A biography of J. B. S. Haldane, the British scientist, philosopher, and rabble-rouser 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. He's best remembered as a geneticist who revolutionized our understanding of evolution. His peers hailed him as a polymath; one student called him "the last man who knew all there was to be known". He foresaw in vitro fertilization, peak oil, and the hydrogen fuel cell. He was also a staunch Communist, which led him to Spain during the Civil War and drew 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.
A Dominant Character recounts Haldane's boisterous life and examines the questions he raised about the intersections of genetics and politics – questions that resonate all the more strongly today.
Samanth Subramanian is an award-winning writer whose journalism has appeared in The New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, the Guardian, Harper's, and Wired. He lives in Cambridge, England.
"Deliciously full of danger, adventure and scandal."
– 'Science Books of the Year', Guardian
"Superb [...] Subramanian does a masterly job of summarising a rich and rough life. He uses sharp analogies and arresting images [...] 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."
– Matt Ridley, The Times
"A master biographer brings this original, impulsive and politically misguided figure into sharp focus in this rare account of intellect and temperament in action."
– 'Top Ten Books of 2020', Wall Street Journal
"It's hard to recommend a single science book from 2020, but the one I've kept returning to, mentally, is Samanth Subramanian's A Dominant Character [...] Beautifully written, it's a reminder that no scientist can be extracted from his or her time."
– Laura Spinney, 'Books of the Year', New Statesman
"Fascinating [...] The best Haldane biography yet."
– New York Times
"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
"Captures Haldane's outsize character, productive scientific career, and communist convictions [...] Explaining clearly Haldane's science and discerning astutely Haldane's personality, Subramanian delivers a well-judged biography."
"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
"Insightful [...] This portrait of a brilliant, egotistical contrarian illustrates how science and politics can collide, a subject with ample relevance for the modern world."
– Publishers Weekly
"Astute and sympathetic."
– The Economist
"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
"Excellent [...] Full of insight and felicitous writing."
– David Brown , American Scholar
"Attempting to encompass the entirety of the polymath that was J.B.S. Haldane (1892–1964) is no easy task [...] Social historians will appreciate the emphasis on the man and his politics, over an emphasis solely on the science, in this excellent biography."
– Library Journal
"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 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
"A rich biography of a central figure in the 20th-century genetics revolution [...] Succeeds superbly."