Posts Tagged ‘J.B.S. Haldane’

J.B.S. Haldane’s poem about cancer

September 12, 2014

J.B.S. Haldane, a distinguished biologist and freethinker, found he was suffering from rectal bleeding in October, 1963, while attending a conference on the origin of life.   On his return journey to India, where he then made his home, he stopped in London and found he had rectal cancer.  He was operated on immediately at University College Hospital.  While recuperating, he wrote the following poem.

Cancer’s a Funny Thing

by J. B. S. Haldane

I wish I had the voice of Homer
To sing of rectal carcinoma,
Which kills a lot more chaps, in fact,
Than were bumped off when Troy was sacked.

Yet, thanks to modern surgeon’s skills,
It can be killed before it kills
Upon a scientific basis
In nineteen out of twenty cases.

I noticed I was passing blood
(Only a few drops, not a flood).
So pausing on my homeward way
From Tallahassee to Bombay
I asked a doctor, now my friend,
To peer into my hinder end,
To prove or to disprove the rumour
That I had a malignant tumour.
They pumped in BaS04.
Till I could really stand no more,
And, when sufficient had been pressed in,
They photographed my large intestine,
In order to decide the issue
They next scraped out some bits of tissue.
(Before they did so, some good pal
Had knocked me out with pentothal,
Whose action is extremely quick,
And does not leave me feeling sick.)
The microscope returned the answer
That I had certainly got cancer,
So I was wheeled into the theater
Where holes were made to make me better.
One set is in my perineurn
Where I can feel, but can’t yet see ‘em.
Another made me like a kipper
Or female prey of Jack the Ripper,
Through this incision, I don’t doubt,
The neoplasm was taken out,
Along with colon, and lymph nodes
Where cancer cells might find abodes.
A third much smaller hole is meant
To function as a ventral vent:
So now I am like two-faced Janus
The only* god who sees his anus.

*In India there are several more
With extra faces, up to four,
But both in Brahma and in Shiva
I own myself an unbeliever.


Haldane vs. Russell on science and the future

September 12, 2014

by Phil Ebersole

These are notes for my talk to the Rochester Russell Forum on Sept. 11, 2014.

My presentation tonight is based on two essays, Daedalus: Science and the Future, written in 1923, in which the mathematical biologist, J.B.S. Haldane said that science held the seeds of a possible utopian future, and Icarus: the Future of Science, written by 1924 by Bertrand Russell in rebuttal, warning of the dangers in the development of scientific technique.

These conflicting claims about science are still with us, and I think these older essays shed light on the question precisely because they are old.  Both Haldane and Russell made predictions about the future which we are in a position to judge.

I think most of us know something about Bertrand Russell, but maybe not so much about John Burton Sanderson Haldane.

J.B.S. Haldane

J.B.S. Haldane

He was born in 1892 to an aristocratic and secular Scottish family.  He made important contributions to science.

He helped lay the groundwork for combining Mendelian genetics with Darwin’s theory of natural selection, which is the current basis of evolutionary theory, and for the idea of kin selection, popularized by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene.  He developed a theory of the origin of primitive life from complex non-living molecules, and constructed a human gene map for color blindness and hemophilia.

Like Richard Dawkins, he was both a successful popularizer of science and a militant atheist.  He was a staunch socialist and Marxist, and edited the London Daily Worker from 1940 to 1949.

In 1956, he emigrated to India in order, he said, to enjoy the freedom “not to wear socks”.  He became a naturalized citizen of India and worked at the Indian Statistical Institute until his death in 1964.

It is interesting that he entitled his essay “Daedalus,” who was, according to the legend, a morally ambiguous figure.  Daedalus was a technological genius who supposedly fled his native city of Athens to Crete after murdering his nephew, whom he feared would surpass him in achievement.  He constructed a wooden cow for the Cretan Queen Pasiphae (pas-if-eye) to hide in while she had sex with a white bull sent by Poseidon.  She became pregnant with the Minotaur, half bull and half man, so Daedalus, as Haldane pointed out, was the first genetic engineer.  He designed the Labyrinth to contain the Minotaur, which fed on youths and maidens, and he gave Ariadne, daughter of Pasiphae and King Minos, a thread by which her lover Theseus could find his way out after killing the beast.

King Minos shut Daedalus and his son Icarus in the Labyrinth, but Daedalus made feathered wings for himself and his son so they could escape by flying to Sicily.  But Icarus flew too close to the sun and the wax attaching the feathers to his body melted, and he drowned.  There’s more, but I’m going to turn to Haldane’s essay.

Haldane said the science is —
(1) the free activity of humanity’s divine faculty of reason and imagination
(2) the answer of a few to the demands of the many for wealth, comfort and victory, and
(3) humanity’s gradual conquest of
(a) space and time,
(b) matter as such
(c) the bodies of living things, including the human body, and
(d) the human soul