Book Review: Samanth Subramanian ~ A Dominant Character: the radical science and restless politics of J B S Haldane (2019)

To my shame I didn’t know who Haldane was until I read this biography. He’s one of the most significant scientists of the 20th century and he’s British. Born in the late 19th century his father was also a significant scientist. His father treated him as an adult from a very early age and they spent a great deal of time together where he ‘picked up’ the scientific method. He was precociously intelligent but got a rude awakening when he went to Eton.*

Haldane was a polymath but his principal claim to fame is as a geneticist. In the 1920s and 30s there was a huge debate about eugenics, which culminated in some vicious immoral policies. And I don’t just mean the Nazis.

Haldane had a well developed social conscience and the Nazi era sharpened it to a cutting edge. He joined the Communist party and was a devoted member for a number of years. This included intellectual gymnastics when he soft-soaped the absurdities of the Soviet biologist Lysenko. He was tracked by MI5 who had a huge file on him. This was at the same time as he was doing classified war work on submarines.

Continuing to be amazing he emigrated to India becoming and Indian citizen. He took several posts at agriculture institutions. There was a certain amount of cultural conflict but as a world status scientist Haldane usually prevailed. A wonderful biography.

* This was one of his experiences at Eton Sadism at Eton College, 1905 | Odeboyz’s Blog (

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