, and I suspect the Lysenko affair and the problems of his engagement with it wearied him. He lost the kind of comradeship he had found within the party earlier. By the 1950s, his stature in England had somewhat dimmed. And he never said this, but I suspect there must have been a certain disillusionment that crept in with the Soviet project. So when that happened, no doubt he was casting eyes elsewhere to see if there was some other cause to ally with, some other great socialist experiment to get behind.

India was a perfect example at that time. It was a democracy, which he believed in strongly. He had met Nehru and loved him. There were great opportunities for research in a place like India where the biodiversity is so vast. And as I mentioned in the book—and this is something that nobody has really talked of, only because it was difficult to access these records of bank statements and lawyer letters—it was also a financially astute decision because it was getting difficult to pay alimony, there were reduced budgets in the University College London department. That interested and moved me quite a bit because we always assume that great important men make decisions based on great important factors but sometimes it’s as prosaic as a dwindling bank balance.

Haldane speaking at the Indian Statistical Institute, Calcutta, in August 1960. © Indian Statistical Institute
Haldane speaking at the Indian Statistical Institute, Calcutta, in August 1960. © Indian Statistical Institute

He was also a very literary and eloquent man. In the book you reproduce this hilarious poem that he wrote after being diagnosed with cancer. He’s also one of those writers whose words have permeated into collective memory, even if his name isn’t remembered. From having immersed yourself in his writing, what did you find the most compelling and moving?

I want to give you a very specific answer. His most classic essay is called ‘On Being The Right Size’, which everyone writes about. It’s amazing and I discuss it a little bit in the book as well. As a writer you always think “oh everybody else says this is his best essay but what’s really his overlooked gem?”, but it actually is ‘On Being the Right Size’ and within this essay there’s one line with such elegance that I could spend my entire life trying to match it and wouldn’t be able to. He writes about what happens when you drop animals from great heights and the sentence is: “A rat is killed, a man is broken, a horse splashes.” It’s easily the most literary thing he wrote. That one sub-clause in a very simple sentence—it’s just gorgeous.

Haldane held the position of a popular scientist, receiving thousands of letters from readers and amateur scientists, replying to nearly all of them. He also wrote for newspapers and magazines across the board. Did it make you think at all about India and the lack of figures that occupy that kind of space today? Scientists who are public intellectuals, keen to popularise science, are deeply rooted in their work but also politics, and keen to engage with the public in a meaningful way.

I asked scientists about this who said that if you’re at a university or research institution, the money often comes from the government or corporations and you don’t want to jeopardise that. Research is more and more expensive these days, you need really advanced technology, and so you can’t alienate the people who are funding that.

But the other reason is this confusion that scientists seem to have developed over the last few decades that to be scientifically objective is to somehow be apolitical. I don’t think that’s true and they are starting to realise this now over the last three or four years. Everywhere around the world you see these assaults on truth and manipulations of scientific data and knowledge for political propaganda, so people are starting to speak up. I’ve been very heartened for example, by the fact that Venki Ramakrishnan, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, has been quite unequivocal about things like the Citizenship Amendment Act.

In Bangalore, when I spoke at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), my entire talk was around this—on why we need to reoccupy the space for public intellectuals and a number of people came up to me and said that they agreed and they wished that they spoke up about the eroding autonomy of JNU, for example, things that are directly linked to their work. It seems to be on people’s minds a lot more than it was a few years ago. And that’s good. We need more of that. As Haldane realised, if you don’t explain the science and if you don’t take a stand for the integrity of knowledge, somebody will come along and distort it. You have to grab that role with both hands.

'A Dominant Character' by Samanth Subramanian; Published by Simon and Schuster India
'A Dominant Character' by Samanth Subramanian; Published by Simon and Schuster India

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