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Geneticist, Gentleman, Spy

By: Michael M. Rosen
August 15, 2018

he curious case of John Burdon Sanderson Haldane, a celebrated 20th century British academic geneticist and high-profile member of the Communist Part of Great Britain (CPGB), illustrates how profoundly dogma can corrupt both reason and morality.

In this splendid volume, replete with extensive appendices that include Haldane’s original writings and editorial glosses, Gavan Tredoux, a data scientist and Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, offers a piercing analysis of the intersection of genetics and communist ideology.

Tredoux opens the book with a fascinating vignette of Haldane being browbeaten by Harry Pollitt, a high-ranking British communist and Soviet lackey, for the former’s “insufficiently enthusiastic” embrace of the pseudo-scientific theories of Soviet hack geneticist Trofim Lysenko (on whom more below). The entire painful conversation was recorded by MI5, and the summary of the transcript reveals Haldane, perhaps uncharacteristically, as reluctant to travel to the Soviet Union for summer holiday.

An Etonian, a Fellow of the Royal Society, a professor at University College London, a reader at Cambridge, and a fellow at Oxford, Haldane represents, in Tredoux’s account, “the most prominent scientific member of the party.”

Tredoux scoffs at the notion that “the Communist Party of Great Britain was a political party pursuing ideals,” contending instead it was “nothing more or less than a remote channel for Moscow.”

Deeply, often disturbingly, eccentric, Haldane was known in early adulthood in the 1920’s and 30’s for bizarre hijinks like intentionally inducing self-acidosis and urinating in the river Cam; bedding a married mother of a young child, forcing her divorce, and weathering a “moral turpitude” investigation at Cambridge; and smoking a pipe whilst swimming.

Haldane’s lefty social and political circles encompassed the likes of Bertrand Russell, Virginia Woolf, and Ernest Hemingway, and he eventually graduated into the ranks of Gruppa Iks, or X-Group, a collection of British artistic and scientific luminaries, led by film mogul Ivor Montagu, embedded deeply within the CPGB.

While Haldane didn’t officially announce his membership in the party until 1942–by which time, amidst the British-Soviet alliance confronting Nazi Germany, such an affiliation was acceptable and even, in some circles, fashionable–Tredoux argues that he had joined six years earlier, around the time he began advising the Spanish Republicans on the niceties of gas warfare.

Either way, the mental gymnastics demanded by faithful adherence to the Soviet wartime line truly merited an Olympic medal. With Stalin’s approach to Nazi Germany repeatedly zigzagging between amity and enmity, Haldane and his other fellow travelers sought to maintain the pretense of intellectual integrity.

And so, following the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, Haldane muted earlier criticisms of fascist Germany, softly but firmly criticizing the British government for opposing Hitler and contending dismissively that “I would sooner be a Jew in Berlin than a Kaffir in Johannesburg or a negro in French Equatorial Africa.” Once Hitler betrayed Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union, Haldane seamlessly returned to blasting away at the Nazis’ reactionary oppression of the weak.

Tredoux is at his most engaging when depicting the exquisitely fraught relationship between Haldane’s science and his politics. By most accounts a brilliant geneticist, Haldane halted his commitment to objective scientific inquiry at the water’s edge of communist ideology. In many ways, the conflict between Haldane’s field and Soviet dogma proved fundamentally irresolvable:

Orthodox genetics was unacceptable to the Party because, in essence, it was just too slow, implying that organisms had an essential nature that was resistant to change, requiring repeated natural or artificial selection over a long period. This understanding frustrated an underlying communist theme, the idea of perfectibility–of man, of nature, and of society. It also contradicted the idea that all of the social “superstructure” was determined by the “modes of production” of its economic base.

No matter: Haldane swallowed the party line whole, displaying a toadying fealty to the regnant Soviet genetic ideology of the time, namely a neo-Lamarckian (or, as Tredoux cleverly labels it, Lamarxist) theory of “training” plants to develop by what we would today call epigenetics, spearheaded by the famed Soviet agro-logue Lysenko, a favorite son of Stalin who hypothesized that external means could permanently “vernalize” Siberian winter wheat.

Mostly ridiculed in the West and challenged delicately (and sometimes fatally) even in the USSR, Haldane tepidly endorsed Lysenko’s theory. Despite knowing better, he condemned it as nonsense only in his unusual “self-obituary” broadcast posthumously on the BBC. (To be fair, Haldane began to gradually fall out of favor with his communist puppet-masters after an earlier BBC debate in 1948 in which he was perceived as failing to endorse Lysenkoism with sufficient vigor.)

In addition, Haldane breezily and shamefully overlooked—even whitewashed—the purging, exile, and execution of hundreds of erstwhile Soviet scientific luminaries, including leading plant geneticist Nikolai Vavilov, whose pursuit of truth ran afoul of Lysenko and the apparatchiks. Even after his late-life estrangement from the CPGB and subsequent relocation to India, Haldane never relinquished his admiration of Stalin and the murderous system he constructed.

Tredoux’s otherwise excellent book disappoints in one key regard: the slim evidence he produces that Haldane actually spied for Stalin. True, Tredoux uses the famed VENONA decrypts to more or less prove Haldane’s membership in the X Group, which almost certainly passed sensitive wartime information to the Soviets. But the evidence that Haldane himself transferred classified documents to the Reds–allegedly a report on underwater compression the Admiralty had commissioned from him–is questionable, and any such transfer likely took place when the UK and the Soviet Union had resumed their alliance. It seems Haldane was less spy than useful idiot, albeit one of the brightest idiots around.

Nevertheless, Comrade Haldane offers a fascinating insight into science, politics, intellectual integrity, and the sheer ruthlessness of the Soviets and their feckless communist fellow-travelers in the West. Even a geneticist and intellect of Haldane’s caliber could fall prey to the mean seductions of an unforgivingly cruel ideology.