Chapter 3: J. B. S. Haldane, Holism, and Synthesis in Evolution

By Hammond, Andy | Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, January 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Chapter 3: J. B. S. Haldane, Holism, and Synthesis in Evolution


Hammond, Andy, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society


John Burdon Sanderson Haldane (1892-1964), one of the leading biologists engaged in early genetics research, remains an anomaly. Forty-five years after his death, Haldane (also referred to herein by his initials, J. B. S.) still is the least stuthed of the four principal mathematical population geneticists of the evolutionary synthesis.1 Beyond his biographers, few scholars offer more than a passing nod to Haldane's research or his influence upon others.2 Most frustrating, individual pieces of his work normally are stuthed in isolation, without reference to the comprehensive whole of this remarkably complex thinker.

Everyone struggles with Haldane. The lack of easy handles certainly has a role in this struggle. So too do his many changes in position on fundamental issues. At times, Haldane was an idealist; at other times, a materialist. For a considerable time he was a Marxist, yet this seemingly overlapped with an increasing interest in Hinduism. Haldane also presented different identities to different audiences. Notably, he often restricted philosophical comments and speculations to popular and mass audience writings.3 A scholar reading his technical publications has only a partial view of Haldane no matter how thorough his or her examination might be.

Another source of confusion about Haldane involves his commitment to holism.4 This point is key. Haldane's commitment to holism was a key motivation in his research and intellectual activity, as I argue in this paper. It also motivated his interest in synthesis, both in evolution and in other realms of biology. Throughout his various shifts in philosophical position, Haldane remained committed to the principle of hoUsm. Holism proved particularly key for Haldane during the late 1920s and early 1930s, when he struggled to embed genetics within a broader vision of evolution and then within a broader vision of biology. Haldane's motivations might have been unique among advocates of synthesis in evolutionary stuthes. Nevertheless, his participation added important momentum and material to a growing convergence of interest, the set of "common problems" so fundamental to the new generation of research in this area (Cain, 1993).

Haldane's commitment to synthesis in evolution forms only part of a much wider ranging commitment to synthesis within his science and his world outlook in general. This theme often is overlooked or belittled. Some scholars commenting on Haldane's science make passing reference to Haldane's preference for a multidisciplinary approach or multifarious interests. Only two have attempted analysis in any depth (Sarkar, 1992b; Shapiro, 1993). Bardett (1968, pp. 208-209) comes near to an explicit statement of Haldane's antireductionism.5 Even Sheehan and Graham, who correcdy emphasize the importance of philosophical motivations in Haldane's science, have not examined the connections between Haldane's phUosophy and science in depth and detail (Graham, 1973, p. 264; Sheehan, 1985, pp. 316-326). Yet the question of how Haldane's philosophy and science interacted needs to be seriously addressed before we reach a solid understanding of Haldane and his work. This paper is an attempt to give a broad outline to such a project.

This paper foUows Haldane through the first three decades of his career, from his physiological work in the early 1920s and through his biochemical research and interest in population genetics during the interwar years. It also offers a brief section on Haldane's uptake of dialectical materialism, the Marxist holistic philosophy, noting his use of it in the 1930s. Finally, it presents a few examples from Haldane's post-World War II work to show continuity in his holistic outlook. To begin, I describe some key features shaping Haldane's philosophical framework.

HALDANE'S PHILOSOPHICAL COMMITMENTS

Haldane's philosophical commitments changed during his lifetime. One theme in those commitments involved a move from idealism to materialism. …

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