J.B.S. Haldane and the case of the revivified head

ResearchBlogging.orgHere’s a nicely gruesome image for the week of All Hallows’ Eve.

“I dreamed I was in a dark room,” said Jane, “with queer smells in it and a sort of low humming noise. Then the light came on … I thought I saw a face floating in front of me. … What it really was, was a head (the rest of a head) which had had the top part of the skull taken off and then … as if something inside had boiled over. … Even in my fright I remember thinking, ‘Oh, kill it, kill it. Put it out of its pain.’ … It was green looking and the mouth was wide open and quite dry. … And soon I saw that it wasn’t exactly floating. It was fixed up on some kind of bracket, or shelf, or pedestal—I don’t know quite what, and there were things hanging from it. From the neck, I mean. Yes, it had a neck and a sort of collar thing round it, but nothing below the collar; no shoulders or body. Only these hanging things. … Little rubber tubes and bulbs and little metal things too.”
—Jane describes the disembodied Head in That Hideous Strength

Before he started The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis tried his hand at science fiction. Lewis’s Space TrilogyOut of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength—is like H.G. Wells dunked in (by modern American standards) gentle British Christianity. As in Narnia, Lewis wrote the Space Trilogy with a thesis in mind. The villains of Lewis’s imagined universe are materialistic scientists. In the first two books, the protagonist fights the scientists to preserve prelapsarian conditions among the intelligent inhabitants of Mars and Venus, respectively. The third book returns to Earth, where the evil scientists are plotting to take over the planet in the service of a demon-possessed disembodied head kept alive by technology that would’ve put Frankenstein off his lunch.

J.B.S. Haldane. Photo via limjunying.

Lewis derived the scientists’ ideology, and one of the evil scientist characters in particular, from the writings and person of the evolutionary geneticist J.B.S. Haldane—which is not surprising, since Haldane was something of the Richard Dawkins of his day, a visible public advocate for the scientific worldview. What is surprising, though, is that Lewis may have had a perfectly good reason to connect Haldane to an artificially resurrected head: five years before the publication of That Hideous Strength, Haldane had narrated a film depicting just such an experiment.

The film, “Experiments in the Revival of Organisms,” depicts a series of blood transfusion procedures developed by a Soviet medical researcher, including the (apparent) revival of a dog’s severed head. It’s a fascinating cultural artifact in its own right, but it’s even more interesting as an element in Haldane’s personal history of mixing his scientific work with politics.

Geneticist, physiologist, human guinea pig

John Burdon Sanderson Haldane was one of three early Twentieth Century biologists (the others being R. A. Fisher and Sewall Wright) who knit together Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection with Gregor Mendel’s discovery of discrete genetics. Haldane’s key contributions include a series of journal articles, “A mathematical theory of natural and artificial selection,” published between 1924 and 1934. The first entry, a mathematical model of natural selection [PDF], uses notation that looks somewhat odd today but otherwise builds the very logic I learned in my population genetics course.

Haldane’s population genetics work treats biological systems like physical or chemical ones—for instance, aiming to deduce the strength of natural selection acting on a population from records of evolutionary change over time or space. In the paper I linked to above, Haldane used his model of natural selection to estimate the strength of selection acting on peppered moths, which famously evolved darker coloration after the industrialization of England. In another, he proposed that the width of a clinal transition from one form of a species to another can indicate the strength of selection favoring each form at either end of the cline [PDF].

This tendency to treat biology like chemistry or physics reflected his scientific background. His father, John Scott Haldane, was renowned for research in respiratory physiology, and included J.B.S. in his scientific work from a very young age. J.B.S. Haldane’s first teaching position, at Oxford, was in physiology—and this was the focus of most of his early research. During the first World War, the Haldanes collaborated to test gas masks for the Allies, a project in which J.B.S. used himself as a test subject. J.B.S. conducted much of his postwar physiological research on himself, declaring that trained physiologists made the best test subjects, because they could accurately report their experiences during an experiment.

The scientist gets political

J.B.S. also developed a career as a public advocate for science and for a materialistic worldview, which helped attract criticism from social conservatives like C.S. Lewis—criticism Haldane returned with gusto. Haldane took the position that scientists doing potentially world-changing work had a duty to explain it to the public:

Many scientific workers believe that they should confine their publications to learned journals. I think, however, that the public has a right to know what is going on inside the laboratories, for some of which it pays. And it seems to me vitally important that the scientific point of view should be applied, so far as is possible, to politics and religion.
—quoted in Clark (1968), page 92.

One enduring example of Haldane’s work in this vein is an essay titled “Daedalus, or Science and the Future,” which extrapolated more than a century of advances in technology, and resulting changes in human society, from the state of science in 1923. Among the predictions Haldane made in “Daedalus” are the depletion of fossil fuels and the development of a hydrogen-based energy economy, and what he called “ectogenic” reproduction—human infants conceived and brought to term by entirely artificial means. Haldane did not uniformly endorse what he predicted, and particularly expressed reservations about artificial gestation; but he did stress that such technological change was probably inevitable. Aldous Huxley, a friend of Haldane’s from their undergraduate days at Oxford, would later make the idea of ectogenesis central to his dystopian novel Brave New World.

Haldane addresses a political rally. Photo via Donald Fordyke.

Although he came from an aristocratic family—his uncle was the First Viscount Haldane—Haldane grew up with strong egalitarian and anti-authoritarian inclinations that became firmly entrenched during the war. He did not fail to notice that military chaplains took the safest possible postings, and he watched military brass accept honors for the gas mask testing project while the lower-ranked officers and civilians who risked their lungs doing the testing went unrecognized.

In the years leading up to World War II, Haldane’s anti-establishment leanings and his concern about the rise of fascism—which he saw firsthand in the Spanish Civil War, consulting for the Spanish Republican government on preparedness against air raids and gas attacks—led him toward the Communist Party, then one of the most visible opponents of fascism. In 1937, he accepted the position of science correspondent at the Daily Worker, a newspaper run by the Communist Party of Great Britain, for which he wrote hundreds of articles. When the Communist Party took up the issue of air raid preparedness in Great Britain, Haldane lent his expertise to the cause. He was, in short, a committed supporter.

“Experiments in the Revival of Organisms”

This is the context for Haldane’s role in the 1940 film “Experiments in the Revival of Organisms.” The film presents demonstrations of the work of Sergey Bryukhonenko, a Soviet scientist who developed a pumping system for blood transfusion called an “autojektor.” Other than the film itself, resources directly connecting the work to Haldane are remarkably thin—I find no mention of the film, or a professional connection between Haldane and Bryukhonenko, in the Haldane biography cited above, which is otherwise pretty painstaking about delineating Haldane’s Communist involvements.

Here’s the video, via the Internet Archive. Be warned—do not watch this if experimentation on animals makes you uncomfortable.

Haldane introduces the film onscreen, in his capacity as a “Fellow of the Royal Society” (F.R.S.), and testifies that “I have seen some of the experiments shown in this film actually carried out at the all-Russian Physiological Congress.” He then narrates (from off screen) a series of demonstrations of the autojektor apparatus, first in keeping an isolated heart beating; then in pumping blood through a pair of lungs on a dissecting tray—the blood enters the lungs unoxygenated, Haldane says, and leaves infused with oxygen.

Then comes the severed head. An animated sequence first explains the demonstration—that a severed head can be kept alive and responsive if connected to a blood supply via the autojektor. Then the film cuts to footage of a dog’s head (apparently) severed and resting on a dissecting tray, with an autojektor apparatus connected. The head responds to touch and noises, and even licks its lips when citric acid is daubed on them. The film concludes with what its makers evidently considered the most impressive demonstration, in which a dog is brought to clinical death by controlled blood loss, then revived by a transfusion using the autojektor.

Haldane at his desk. Photo via notofthisreality.

The scientific and political crux of the film is that severed head. Even apart from the creepiness of the image, it’s suspicious—in its responses to stimulus, the head moves in ways that suggest it’s still attached to a neck. The camera is positioned in such a way that it wouldn’t be hard to hide a whole dog out of sight underneath the table on which the tray rests. If that portion of “Experiments” was faked to impress foreign audiences with Soviet medical technology that didn’t exist, was Haldane complicit in a scientific fraud?

It’s hard to say. It is clear that Haldane was an aggressively political man, but deliberate scientific fraud is not consistent with his character—it was a scientific question that finally caused him to dissociate from Soviet Communism, as we’ll see below. I think it more likely that Haldane was misled by a trusted colleague, in the context of supporting their shared political cause. Bryukhonenko’s work really did lay the groundwork for modern blood transfusion methods [$a], so it seems reasonable to think that Haldane had seen demonstrations of “some of the experiments shown in this film” firsthand, and then perhaps accepted as true a fraudulent report of the severed head experiment. Even if he was misled, “Experiments” represents an embarrassing lapse of judgment.

Putting the political cart before the scientific horse

Haldane ultimately ended his support for Soviet Communism over conflict with the other major area of his expertise, evolutionary genetics. Since before Haldane became a Communist, the Soviet regime under Josef Stalin favored a non- Mendelian theory of evolution developed by the agronomist Trofim Lysenko, who claimed that crop yields could be boosted through inheritance of acquired characteristics. This was mostly bunk, but it meshed well with Stalin’s political ideology, and as Lysenko gained political clout, he used it to run Mendelian geneticists out of the Soviet biological establishment.

The situation was the reverse of Haldane’s idealized relationship between science and public policy: politicians were demanding the results they wanted from scientists, not asking for guidance. In any event, it was hard for Haldane, one of the leading lights of population genetics, to avoid the conflict between his work and Lysenko’s. In 1940, the same year that “Experiments” was released, Haldane wrote a response to an article by Lysenko in the publication Science and Society that amounted to polite objection. It wasn’t until 1949, in an article for Modern Quarterly, “In defense of genetics,” (which I cannot, alas, find online) that Haldane refuted Lysenkoism in no uncertain terms. Shortly thereafter, in 1950, he stopped writing for the Daily Worker when it became clear that its editors favored political conclusions over scientific results.

Haldane remained inclined toward Marxism, but his differences with its political manifestation in the Soviet Union proved irreconcilable. He seems to have admitted, however tacitly, that those differences were an intellectual embarrassment for him. In his 1946 response to C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy, Haldane took a swipe at the Christian apologist that catches scientists, and J.B.S. himself, on the backswing:

Nevertheless, if Mr. Lewis investigates the facts honestly, he will probably discover … scientists are less likely than any other group to sell their souls to the devil. A few of us sell our souls to capitalists and politicians, and Mr. Lewis may have met some such vendors at Oxford. But on the whole we possess moral and intellectual standards, and live up to them as often as other people.

Special thanks are due to Luke Harmon, who sent me the link to “Experiments” when I was preparing to present about Haldane in his (Luke’s) “Giants of Evolution” seminar earlier this semester. That e-mail may be the single most awesome message I’ve ever received from a tenure-track professor.

Update, 7 January 2011: A version of this post will be published as part of the Open Lab 2010 anthology of online science writing.


Clark, R.W. (1968). JBS: The Life and Work of J.B.S. Haldane. New York: Coward-McCann. Google Books.

Haldane, J.B.S. (1923). “Daedalus, or, Science and the Future.” Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner. HTML transcription via the University of Michigan.

Haldane, J.B.S. (1924). A mathematical theory of natural and artificial selection, part I. Trans. Cambridge Phil. Soc., 23, 19-31

Haldane, J.B.S. (1940). “Lysenko and genetics.” Science and Society, 4(4). HTML transcription via marxists.org.

Haldane, J.B.S. (1946). “Auld Hornie, F.R.S.” The Modern Quarterly, Autumn 1946. HTML transcription via marxists.org.

Haldane, J.B.S. (1948). The theory of a cline. Journal of Genetics, 48 (3), 277-84 DOI: 10.1007/BF02986626

Lewis, C.S. (1945). That Hideous Strength. Google Books.

Mussivand, T. (1999). Mechanical circulatory devices for the treatment of heart failure. Journal of Cardiac Surgery, 14 (3), 218-28 DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-8191.1999.tb00983.x

7 thoughts on “J.B.S. Haldane and the case of the revivified head

  1. Thanks, Luke. I owe it all to your finding that link. It was a lot of fun to research. I could’ve made the piece twice as long, too—Haldane was quite a character.

  2. Wow, Jeremy—that’s a fantastic video. Thanks for linking to it!

    I think it’s an open question whether earlier and more forceful anti-Lysenko action by Haldane could have made a difference inside the Soviet Union. But I agree that it’s pretty plain Haldane should have done more and sooner.

  3. Jeremy:

    Great post! I also agree that Haldane would not have had much influence in the Lysenko affair. That would be like someone in Britain telling the Tea Party folks in the US to get real. I also agree that he should have done more, if only to educate the folks at home. Shouldn’t we all?

    Glenn Borchardt

Comments are closed.