Possible Worlds by J.B.S. Haldane
This book is a lucid scrying pool amidst in the dark and murky inter-war years. It is like stumbling through a grey and misty land and discovering a cave within which crouches a wizard who gazes into clear and glittering pool crystal visions of a future time.
We are in that future time right now and it has turned out to be just as dark and murky as the bog around the wizards cave, but we can look upwards, at the point of view of his scrying pool, where presumably he looks down on us from the past, and wave 'Hello' to the Wizard.
We are looking at Haldane looking at us and that is where much of the interest arises.
I read this based on its near-unanimous recommendation by anyone involved in the life sciences and I was surprised, (though perhaps I should not have been), to find another WW1 connection. As well as occupying seemingly every role possible related to genetics and biology in the inter-war years, Haldane was a WW1 veteran, a grenades expert with the Black Watch (for non-military and U.S. readers the Black Watch is generally considered a very high-competence if not elite regiment).
I would love to shove Haldane, the atheist communist, Studdert-Kennedy, the fallen Anglican and Sebastian Junger, the medieval knight and not-quite Fascist, all in a room together and have them talk it out. It would be a hell of a debate.
A VERY BEAUTIFUL MIND
'Possible Worlds' was originally a series of newspaper articles written for 'the ordinary man' 'in intervals between research work and teaching and largely on railway trains'.
These are about science, biology, the scientific life, the future of humanity and Haldane. Many are short, all are clear. A very blessed clarity considering the dithering and extemperous blathering and 'chummy' simplifications of much science writing both now and then. Haldane writes like a man who does not have much time and earnestly wants to get to the point.
Some are so simple and so clear and highlight or describe a concept so exactly that nearly 100 years later they are still being quoted mentioned and recommended today
'On Scales' regards thinking about reaches or scales of time and distance far beyond our immediate ken. If you have watched the Sagan video, or its modern repetitions then you have seen a visual version of this essay.
'On Being the Right Size' is quoted or mentioned in many discussions of biodynamics I know of;
"You can drop a mouse down a thousand-yard mine shaft; and, on arriving at the bottom, it gets a slight shock and walks away, so long as the ground is fairly soft. A rat is killed, a man is broken, a horse splashes."
HALDANE AND TERRIBLE AND QUESTIONABLE IDEAS
Haldane had a lot of sketchy ideas, the most provably-awful are probably being a freestyle vivisectionist, a Communist and a Chemical Warfare enthusiast.
Haldane grew up experimenting on animals with his dad, he was quite willing to experiment on himself, to the extent of drinking dilute hydrochloric acid, sealing himself inside sealed atmosphere chambers and slowly removing the oxygen and attempting experimental diving suits at the age of 13, (not all at the same time). If you added some sadism and race-hatred he would probably have done well in various German or Japanese labs during the oncoming war, but Haldane had little hatred in him, and no sadism, he seems to have regarded the animals around him, and his own body, the way a farmer regards a horse or dog; useful, interesting, necessary, valuable, but not sacred. He reported that, (like Junger), he enjoyed killing people quite a bit. He was an explosives expert, wrote a book on the benefits of chemical warfare and thought it was stupid not to use more mustard gas than we did.
He belongs in that very slightly discomforting margin of humanity who will quite happily take living beings, including themselves, apart in laboratories and their fellow man apart in wars, but won't do it freestyle, for pleasure, for no reason or to anyone who asks them not to (except in war).
In 'Some Enemies of Science' Haldane recommends the complete deregulation of vivisection in the interests of science and of popular science.
"... I killed two rats in the course of experimental work intended to advance medical science. One of them, if we can judge from human experience (and we have no more direct means of evaluating the consciousness of animals), died after a period of rather pleasant delirium like that of alcoholic intoxication. The other had convulsions, and may have been in pain for three or four minutes. I should be very thankful if I knew that I should suffer no more than it did before my death. It therefore seems ridiculous that, wheras my wife" [she had poisoned rats] "is encouraged by the Government and the Press, I should be compelled to apply to the President of the Royal Society and other eminent man of science for signature to an application to the already overworked Home Secretary, before I can even kill a mouse in a slightly novel manner."
Haldanes arguments for the deregulation of Vivisection are strong, coherent, logical and possibly a little mad. His unrelenting hatred for the 'Anti-Vivisectionists' whose hypocrisy, delusion and hatred of science is stopping him from killing mice in novel ways, is genuine, deeply felt and extremely expressed. He is really outraged about the mouse-chopping.
If Haldanes Lassaiz-Fiare Vivisection policy had been made real, the results would have been interesting, but probably more bad than good. Mouse-chopping should be licensed.
Like most high-I.Q. lefties in the inter-war years, Haldane was a Marxist and a Communist. He was wrong and held on to the idea too long. You can tell how sane an inter-war western intellectual was by the date they stopped believing in Communism. Cordwainer Smith, Rebecca West and Bertrand Russel; quite soon, the French; never.
Haldane went full-Commie in the mid 30's, when the saner types were already leaving. He objected to Lysenkos imaginary genetics in 1949 but didn't leave and finally resigned from the Communist Party in 1956. In 1957 he resigned from being British over the Suez incident and went off to spend his final years in India. His stupid murder-god had failed in front of him, Britian was still masturbating to dreams of Imperialism so he took the third way. I think he was also attracted to India because it was here that the direct connection with nature, vast range of life and ability to deal with large populations was closest to the experimental world of his early youth. (He grew up as the son of an aristocrat-scientist the late 19th century.) By the mid 20th century the U.K. was even more intensely urbanised and Haldanes dream of widespread 'Citizen Science' based on animal collections, (and vivisection), and interacting with nature was looking less and less possible. But in India, more space, more nature, and a great diversity of people.
In 1925 he also wrote 'Callinicus: A Defence of Chemical Warfare', which I have not read but his defence of Mustard Gas in 'Possible Worlds' is based on the relative bodily destructive power of machine guns and Mustard Gas. His logic is very like that of the pro-Vivisection argument which is "If we are eating animals and hunting animals why can't I chop them up when I like since I have very good reasons for doing so?" "Likewise, if we are machine gunning each other and bombing each other (ask me how), why not gas each other since it will have the same effect & less human bodies will be destroyed in the process?"
Against Haldanes iron logic I can only offer the midwits response of 'I think that might not turn out the way you think it will'.
He was also an atheist, which I don't consider amongst his terrible and questionable ideas but it is slightly boring from a modern-day perspective, listening to him go on about it is a bit dull. Its interesting to hear from his perspective about how cowardly and useless most Christian Padres were in the war, even more interesting that he signals out for rare praise; the Quakers, for their Pacifistic ambulance-driving and more war service.
DON'T TRUST THE SCIENCE BRO
Haldane has largely (and inadvertently) convinced me that scientists shouldn't get involved in politics. They have no intuitive grasp on what politics is on any level, assuming it to be some kind of social machine to produce 'optimum results'.
They should be consulted closely on their special subjects, should not set policy and generally should be kept in special boxes far from the levers of power.
This applies especially to biologists and other life-science types, especially the more intelligent sort. Their deep understanding of the processes of nature and the human body has been bought at the price of any intuitive grasp of the meaning of nature or the human body and a scientist, if allowed near policy, if asked not to investigate but to decide, will proceed on the basis of optimisation towards a concrete goal, as if they were dealing with a malfunctioning machine.
This is not what society, a nation or humanity is.
Furthermore, there are politicians whom it is necessary to have make decisions and who must be fired afterwards. During Covid most possible choices carried serious moral hazard. Decisions had to be made. Those decisions would by necessity have terrible effects on someone. After the emergency had passed those decisions must be rejected by the very populations that required them and the decision-makers disposed of. This is unpleasant but it is the nature of things. If we had hyper-expert scientists actually making those decisions instead of advising on them, firstly they would proceed on the basis of blind optimisation as stated above, secondly when we inevitably had to turn against them after the emergency was over, we would lose, not a fundamentally-replaceable politician, but a useful expert, and finally because the necessary moral hazard of those choices would ultimately reflect not on one individual or administration but on the scientist and on science itself. Fauci, before he dies, may well drag virology in the U.S. back into the stone age, purely as part of the counter-reaction to his mistakes.
We live in a new age of Eugenics, though we don't quite realise it yet.
Really, any form of Eugenics that becomes common enough stops being thought of as 'Eugenics'. It’s not a completely sliding scale but it’s pretty slippery. Condoms, I.U.D.s the Pill, sonic scans of developing foetus' and risk-free Abortions are all fruit of the Eugenic tree.
Hasidic Jewish populations are already using genome sequencing to avoid dangerous genetic combinations in their (arguably quite inbred) community.
Genome sequencing is becoming cheaper and cheaper, more and more accurate, and the power of algorithms to predict and control for certain desired qualities in the genome is becoming more and more effective.
(Reading between the lines of various Geneticists, its probably possible to run an algo on a range of IVF foetuses and select for high I.Q. Even though I.Q. is insanely polygenic and we have no idea how it works, the algo doesn't need to understand that and can just find relationships regardless. The reason this hasn't been done publicly isn't because it can't be done but because Geneticists are nuclear-avoidant of talking about it or doing it.
Theoretical - likely someone has already tried selecting IVF foetuses for I.Q. and these children have been born.)
Haldane only writes directly about this once in 'Possible Worlds', though as a Genetor-Prime of the British Empire, he knew as much about it as anyone of his generation, and as the ever-lucid and prescient Haldane, he could predict more than most of his generation.
In 'Eugenics and Social Reform', Haldane is.. mixed. Ultimately he thinks it’s necessary and probably inevitable but we shouldn't do it now as we don't know what we are doing and it’s probably more complex than we think.
On 'feeble-mindedness', the majority of which I take to be Downs Syndrome, Haldane might be surprised that it is not a hereditary problem, that we can't find it in the parents genes but can find it through embryo testing and more commonly, through scans, and that we are largely utterly ruthless in aborting the vast majority of such children. Perhaps he wouldn't be surprised. Perhaps our relationship with Downs Syndrome is more like how our relationship with Eugenics will proceed, not but grand unified programmes but by quiet invisible decisions made by parents in doctors offices, made with ever-increasing data and in invisibly-shifting social consensus, and made silently and not spoken of.
What Haldane seems to be saying is that the rich, intelligent and successful, inevitably put themselves out of genetic buisness by not breeding at a replacement level. They are always outweighed by the poor or common who breed a lot more. This seems to have been true in Haldanes time, looks to have been true for much of European history, and is true now. (Despite going on about this at length and being married twice, and being pretty well-off, Haldane had no children.)
Yet we still have rich, successful and intelligent people. Whether we have as much as we did in Haldanes time it’s hard to tell but it doesn't seem that different.
Probably we do not really understand how this works at all, especially on a larger scale and across deep reaches of time.
'On Eugenics and Social Reform' is a must-read because of the ideas it deals with, its weaving sometimes-ironic arguments and the pretty explosive mind-bombs, both when considered as cold intellectual arguments which might apply the same from his time to ours, and for the wild and whacky cultural Messines-level mines woven into every part of it as you listen to an aristocratic, Marxist, inter-war atheist high-Anglo scientist drop... comments;
"It was only the emancipation of the negroes which saved the United States from twice its present black population. This event gave them access to alcohol, venereal diseases, and consumption."
I think (if I understand his total argument), that I might agree with Haldane? Eugenics is probably inevitable, but we don't understand it and probably shouldn't do it, especially on a large scale or in a top-down way. Hopefully, like Pratchetts Dwaven Bread, it will remain 'probably inevitable', inevitably.
Probably Haldanes most beautiful idea is in the essay which gives this collection its name; 'Possible Worlds'.
This is basically that Dr Doolittle will create a University of Animal Minds to help unify our theories of physics and philosophy into a Unified theory of Everything.
Perhaps only Haldane or someone very like him could have come close to having this idea because only Haldane was enough of a batty polymath to allow it. He was deeply enmeshed in the life sciences, genetics, the world of blood and animals, and was intelligent enough to also be deeply interested in and largely up to date in physics, mathematics, logic and for him the natural companion of those; philosophy.
He was thinking always of the Whole Thing, of Reality itself, and all these little strands were just ways of getting there and looking at it.
One of Haldanes predictions that never came as true as he would have wished was that we would 'talk to the animals'. In his future Humanity would gain a deep understanding of animal psychology and communication and in effect, be able to communicate with and understand the world-views of other living beings.
This has not worked out that well but Haldanes synthesis is that the fundamental nature of reality is necessarily opaque to us because the way we are made fundamentally limits us from apprehending it. As enmeshed in both biology and philosophy as he was, he could conceive of something like a Fundamental Human Blind Spot. This wouldn't really be a 'spot' but whole areas and methods of thought that would be not only impossible but, more importantly, inconcievable, to us.
Like there are ways of thinking and perceiving that you literally can't think about and if you try to conceive of them then your mind will just loop around them like an ant walking along a mobius strip, without ever even considering them.
The point here being; how do you try to understand that which you are inherently made not to understand?
In 'Possible Worlds' Haldane tries to begin imagining the philosophy of reality of a Bee, or a hyper-intelligent Barnacle. Since they occupy reality in a fundamentally different way their structure of reality, the pattern of their thought, perceptions and therefore, philosophy, would be utterly different.
Yet if we accept that we are all perceiving the same Reality, the Bee and the Barnacle would both have world-views which ultimately coincide or match up with ours. So if we could learn the 'language' of, or enter in communion with, Bee and Barnacle, we could learn something of their Paradigm and that might help us see the gaps in our own, to ask the questions previously inconceivable to us.
(A slightly boring and lessened version of this which might sound less weird and whacky to a modern reader is like in a Star Trek world where there are a bunch of forehead aliens and we can fly off to this or that alien world and talk to them and learn their weird alien physics and philosophies which are all very strange and different but which still actually work, if we could learn them, we might understand more about reality. Except we don't have aliens but we do have Bees and Barnacles.)
THE LAST JUDGEMENT
Haldanes last article is a deep-time Science Fiction story in the report of a Venusian historian describing the death of Earth in forty million years time.
This future is one in which humanity has diverged into two species which, curiously, match the dystopian futures imagined by many 20tC authors; the engineered, happy, incurious and unadventurous sybarites similar to the humanity of 'Brave New World', and the Venusian Collective who are a mix of the Borg and the final evolution of the society depicted in 'We'.
This is a reality where rocketry is very very hard, (Haldane had not yet seen the V2s landing on London, let alone the Space Race), and where moving between planets takes multi-thousand-year plans, including engineering specific new versions of Humanity to live on them. Therefore, Humanity barely leaves earth and only a bunch of radicals get to Venus. Terran Man monopolises the tidal gravatic power of the Moon to energise their vast aesthetic schemes of global pleasure, which speeds up the moons descent into the earth. Terran man can't be bothered to stop this and eventually the two crash into each other, though not without a few thousand years of excitingly apocalyptic but still-liveable earth with the moon gigantic in the sky, vast discs and spumes of lunar matter forming a silver river in the air, mountains quaking, seas rolling around the planet, its pretty great stuff.
Haldane absorbed in Deep Time and the meaning, if any, of humanity, exhibits all of his elegance, imagination, mediocrity, didactic authoritarianism and weakness.
"If it is true, as the higher religions teach, that the individual can only achieve a good life by conforming to a plan greater than his own, it is our duty to realize the possible magnitude of such a plan, whether it be God's or man's. Only so can we come to see that most good actions merely serve to stave off the constant inroads of chaos on the human race. They are necessary, but not sufficient. They cannot be regarded as active co-operation in the Plan. The man who creates a new idea, whether expressed in language, art or invention., may at least be co-operating actively. The average man cannot do this, but he must learn that the highest of his duties is to assist those who are creating and the worst of his sins to hinder them."