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The story of Haldane's last words


Haldane's reaction to the Lysenko affair
John Maynard Smith Scientist
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I tend to think his thoughts were very similar to my own, and the difficulties he went through were very similar to my own. But there was an important difference, he was a very public figure. We were in the middle of the Cold War. He was very reluctant to say anything which could be used in the Cold War as a sort of anti-Soviet, pro-American propaganda. And he was therefore saying quite different things inside the Communist Party about Lysenko to what he was saying in public. And when I heard him talk at a number of inner party meetings, in which he was saying to the Communists, essentially two things: first, it is not right that politicians should tell scientists how to do their science, which is what the Executive Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had, in fact, done - that scientific questions have to be settled by scientists and not by politicians. And secondly, that it is not right that scientists who don't agree with the party line should be put in prison. And he was very explicit about that within the party, trying to persuade people. And the third thing he was saying, it is not necessary or desirable that the British Communist Party should have a policy supporting Lysenko. And he was very clear about that within the party. Those were not the things he was saying in public, outside the party, and I do understand why, you know, and indeed, I think he may be quite right to divide the things he said in public. The one other thing I remember, vividly, and I wish I knew more... in a way, this would have been, I guess, very soon after I graduated, in about '51, '52, the Russians sent to Western Europe a hatchet man of Lysenko's, called Glushenko, who called, among other people, on Haldane, to... he arrived with a couple of goons, it was awful, you know. He arrived in the department. And he and the goons, I try to remember, I think and the goons, were actually closeted in Haldane's office for about three hours, trying to persuade Haldane how right Lysenko was. And Haldane was absolutely unapproachable for two or three days afterwards. He was clearly pretty shaken by what I take to be Glushenko's ignorance. Now, I talked to somebody in Paris quite recently, and I'm sorry I've forgotten his name, who was also interviewed by Glushenko at the same time. He said, what Glushenko told him was the following argument, among others, that of course heredity of humans and mice are different. For example, glucose is different in humans and mice. And when this chap said, 'What do you mean, glucose is different?' He said, 'It's different.' And he said, 'Well, the formula of glucose is the same whether it's in mouse or...' And there was just no... I think that if that kind of ignorance and stupidity had been put to Haldane, I can understand just how disturbed and distressed he would have been. Because you must understand, we did believe this stuff, Richard, you know we were sincere Communists.

[Q] That '48 document which you referred to earlier, The Situation in Biological Science, that, to me, is chilling because of the bullying that was going on. I would have thought he would have somehow seen that and would have identified with these people who were being hounded.

I think he did. I think he did. And yet, as I say there was... you can put it either way, depending on whether you want to be sympathetic or unsympathetic, and you can put it on me as well. You can say we were unwilling to admit we were wrong, and had been that wrong, or you can say well, we were trying to be loyal to comrades we had worked with for many years, we were trying to be loyal to an ideal that we had followed for many years. And the truth, I guess, is part one and part the other. I'm not trying to excuse it. I don't blame myself at all for joining the Communist Party in '38, I think I'd do the same again. I do blame myself for staying in as long as I did, and therefore, to some extent, I must be critical of Haldane for staying in as long as he did.

The late British biologist John Maynard Smith (1920-2004) is famous for applying game theory to the study of natural selection. At Eton College, inspired by the work of old Etonian JBS Haldane, Maynard Smith developed an interest in Darwinian evolutionary theory and mathematics. Then he entered University College London (UCL) to study fruit fly genetics under Haldane. In 1973 Maynard Smith formalised a central concept in game theory called the evolutionarily stable strategy (ESS). His ideas, presented in books such as 'Evolution and the Theory of Games', were enormously influential and led to a more rigorous scientific analysis and understanding of interactions between living things.

Listeners: Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins was educated at Oxford University and has taught zoology at the universities of California and Oxford. He is a fellow of New College, Oxford and the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. Dawkins is one of the leading thinkers in modern evolutionary biology. He is also one of the best read and most popular writers on the subject: his books about evolution and science include "The Selfish Gene", "The Extended Phenotype", "The Blind Watchmaker", "River Out of Eden", "Climbing Mount Improbable", and most recently, "Unweaving the Rainbow".

Tags: Cold War, Communist Party, Russia, The situation in biological science: proceedings of the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences of the U.S.S.R, 1938, JBS Haldane, Trofim Lysenko

Duration: 4 minutes, 30 seconds

Date story recorded: April 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008