JBS Haldane: The Last Man Who Knew All There was to be Known

Haldane is best remembered as a geneticist who revolutionized our understanding of evolution, but his peers thought him a polymath. Join writer Samanth Subramanian to uncover Haldane as a scientist, politician, intellectual and science communicator

Organiser: Linnean Events


JBS Haldane

J. B. S. Haldane's life was rich and strange, never short on genius or drama. He is best remembered as a geneticist who revolutionized our understanding of evolution, but his peers thought him a polymath. He foresaw in vitro fertilization, peak oil, and the hydrogen fuel cell, and his contributions ranged over physiology, evolutionary biology, and mathematics. Someone called him "the last man who knew all there was to be known."

Beginning in the 1930s, Haldane was also a staunch Communist — a stance that enhanced his public profile, led him into trouble, and even drew suspicions that he was spying for the Soviets. It is the duty of scientists to think politically, Haldane believed, and he sought not simply to tell his readers what to think but to show them how to think.

He wrote copiously on science and politics for the layman, in newspapers and magazines, and he gave speeches in town halls and on the radio, all of which made him, in his day, as famous in Britain as Einstein. Arthur C. Clarke called Haldane "the most brilliant science popularizer of his generation." He frequently narrated aspects of his life: of his childhood, as the son of a famous scientist; of his time in the trenches in the First World War and in Spain during the Civil War; of his experiments upon himself; of his secret research for the British Admiralty; of his final move to India, in 1957. "A Dominant Character" unpacks Haldane's boisterous life, and it examines the questions he raised about the intersections of genetics and politics—questions that resonate even more urgently today.

Dr Sandra Knapp, the President of the Linnean Society of London, will lead a conversation with Samanth Subramanian, author and journalist, on Haldane's life, legacy, and why his teachings remain just as relevant today.

Samanth Subramanian

Samanth Subramanian's journalism has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the New Yorker, WIRED, Harper's and the Guardian Long Read. His previous book, "This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War," was shortlisted for the Royal Society of Literature's Ondaatje Prize and the Baillie Gifford Prize. He lives in London.

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