The evolutionary biologist and crusading atheist Richard Dawkins is not as singular as the mass media makes him appear. To anyone familiar with the intellectual history of modern England, he is just the latest example from a long tradition, stretching back to Victorians like T. H. Huxley and W. K. Clifford, of what might be called establishment dissenters or godless Calvinists. Dawkins is a near-reincarnation of John Burden Sanderson (‘J. B. S.’) Haldane (1892-1964). The Selfish Gene, the book that first brought wide fame to Dawkins, is largely an extension of earlier scientific work done by Haldane. Both men are Wykehamists, products of New College, Oxford, actually one of Oxford’s oldest, which has a record of producing notable graduates in everything from mathematics (Freeman Dyson) to politics (Richard Crossman, Oswald Mosley), and as these examples also show, a fondness for iconoclastic contrarianism.
J. B. S. did his most important pure research on the ‘neo-Darwinian synthesis’ of statistical population genetics, but he was most widely known as a polymath, popular interpreter of science, and scourge of God. He was one of the alarming utopians that C. S. Lewis had in mind when he coined the term ‘scientism’ to describe their characteristic ideological predilections, and both Lewis and Haldane’s friend Aldous Huxley satirized him in fictionalized portrayals. Huxley apparently also got his idea of the test-tube babies of Brave New World from Haldane. The most joyously provocative essayist of his time, J. B. S. left even Bertrand Russell at the post. From the 1920s to the 1950s he turned out a steady stream of newspaper articles, pamphlets, books, and BBC broadcasts about science and public affairs. He often took on Christian thinkers in formal debates, and for two decades of his life was also a defender of Marxism-Leninism, sometimes in strange ways: he claimed to have been cured of chronic indigestion by a reading of Lenin, and tried, conscientiously but without much success, to apply the doctrines of dialectical materialism to his own scientific researches and explanations.
Like Dawkins, Haldane mixed very good scientific observations and explanations with amateurish and unpersuasive theological disputation. But he also had some unique aspects. One was his sheer physical impact. He was large, aggressive, and loud, recalled even by close friends as intimidating, and, when enraged, terrifying, Another was the great industry and energy he put into a mixture of polemic and popular education. He wrote hundreds of science columns for The Daily Worker, but also addressed articles and books to the British intellectual elite of his time. In the first half of the 20th century, he could reach almost all of the latter. A great deal of the British intelligentsia still moves within a small circuit defined by family relationships, education at one of the famous Public Schools, and university studies at a handful of Oxbridge colleges. But that network has now grown far larger, more specialized, and more diffuse. Haldane learned most of his biological science from his father, and actually took his undergraduate degree in mathematics and classics, a very improbable background for any biological scientist today. His intellectual contemporaries were highly individualist and idiosyncratic, even when, like Haldane, adopting Marxism. They had lots of quarrels, political and personal; nonetheless, English writers, philosophers, and natural scientists socialized frequently, read each other, and absorbed ideas from opponents as well as friends.
Haldane had a third quality, not so strange among dissenting Wykehamists, of pursuing arguments to their logical end, unconcerned with the strange results. that this would sometimes produce. His Marxism, more royalist than the king, more Catholic than the Pope, was typical. He was not unusual in men of his generation in also going to war, but he responded to it far differently than most. He had gone through plenty of battlefield experience as a Black Watch officer in the First World War, and unlike nearly all of his contemporaries, scientist or non-scientist, he treated this as one more source of interesting observations, and even claimed he had enjoyed the experience, which had included shelling, small arms fire, and gas attacks. Both then and throughout his life, he showed an astonishing level of stoic acceptance, even indifference, in subjecting himself to extreme physical dangers and punishment of his own body. It seems to have been true even when, still a boy, he had accompanied his father when making physiological investigations of mining accidents; at the other end of his life, when contracting colorectal cancer requiring major surgery and a colostomy bag, he wrote and published a comic poem about it.
Haldane’s combination of egoism, physical sturdiness, omnivorous scientific intellectual curiosity, and cheery iconoclasm was displayed above all in a little 1925 monograph called Callinicus, or a Defence of Chemical Warfare. Only H. G. Wells, and only in his most speculative and fantastic science fiction, ever sounded remotely similar, but Callinicus (the title taken from the name of a Syrian who was possibly the first to introduce ‘Greek fire’ in the 7th century A. D.) was no fantasy, but a ferocious exercise in scientific Hobbesianism.
He was unremarkable in pointing out that, horrible as the effects of gas could be, so were the effects of high explosives, metal shrapnel, incendiaries,, and flamethrowers, several ‘chemical’ in their own way. At moments, he could sound like an absolute pacifist: ‘if it is right for me to fight my enemy with a sword, it is right for me to fight him with mustard gas; if the one is wrong, so is the other.’ But Haldane was not remotely like a pacifist, and what was really singular about the book was that he also maintained that gas could be a more humane weapon than more conventional ones. He reminded his readers that, until the appearance of several debilitating but non-fatal gases like tear gas, the only way that police or military authorities could deal with a group of armed and violent enemies who had successfully barricaded themselves in a building or settled in a well-entrenched military position was to destroy them completely. either by blowing them up or completely incinerating them.
Thirteen years later, for the Left Book Club, he published A.R.P. [‘Air Raid Precautions’], as useful advice for Englanders facing another likely general European war. By then, he also knew of the use of gas warfare by Fascist Italy against Ethiopia, and had also observed another savage conflict closeup, the Spanish Civil War, to which he had gone to assist the Republican forces. He was mistaken in some respects about what another world war general war would be like, but was prescient in many ways. This time, he expressed doubt about the effectiveness of even the most poisonous and vesicant gases, whether used against military forces or civilians. Unlike almost everyone else, from Neville Chamberlain and his military advisers to the mass circulation newspapers, Haldane did not expect gas to be a major factor in the coming war, partly because even deadlier new gases may rapidly disperse. With his characteristic ‘rational ruthlessness’, he argued against gas because he simply considered that high explosive was a more efficient way of killing people.
When the war came, he subjected himself to physically agonizing experiments in a closed chamber with high pressure/high CO2 to figure out what had happened to the trapped crew on a submarine that had gone down on its maiden voyage. He became disillusioned with Communism after the war, due to Stalin’s murderous application of the crackpot biological theories of Trofim Lysenko, but he remained on the left. He was so angry at Britain’s behaviour in the 1956 Suez crisis that he became a citizen of India. He remained to the end a great English eccentric, sometimes brilliant, always courageous, often, despite his Marxism, sounding almost like the fascist intellectuals of his time, consistently contrarian above all.
Sometimes he seemed to mock even himself. When he wrote an attack on the science fiction trilogy of C. S. Lewis for a Marxist periodical, he signed himself, ‘Auld Hornie, F. R. S.’ The initials made clear that he was a Fellow of the Royal Society, the ‘Auld Hornie’ was the Scots Gaelic name for the Devil. More like an occasionally Satanic imp, J. B. S. demonstrated that a very powerful intellect, an iconoclastic tradition, and a thoroughgoing rationalism offers little in the way of enduring wisdom. What he argued about chemical warfare was not so much entirely fallacious as a reminder that a ruthless application of logic to the dilemmas generated by war and frightening weapons is seldom of much practical assistance. This ought to be kept in mind in evaluating overconfident punditry of both the left and right today about how to respond to the escalating and possibly increasingly ‘chemical’ war in Syria. Sometimes there are no good options, and ‘rational analysis’ is only really informative about the individual who advances it.