book-reviews

Possible Worlds and Other Essays

by J. B. S. Haldane

Rating: ★★★

A collection of mostly biological essays by Haldane, most seeming to have been previously published in the 1920s. Where he strays outside of biology, he tends to be doing so to advance a generally 'scientific' approach in matters of religion and politics, though he does demonstrate something of an interest in astronomy.

It's a mixed bag. Some of the biological essays are still informative about the basics of the field, though you'd be well-advised to have Wikipedia on hand to double-check some of the more dated concepts (something Haldane would appear to expect, being apparently sincere in his scientific humilty). It's impressive how forward-thinking Haldane was. As well as correctly anticipating a number of developments ongoing in his own time -- the development of a vaccine for tuberculosis, for example -- he routinely brings up topics which are even now at the edge of implementation.

Haldane talks about vat-grown beef, genetic sequencing of fetuses, genetic health as a direct factor for mate selection, biological immortality and practical eugenics -- all well before WWII. He also mentioned an intriguing and seemingly quite simple project for turning cellulose into digestible sugars, which, if completed, would allow mankind to consume hay (though for efficiency's sake, this might have to be pre-processed rather than built into our digestive system). I don't know whether to be impressed at his prescience or depressed at how slowly we work.

Not all of the essays are very good. Predictably, the ones more remote from his expertise are the least reliable -- his essay on Kant as underlying scientific work was quite unintelligible, his position on spiritual matters seemed to fluctuate from essay to essay, and a few of the broader and shorter articles were bordering on the pointless or obvious. Possible Worlds itself was a piece of armchair philosophising quite contradictory to his earlier discussions of empiricism, and I didn't enjoy it very much. His The Last Judgement was a more entertaining attempt at science-fiction, but his estimation of the future of space travel was laughably primitive -- magnificently advanced and life-valuing future civilisations nevertheless endure thousands of deadly rocket-crashes in touching explorers down on other planets.