A Dominant Character: How J. B. S. Haldane Transformed Genetics, Became a Communist, and Risked His Neck for Science (Paperback)
One of the Wall Street Journal's 10 Best Books of 2020
One of the New York Times's 100 Notable Books of 2020
A biography of J. B. S. Haldane, the brilliant and eccentric British scientist whose innovative predictions inspired Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
J. B. S. Haldane’s life was rich and strange, never short on genius or drama—from his boyhood apprenticeship to his scientist father, who first instilled in him a devotion to the scientific method; to his time in the trenches during the First World War, where he wrote his first scientific paper; to his numerous experiments on himself, including inhaling dangerous levels of carbon dioxide and drinking hydrochloric acid; to his clandestine research for the British Admiralty during the Second World War. He is best remembered as a geneticist who revolutionized our understanding of evolution, but his peers hailed him as a polymath. One student called him “the last man who might know all there was to be known.”
He foresaw in vitro fertilization, peak oil, and the hydrogen fuel cell, and his contributions ranged over physiology, genetics, evolutionary biology, mathematics, and biostatistics. He was also a staunch Communist, which led him to Spain during the Civil War and sparked suspicions that he was spying for the Soviets. He wrote copiously on science and politics 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. 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.
Beautifully written and richly detailed, Samanth Subramanian’s A Dominant Character recounts Haldane’s boisterous life and examines the questions he raised about the intersections of genetics and politics—questions that resonate even more urgently today.
— Jonathan Weiner - New York Times Book Review
Samanth Subramanian is a crisp, elegant writer who has produced a compelling biography of this dazzling man. A Dominant Character is perfectly paced.... It can be read with the utmost pleasure by everyone who likes to admire a fine intellect in action and to see respect paid to outstanding intelligence.
— Richard Davenport-Hines - Wall Street Journal
Balanced and modern ... [A Dominant Character] should prove engaging to readers interested in the birth of genetics and in the intersection of science and political belief.
— P. William Hughes - Science
Astute and sympathetic.
— The Economist
Superb.... Subramanian does a masterly job of summarising a rich and rough life.... 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.
— Times [UK]
Excellent.... Full of insight and felicitous writing.
— David Brown - American Scholar
A wholly delightful, even brilliant, exploration of the scientific mind. Subramanian brings alive J. B. S. Haldane’s rollicking, unbelievable life journey from privileged English childhood to Indian asylum. He writes with grace and confidence about both the science and the man, a ‘Darwinian preacher’ whose life explains why scientists in our age of artificial intelligence and revolutionary genetics need to think politically. A Dominant Character is a captivating story of prickly genius, sexual scandal, and radical politics.
— Kai Bird, Pulitzer Prize–winning historian and director of the Leon Levy Center for Biography
The twentieth-century British geneticist J. B. S. Haldane remains one of the most influential scientists of modern times. And this remarkable biography by Samanth Subramanian, which brings to life Haldane at his brilliant, unpredictable, outspoken, visionary best, will make you see exactly why his light still shines so brightly today.
— Deborah Blum, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century
A wonderful book about one of the most important, brilliant, and flawed scientists of the 20th century—that explains much not only about J. B. S. Haldane but about the complex times he lived in.
— Peter Frankopan, author of The Silk Roads
A marvelous, comprehensive, and entertaining biography of J. B. S. Haldane, who made major contributions to many fields. His biggest impact was on evolutionary biology, as a major founder of the theory of population genetics. Subramanian has done impressive research on Haldane’s background, scientific contributions, and political controversies—this will be the definitive work on his life from now on.
— Joe Felsenstein, professor emeritus of genome sciences and of biology, University of Washington