34. Five Men Go To War 1914-1918

The most promising ideas about evolutionary biology were kept alive by five brave men, and as with so many campaigns of those years tragedy came to many of their projects. But as well as some serious set-backs two of these men did help sort through the murky detail that had accumulated since Darwin’s death.

The soldiers were JBS Haldane, Ronald Fisher, Jan Smuts and Julian Huxley, while Arthur Tansley worked in munitions. As a group they were never close and they didn’t meet together. Huxley was a polite diplomat and could have been a discrete host, for only he had a relationship with all the others. Instead, they mostly thought and worked alone, though Fisher and Haldane had strangely close and parallel lives. They had similar backgrounds, similar age, schools, Oxbridge, and ended up as biologists at University College London, one was a Christian right winger and the other an atheist and to the left. Fisher the Christian saw God as a benign casino owner with what he called a “design by chance” policy, challenging humanity to work together by self-discipline to save the planet. This made it easy for him to explain natural selection by probability theory. Fisher and Haldane always worked on separate projects, and despite their strong rivalry there are no well-known stories that they ever seriously fell out. However, they did argue incessantly, and when they worked in the same building during the 1920s they were heard to disagree about anything and everything every tea-time.

Of the five warriors only Huxley and Tansley had trained as biologists: Smuts was a lawyer, Haldane a classicist, and Fisher a mathematician. Such intellectual variety enabled them to imbibe rich evolutionary diets, and the violent times cut out a lot of the pre-war rubbish, confusion and personal bickering. It was the time to review the best of what remained and use that to rebuild with fresh plans and techniques.

JBS Haldane (1892-1964), also known as Jack, said he had a good war. As Lieutenant Haldane he raided the German lines at night by throwing grenades into their trenches. As part of an aristocratic family of Scottish baronets, he had been brought up to relish fear and how to work with it, skills that he enjoyed showing off to his uncle who was Minister of War. He was also influenced by his eccentric father, the Professor of Physiology at Oxford, and they often used their own bodies as experimental animals. His mother told how, when Jack was eleven, his pet guinea-pigs were killed by a friend’s dog the day before he came home from Eton. He hated school and had been bullied there from the day he started: then he broke an arm and he discovered that his only defence was his academic brilliance. The tragedy with his guinea-pigs was especially frustrating to him because he’d been counting the progeny to give him precious data so he could test his equations that modelled their breeding. Then his father soon came up with some other new challenges that involved quite dangerous tests breathing toxic gasses. After one decompression experiment he suffered a perforated ear drum which left him somewhat deaf: “one can blow tobacco smoke out of the ear in question, which is a social accomplishment.”

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Jack Haldane couldn’t wait to finish his finals exams at Oxford because he was so looking forward to trying out some of his physiology experiments in the real battleground. He joined up as a soldier with the Black Watch as soon as he graduated and went off to the front in Belgium with equipment to monitor respiration and other bodily functions affected by poisonous gas. Before the battle of Aubers Ridge in 1915 Rajah the Bomb, as he was known by his men, wrote to his father: “I am enjoying life here very much. I have got a most ripping job as a bomb officer.”  For Haldane, the war seemed to make little difference to the way he lived and thought in normal life; it was just the kind of work that was new and the company different. What most people thought to be uncomfortable and frightening he didn’t seem to notice.

The same applied for different reasons to Haldane’s great rival Ronald Fisher (1890-1962) who left university for work as a statistician in the City of London. This was not an easy thing for an eager young man to do in that troubled decade but even his good record as a part-time officer in the Territorial Army couldn’t prove that his eyesight was good enough for the recruitment board. Reluctantly he settled for teaching physics and mathematics to cadets and rented a cottage out in the country with his 17 year old wife so they could help the war effort by farming. It also gave him an ideal opportunity to fulfil his own political ideals: if you believed strongly in eugenics, and if you and your mate were healthy and intelligent, you had a duty to society to have a lot of children. It might even begin to help make up for the very high number of officers being killed. th-3   th-2

The quiet country evenings allowed them to concentrate on their work and Fisher continued to try to solve the problem that had kept Cambridge and London apart, the difference between evidence from single characters such as genes and their mutations and evidence from questionnaires about things like height and intelligence. Fisher wrote an article attempting to reconcile the differences between Cambridge and London, focussing on the use of new methods to analyse the data.

Similarly stretched in those times, but from a very different culture, Jan Smuts (1870-1950) was an Afrikaner who had become enough of a professional soldier to live with the new conflict in Europe as his normal routine. Earlier he had led raids in the Boer War, became a Unionist politician hoping to unite the country, was elected to join the government and served as Education Minister. By the outbreak of the First World War he was a General and so he led the British Army to take German East Africa in 1916 while in his free time he pursued his hobby as a field botanist. Already he had become a specialist in South African grasses and had supported a big survey of plants in South Africa, finding great pleasure in looking at nature in the vast African landscape. It was an interest he had enjoyed as a law student at Cambridge in the 1890s, going off for long walks making field observations of wild life in the fens. It was one of his few pleasures in those lonely years, the beauty of nature starkly contrasting with his attraction to some political mission in his homeland. These two apparently extreme parts of his personality were brought together by his actively creative mind as he developed a grand idea he called holism and which he later adapted to controversial ends.

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In South Africa, botany had been a popular hobby for the white elite after the Boer War and Smuts wanted to share its wonder and variety as a national treasure. His vision was to compare his homeland’s great biodiversity with the range of human interests in culture and philosophy. It was what he called holism, and his hope as Education Minister was to bring that broad concept to unite all classes in the new nation. With an essay entitled An Inquiry into the Whole he argued against the tendency of most scientists to split things up into their component parts, preferring to see the system as a whole. It was an unpopular suggestion then, and with little very clear evidence that it might mean anything, so as with Fisher’s manuscript, another set of stiff referees agreed that it should not be published.

That was a pity because the manuscript contained some original ideas about uniting the ever-widening branches of the life sciences. He described these as “the external physical world of energy” and “the internal world of mind and spirit” and argued that these two parts of living systems were needed together, an indivisible unity of The Whole. It was a way of thinking that didn’t fit into war-torn Europe and so Smuts’ good ecological thoughts became lost in history. Something very much like them was to return almost a century later, too late to rescue the world’s natural environment.

Despite his unpopular manuscript, Smuts was a hero in Britain for very different reasons: not only for his military success in South West Africa but later in 1916 for his important advice to the war cabinet. Through those months he lived in the Savoy Hotel overlooking the Thames and the Palace of Westminster, but he found hotel life in the middle of a big city a “very severe strain”. It prevented him from “walking in the country in unity with nature and in quiet from human beings.” But the end of the war was in sight and he felt that Europe had had its day. With his belief that “Holism shall find healing in the Whole from the grievous wounds of the spirit, for the sick soul the Whole is the only Healer” he returned to South Africa as soon as he could. He wanted to promote his own version of holism and that was as good a place to do it as any other.

Meanwhile, the ecologist from Bloomsbury, Arthur Tansley, was 43 years old in 1914 and spent most of the war at the Ministry of Munitions in London. He also tried to keep tabs on the struggle between plants and their changing environment, and he monitored his long-term experiments near the Cambridge fenland that Smuts knew as a student. Tansley went further north to the Norfolk coast, and continued his surveys of woodlands and heath in other parts of Britain. He was doing something more than making static descriptions and lists of species that had become the normal way of conducting this field work. Instead he sought to compare these data alongside the physiological and genetic features of the organisms he saw, integrating as much as he could.

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But even at home, war-time life was a hard struggle and at times it got Tansley down. He was especially traumatised by what had happened to so many young men in the war and he began to have restless nights haunted by vivid dreams. One of these influenced him deeply, causing him to develop an interest in the young discipline of psychology.

I dreamed that I was in a sub-tropical country, separated from my friends, standing alone in a small shack or shed which was open on one side so that I looked out on a wide-open space surrounded by bush or scrub. In the edge of the bush I could see a number of savages armed with spears and the long pointed shields used by some South African native tribes. They occupied the whole extent of the bush-edge abutting on the open space, but they showed no sign of active hostility. I myself had a loaded rifle, but realized that I was quite unable to escape in face of the number of armed savages who blocked the way.

Then my wife appeared in the open space, dressed entirely in white, and advanced towards me quite unhindered by the savages, of whom she seemed unaware. Before she reached me the dream, which up to then had been singularly clear and vivid, became confused, and though there was some suggestion that I fired the rifle, but with no knowledge of who or what I fired at, I awoke.

After a lot of thought about its meaning, the dream inspired Tansley to read the new medical journals and sort through what he thought was the most important work being done in psychology. Then he decided to write about this new way of understanding the human mind and after the war his New Psychology and its Relation to Life soon became a standard introduction to the subject. It sold by the thousand and was read by even more. Inevitably he drew comparisons between his two interests, one attracting much more attention and praise than the other. Only a few specialist scientists read his ecological work in as much detail and the relatively poor response drew him away from ecology towards psychology. It was a challenge that kept attracting those many people still wanting to know what makes humans unique.


The fifth warrior, more an adjudicator, was the 1909 zoology graduate from Oxford, Julian Huxley (1887-1975). He was a much more relaxed and rounded character than the others and even at Eton he had a happy time. Haldane remembered the five-year-senior Huxley trying to cheer him up by giving him an apple, a rare act of kindness. In the spirit of his important grand-father TH Huxley, well-known as “Darwin’s Bulldog”, Julian studied zoology at Oxford and then stayed on to study water birds. With that pedigree and background he was soon invited to set up the biology department at Rice University in Texas. When he first arrived in America in 1912 Huxley visited Harvard and met Sewall Wright, a modest mathematician looking for evolutionary trends and working on guinea pig data.


Among the explanations for some of these was one that all the characters he had chosen were controlled by genes on the same chromosome. These concepts of genes as particles that coded for a character were pretty advanced breakthroughs for the times, and to find evidence for their location on one particular chromosome was even more staggering. But Wright was cautious as well and he wasn’t going to shout about that possibility until he was sure.  th-11     th-10

Likely as not Wright mentioned the new discoveries when Julian Huxley passed through on his way to Texas, but Huxley was also a tactful listener and he was hearing a lot of other exciting new ideas on that journey. The work there meant that he missed joining the war at first but the call to arms was strong and he came back to join the Intelligence Corps. He wrote of being pleased to feel physically fit and then: “In the spring we were sent to a camp at Upstreet, near Canterbury. I remember riding about the peaceful Kentish lanes, lined with white May bushes and pink-flowering horse-chestnuts, in strange contrast to the distant boom of heavy artillery from across the Channel.”

These different war-time experiences had similar effects on all these scientists, focussing their outlook on science to seek clearer and more objective targets. The pain of their friends’ deaths, their own guilt and loneliness as survivors was intense. Haldane and Smuts, the toughest of the group before the war, retained that aggression and arrogance, while Fisher became even more committed to eugenics with its even wider link to facism. They were all hardened by that war and all five of them had developed strong political aims that were to influence their work for the rest of their lives.

35. Ecology in South Africa 1924-1930

After the First World War, power shifted to the newly-confident states of the former European Empires such as South Africa and the USA, and the newly emerging Russian Empire of the Soviet Union.

In Europe most social structures were in tatters, and most people were searching for new meanings to their lives. But with the post-war revival of religious belief, and with no new evidence about evolution, evolutionary biologists were confused and low-key. The daily process of picking up the pieces was excruciatingly painful for ordinary people, who were not much interested in science, especially after the recent displays of science on battlefields all around the world. The mood encouraged biologists to react by developing popular topics about human race, plant breeding, and the control of population growth, all of which led to supporting new kinds of social and political extremism.

The former quiet researchers of biological science found themselves as the drivers of new distractions. They were feeding the minds of social reformers, economists and politicians with their own new agendas of psychology, racism, eugenics and agricultural reform. These were distractions away from the main line of evolutionary mechanisms, studies which had been so dull before the war that no-one really missed afterwards. Darwin’s name was rarely used and interest in evolution fell considerably, seeming to be remote from the task of urgently rebuilding a new western world. Instead, the main order of the day for scientists was to look in more detail at the chemistry and physics of molecules in inanimate objects rather than organic life.

Not all the new advances were in the physical sciences, and some became so involved with public and even political scrutiny that their scientific role got lost. Plant breeding, for example, was to be helped by an Imperial Botanical Conference in 1924, sharing ways to grow better crops and even protect the environment. The conference was held in London at Imperial College and it hosted the biologists as part of the victorious British Empire Exhibition. The colonial governments displayed their national heritages and many reconstructed bits of their most interesting natural environments from ecological surveys.

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There was economic and political pressure encouraging the Empire to grow more food, and leading specialists from around the Empire had been invited together to debate how to do this. With his military reputation, his new political role and his philosophy of holism Jan Smuts was in his element. It was also the first opportunity for Arthur Tansley to meet the great General.

Unsurprisingly, the two men didn’t hit it off. The big Boer soldier and the wiry intellectual cockney had only their love of plants to share, and that quickly became more of a battle than a balanced exchange. All the talk of botanical surveys left Tansley feeling penniless and without any other support while Smuts had money and fame as well as a free travel pass on the railways. Another of Tansley’s competitors, William Bateson, was also in attendance talking about his strange idea of a genetic map for all the plant resources available in the Empire. Just to finish off a bad month for Tansley, he failed to become the leader of the first botanical survey of the entire Empire.

The meeting had useful seminars on the production of rubber and sugar-cane, how to improve the breeding of apples and coconuts and other crop plants. To help improve expertise and communication it was decided to survey the natural plant and animal resources of every country in the Empire, their ecology and their commercial application. But the meeting didn’t help Tansley to improve this knowledge as he had hoped, while Smuts went away celebrating the lead that South Africa offered with results of their own six years survey of vegetational resources. The meeting had also forced Tansley onto the defensive when it came to decide which country should run the whole project, with South Africa so well ahead in expertise and plans for the future. There was even the slogan ‘holism and evolution’ to promote Smuts’ ecological ambitions, though no-one was aware then what that might involve.

Towards the end of the meeting Smuts invited all the participants to attend another conference that he was hosting in Cape Town two years later, the first overseas meeting of the British Association. It stimulated Smuts to write Holism and Evolution giving an overview of global ecology, “a recognition of the fact that all organisms feel the force and moulding effect of their environment as a whole.” He owed a debt to the American poet Walt Whitman for many of his ideas that nature was at harmony: it “is at bottom a friendly universe, in which organised tolerant co-existance is the rule and destructive warfare the exception.” Smuts then suggested that each animal and plant cell served as a balanced entity with their organism, co-operating with and serving the whole system. Smuts sent a copy of his new book to Winston Churchill who “peered with awe” at the philosophy of holism and ironically in return mailed a copy of his own book The World Crisis.

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But 1924 brought an apparently sudden change in direction for Smuts. He had been South Africa’s Prime Minister since 1919 and his party lost the 1924 general election. That gave him time to share the excitement growing within the large group of animal and plant ecologists in the country. There was also time for him to read the latest controversial theory from a German geologist, Alfred Wegener who had come up with the then outrageous suggestion that continents moved apart, their lighter rocks drifting over the heavier mantle beneath. He argued that this very slow movement caused a widening of the Atlantic Ocean because it meant that Africa was moving away from South America and Europe from North America. It was a model that explained the modern distribution of land masses and of the many groups of plants and animals that spread among them. There were also clear connections of geological strata from one side of the Atlantic to the other, but most people thought that Wegener’s idea was too far-fetched to be serious.

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This model of moving continents explained a lot of what many South African biologists had been thinking for some time, that their flora comprised species invading from the north and others, such as the Protea family, that were more like plants of Australia and South America. Wegener was suggesting that these regions as well as India had been part of a single continent, since called Gondwanaland, which began splitting up around two hundred million years ago. The migrations appealed to Smuts as well as his colleagues and he soon followed with an idea about human migrations into Africa. “Our Bushmen are nothing but living fossils whose ‘contemporaries’ disappeared from Europe many thousands of years ago. The little pigmy populations that hide in the tropical and sub-tropical forests are the representatives of the long-vanished human past.”


It was one of the first signs in public that Smuts was linking his ideas of plant ecology and holism with the origins of particular human races. Something had pushed his thinking about ecology out of the cosy philosophy of the academic’s arm-chair into a mainstream political policy of race. Not only was he going to use one to justify the other, but he was going to use the honourable reputations of particular scientists to help demonstrate theory behind a new racial policy. First he gathered support from the local scientists and then he used the British Association, which conveniently met in Cape Town in 1929, and the 1930 International Botanical Congress in Cambridge, to gather international support. It was there that Tansley observed with his own brand of understatement that the ideas were “certainly beset with many difficulties which practical ecologists would have to consider and discuss.”

At the Cape Town meeting Smuts had lined up an amazing collection of supporters to help him get across to his electorate and the rest of the world some of his ideas about the migration of human races. The by-then 70 year-old physiologist JS Haldane, Jack’s father, and King George V, were unexpected supporters, while large numbers of South African scientists were loudly approving. Diplomatically on the edge was Julian Huxley who declared “I cannot follow you all the way” while more decisively HG Wells said that black people were “being deprived of educational opportunity and political expression.”

Smuts was a shrewd political operator and he saw to it that the holism and eugenics issues were debated in public at the conference. Although the two ideas appeared at first to be very different, maybe there was something they had in common, and the South African leaders of the Empire botanical surveys wanted to emphasise that. So Smuts was confident that his argument would go down well with the Cape audience and insisted there should be a vociferous opposition to his campaign. Of course, it was so vociferous that the argument would persuade even more people to switch sides to his own cause. Smuts asked the newly appointed zoology professor at Cape Town University, Lancelot Hogben, to speak against his holistic applications. Hogben had just left Lankester’s old chair of zoology at University College London and was known to hold open house to militant black student leaders. He based his attack on Jack Haldane’s recent mathematical proof that natural selection pushes evolution forward gradually. Not only was Hogben highly numerate but he was a practiced experimenter with the toad Xenopus.

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This was a re-emergence of the old familiar argument about quality and quantity, the subjective and the objective. It was like what had come between Ray and Newton, Lankester and Galton, and now it was between Smuts and Hogben. But this time, there was a poisoned tag attached to the softer holistic side. At first it seemed their ideas of holism and ecology were certainly compatible and maybe very similar. But while Tansley was a professional academic and a full-time thinker, it seemed that Smuts had other motives. Tansley felt badly let down, deserted by one with whom he had agreed so much even though they had never worked closely. They had never really known one another’s minds.

Hogben was beginning to understand this position in which he found himself and he let rip. The holistic eugenicists should “be concerned with sterilising the instruments of research before undertaking surgical operations on the body politic.” Smuts replied that Hogben was merely a friend of Bertrand Russell. “Russell and I do not see eye to eye on philosophy. He is an atomist while I am a holist”. Hogben stuck it out in South Africa for another year and then returned to London where he found a job at the London School of Economics.

38. Eugenics Gets Serious 1925-1936

After that Great War, Europe was left stunned more than ever before. It was a major social catastrophe and it caused many people to change their lives dramatically. One who reacted with deep insight was the ecologist Arthur Tansley, apparently secure in academia after his recent election to The Royal Society. But still troubled by the war and the haunting dream, he decided to resign his lectureship at Cambridge and move to Vienna, with his family, for intensive psychoanalysis with Sigmund Freud.

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That experience itself also had a profound impact on Tansley and he returned with new ideas for both psychology and ecology: “We must never conceal from ourselves that our concepts are creations of the human mind which we impose on the facts of nature.” Tansley was concerned at the high numbers of “feeble-minded” incarcerated in asylums to stop them contributing to national degeneracy by breeding. He had been particularly horrified by one young boy being detained for stealing a postal order and committed to a mental institution. Juvenile courts regularly institutionalised their charges for long periods and called them “morally defective”. He had a strong memory of Bloomsbury’s working class life and his rescue by the Great Ormond Street Working Men’s College.


Meanwhile, Tansley was working away quietly on gathering data from a few selected dynamic environments, listing the local movements of plant communities and checking changes in weather and species frequency. This went on to his idea of a complete “ecosystem” in the early 1920s though he didn’t coin the word until 1935. He was joining bits of his Vienna experiences of human community with his knowledge of plant communities, how separate individuals with independent powers of existence, lived together through different stages of growth and reproduction. Like Smuts’ holism, this eventually meant taking the basic laws of physics and chemistry into the realms of basic biology and then to the complexity of the human mind. They were adventures into the unknown that involved all of science and more beyond.

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One of Tansley’s acquaintances was Ronald Fisher, desperate to become his own master after the war. He rejected the suggestion of his hero Pearson that they worked together at University College and quickly found the right opportunity at Rothamsted Experimental Station. Population genetics, experimental genetics and the systematic description of species were topics that needed to be brought together, and Fisher attempted to join Darwin’s natural selection with Mendel’s genetic ratios, helped by the pre-war realisation that gene particles lined up on the chromosomes. Fisher considered all the mathematical and statistical support for that model and showed for the first time that selection was the only way in which the process could be explained. Evolution couldn’t just be driven from inside the organisms: it needed a push from outside in the environment, one that led to the kind of small-scale continuous variability that Mendel’s recombinations explained so well. That explanation also meant that selection happened on a huge scale, between every organism in all places at all times, persistently testing the way forward and each time choosing the best option

Fisher’s mathematical insight drew comparisons between this style of evolution and the second law of thermodynamics. “Both are properties of populations, or aggregates, true irrespective of the units which compose them; both are statistical laws; each requires the constant increase of a measurable quantity, in the one case the order of a physical system, and in the other the fitness …. of a biological population.” Malthus’s warnings a hundred years before were always at the back of his mind, and his mission after the war was to do something about that.

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This challenge led him to go too far and he spoiled his reputation in a book called The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection. In the spirit of the time, and doing himself no long-lasting favours, Fisher used the last part of the book for a long justification of the eugenics practices that he favoured so strongly. “The deductions respecting Man are strictly inseparable from the more general chapters.” He believed that industrial society was in decline due to “social promotion of the relatively infertile” and that the higher reproductive rate of less worthy classes will swamp the superior classes. His chapters carried statistical evidence for that view and it continued to attract support throughout the decade.

Two years after Fisher’s work was published, JBS Haldane came along with The Causes of Evolution, an easier book to read in which all the mathematics was relegated to the appendix. Like Fisher’s story, Haldane’s showed the power of natural selection and he began in characteristic mood: “I can write of natural selection with authority because I am one of the three people who know most about its mathematical theory.” Presumably the other two were Ronald Fisher and Sewall Wright. So the study of population genetics began, the mathematics of patterns of change coming from large numbers of individuals living together in the same community. Many biologists didn’t understand the mathematics, but a main reason for the intellectual movement they had accidentally created was to bridge these differences.

Although Haldane strongly rejected Lamarckian trends he did leave open the space for some evolution to happen by means other than natural selection. Hybridisation and some large mutations could make new species and Haldane urged that other processes may explain even more. He had plenty of evidence that “degeneration is a far commoner phenomenon than progress” and is usually hard to spot because it leads to extinction. From the fossil record he noticed “at any given evolutionary level we generally find one or two lines leading up to it, and dozens leading down”.

This kind of division within the biological community, between the rigid fixers and the more artistic flexers, was to continue for many years and was going to get much wider before anyone spotted the difficulties. But both sides needed to gain more knowledge about themselves before they could share their similarities and find out that way just how evolution worked. The two World Wars also kept scientists on these separate tracks, rigid armaments relied on a strong force of hard-nosed mathematicians, physicists and chemists. The more vague environmental sciences such as the new ecology and palaeontology didn’t stand much of a chance. Tansley and Huxley would have to wait.

Eugenics gave a very different outlook for all life on the planet and Fisher was hell-bent on exploiting biology in that single direction. He likened natural selection to the working of a casino where the odds were set for its own success. In his game the losers were equivalent to an extinct species, and the far right were the winners, supporting the casino owner who was only too pleased to let science make up the rules. Never one for philosophy or history, Fisher believed there was little new “that would not stand if the world had been created in 4004BC”.

Already a government committee had been set up to recommend how to sterilise the ‘feeble-minded’ in England and Wales where a quarter of a million people were classified as ‘mental defectives’ and suggestions had been made that they were suitable candidates for voluntary sterilisation. Some members of the committee thought that “Broadly speaking stupid people will produce stupid children” though Haldane and Hogben explained there was no certainty about that and that environmental factors were also likely to be a cause. The committee rejected compulsory sterilisation though even Haldane agreed with their conclusions: “Biologists may legitimately demand that a proportion of mental defectives should be prevented from breeding”.

Another popular debate between the two world wars was stimulated by Arthur Keith’s proposition that humans would become extinct without competition, and that meant war was necessary. Keith was an anatomist and anthropologist and wrote articles in the popular press advocating physical struggle and conflict as a vital biological characteristic.

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In 1927 he told the British Association that cultural differences provide a mental barrier to social groups, suggesting that territorial behavior is a strong force in human evolution. He saw scientific and political merit in his idea of an ‘in-group’ and the less favoured ‘out-group’.

That view had been expressed earlier by a Prussian General, Friedrich von Bernhardi, in 1912, and several biologists agreed that it might be a possibility. Herbert Spencer had promoted the idea with his phrase “the survival of the fittest” and many in Europe during the 1920s and 30s believed that war played a role in this kind of biological process. They believed that the individuals and communities that survived were fitter in an evolutionary sense than those who died. This argument got tied up with some of the views of the eugenicists, inevitable consequences of those frightened times.

A forceful opponent of Keith was Joseph Needham, an influential member of the Cambridge left. He deplored the way that phrases such as “the struggle for existence” and “survival of the fittest” had become “the stock-in-trade of the man-in-the-street”, arguing that they were from old Victorian attitudes, then taken in by the public as part of their justification for joining-up to the armed forces. Keith continued with the idea that it was simply nature’s way of controlling populations, but the left-wing scientists would have none of that and instead sprang on to the offensive with their positive eugenics programme. Julian Huxley aimed for “the virtual elimination of the few lowest and most degenerate types” and he argued that biology should be the chief tool for rendering social politics.

The Huxley brothers called for some different thinking as part of a strategy towards the best interests of the planet earth and the human race. It involved a universal rhythm within earthly life, something they had been talking about for the last decade. As premier intellectuals they felt a responsibility to see to it that anything like the tragedy of the First World War did not happen again and that knowledge of the common features for all biodiversity might stop humanity being dragged down into the same mud. And from their family tradition, their grandfather’s smile beaming down on them constantly, Aldous and Julian had plenty more expected of them. Even those sceptical of Darwin’s ideas, broad minded men like Lawrence and Shaw, had their influence on Julian Huxley. More than most other scientists he was the cautious centrist, enjoying the foundations of Smuts’ holism very much within the fairness and functionalism of the English tradition. So prepared, Huxley went on to give another lecture that year in which once again he considered some of these wider aspects of his world view for our own species.

He called the lecture Eugenics and Society and repeated his call for a new Social Science to find ways to improve the living standards in the poorer parts of human communities, promote policies to favour more middle class babies and to discourage large families for the poor. But despite these hopes and concerns for a joined-up future it was hard in the 1930s to see any exciting new trends developing in biology and the evolution of life. Things were on hold, digesting the full impact of genetics, natural selection, cellular biochemistry and ecology as they became mixed together, waiting for their union to be approved and their significance understood. Krebs advances in biochemistry set an example against this pessimism that appealed to the Huxleys.

Meanwhile, even the attention of evolutionary biologists was directed to ways of trying to avoid war with the racist Nazis.  The League of Nations asked if “biology can end war?”, naïve in the view that war served some biological purpose. They thought that biologists still argued for some sort of “struggle for existence”, especially those who read Sir Arthur Keith’s regular articles in The Daily Mail, ostensibly about his subject, anthropology. He delighted his readers with his belief that Piltdown Man was a valid record of British supremacy and that it was important for humans to struggle to survive. Julian Huxley and many others tried to explain that there was no such scientific explanation, either of Piltdown Man or Nazi supremacy, but Keith held his ground against these scientists who he dismissed as left-wing extremists. It was a point well-made when Communist Party members such as the biologist Joseph Needham spoke publicly against Keith’s interpretations. “These men have deserted their heroes like Herbert Spencer and even Thomas Huxley” Keith argued, reminding his readers that in biology, both groups as well as individuals compete to be part of a healthy community: surely that validated war as part of the process of social evolution? Even Keith’s bitter enemy Haldane had urged in a lecture “that a proportion of mental defectives should be prevented from breeding”, while Sigmund Freud commented that violence was a character of the whole animal kingdom “from which men have no right to exclude themselves.”

These were still sensitive topics in those years when the Soviet experiment was just beginning and many biologists hoped that population might be controlled by eugenics. Some eugenicists even saw method in the madness of the First War that the weak were overtaken by the strong, but the large number of officers who died weakened their argument. By 1936 the support for voluntary sterilization of the less valuable members of society was on the wane and Pip Blacker, the Secretary of the Royal Zoological Society, thought it was all “a biological crisis unprecedented in the history of life”.