Subramanian summarises Haldane’s contribution as “an incandescent persona: the man who lifted the arras that hid the work of nature; the man who stepped down, into the everyday world, from his tower of ivory; the man who shrugged away convention and defied authority”. Haldane deserves a biographer who is eloquent, intelligent, fair, but unsparing and as good at explaining science as politics. Not an easy combination, but he has got one.
This is an intelligent and energetic book, but it has longueurs. Two detailed sections on Soviet biologists, and how they squared evolutionary theory with Marxism, is at least one too many. There is some brilliant phrasing (1920s Europe was “still steaming and hissing from the war”), yet somehow the book does not quite capture the heart.
Subramanian, a journalist and regular contributor to The Guardian, is a strong writer, and he recounts Haldane’s communist adventures with brio: the hoarse, roaring speeches in Trafalgar Square; the admiring trip to Stalin’s Soviet Union; the tour of the front lines of the Spanish Civil War, where Haldane kicked around a bit with Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn. (He almost got them all blown up.) In London during the Blitz, Haldane designed a giant, inexpensive underground bomb shelter that he argued could save thousands of lives. These “Haldane Shelters” were never built. To Haldane that was another crime of capitalist society, and in this telling, at least, he had a case. British intelligence kept him under surveillance for more than 20 years on the suspicion — probably unfounded — that he was a Soviet spy. (In a way, as Subramanian says, MI5 was Haldane’s first biographer.)