J. B. S. Haldane and population Genetics

J. B. S. Haldane

J. B. S. Haldane (1892-1964)

On November 5, 1892, English geneticist and biometrician John Burdon Sanderson Haldane was born. Haldane is known for his work in the study of physiology, genetics, evolutionary biology, and in mathematics, where he made innovative contributions to the fields of statistics and biostatistics.

“My own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”
— J. B. S. Haldane

Youth and Education

John Burdon Sanderson Haldane was the son of John Scott Haldane, Professor of Physiology at Oxford, and Louisa Kathleen Trotter. His sister was Naomi Mitchison, a writer who wrote historical, science fiction and fantasy novels. Already as a boy he assisted in the work of his father. At the age of 13 he dived for the first time with a helmet diving apparatus. At New College at the University of Oxford, Heldane studied mathematics and classics. Around the age of 20, Haldane and his father published their first scientific paper together. In 1912 he presented his work on gene linkage in vertebrates.

First World War and Academic Career

When the First World War broke out, he joined the British Army, where he worked primarily with explosives. He was an enthusiastic soldier and was wounded several times. After the war, between 1919 and 1922, Haldane was a Fellow of New College, Oxford, where he researched physiology and genetics. In Cambridge he read biochemistry and Haldane became Head of Genetical Research at the John Innes Horticultural Institution. In that period, he worked on enzymes and genetics, especially the mathematical side of genetics. He had an excellent understanding of how to popularize the results of the natural sciences. His remarkable essay Daedalus or Science and the Future (1923) predicted many scientific advances, but was criticized as too idealistic. In 1932 he was elected a member of the Royal Society.

The Haldane Principle

After a adultery scandal, he was removed from his Cambridge post for ‘immorality’. He married his lover (Charlotte Burghes) in 1926 and divorced her in 1945. During the 1930s, Haldane was appointed full Professor of Genetics at University College London and first Weldon Professor of Biometry. Haldane is also known for an observation from his essay On Being the Right Size, which Jane Jacobs and others called the Haldane principle. It says that the mere size determines what the physical equipment of an animal must be like: Insects have no blood circulation to distribute oxygen because they are so small. The little oxygen their cells need can be absorbed into their body by simple diffusion. But when an animal is bigger, it needs a complicated oxygen distribution system to reach all the cells.

His famous book, The Causes of Evolution (1932), was the first major work known as the Synthetic Theory of Evolution. In the book, natural selection was reintroduced as the main mechanism of evolution and mathematically founded on Mendelian rules.[5] Haldane also investigated the influence of carbon dioxide in the blood on respiratory behaviour, especially under high pressure. Together with his colleagues, he also carried out self-experiments in a pressure chamber, which often led the participants to senselessness. Early on, he used helium as a breathing gas to reduce the negative effects of nitrogen under high pressure.

Becoming an Indian Citizen

Haldane joined the Indian Statistical Institute in 1956 and headed its biometry unit. During his time in India, Haldane’s research went into many directions. He studied the yellow-wattled Lapwing and became interested in the pollination of Lantana camara. Haldane further studied floral symmetry. In 1961, he resigned and moved to a newly established biometry unit in Odisha. J. B. S. Haldane became an Indian citizen. His interest in Hinduism grew and he became a vegetarian. Haldane described India in 1961 as “the closest approximation to the Free World.”

Population Genetics

J. B. S. Haldane became next to Ronald Fisher and Sewall Wright one of the scientists developing the mathematical theory of population genetics. Haldane played an important role in the modern evolutionary synthesis, which is popularly called neo-Darwinism, as in Richard Dawkins‘ 1976 work titled The Selfish Gene. Haldane was able to re-established natural selection as the premier mechanism of evolution by explaining it in terms of the mathematical consequences of Mendelian inheritance. Haldane was friends with author Aldous Huxley and served as a model for biologist Shearwater in Huxley’s novella Antic Hay. Ideas from Haldanes Daedalus, such as the development of foetuses in artificial wombs, influenced Huxley’s Brave New World.[4]

He is famous for the (possibly apocryphal) response that he gave when some theologians asked him what could be inferred about the mind of the Creator from the works of His Creation: “An inordinate fondness for beetles.” This is in reference to there being over 400,000 known species of beetles in the world, and that this represents 40% of all known insect species (at the time of the statement, it was over half of all known insect species).

J. B. S. Haldane died on 1 December 1964 in Bhubaneswar.

Samanth Subramaniam, The Radical Politics and Restless Science of JBS Haldane, [8]

References and Further Reading:

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