The captious crusader

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Lancelot Hogben, Scientific Humanist: An Unauthorized Autobiography

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Merlin: 1998. Pp.254 £14.95
Raffish rogue: Hogben leaves court after being acquitted of a drink-driving charge.

When Julian Huxley published his Essays of a Biologist, which duly established itself as a classic blue Penguin shilling paperback, his professed friend and collaborator Lancelot Hogben reviewed it in the following amiable terms: the essays were remarkable chiefly for their “timid superficiality and insipid observation”, a consequence of Huxley's “mental immaturity”. Francis Bacon said a mouthful when he asserted that friendship is rare in this world, especially among equals; but more than this, Hogben seems to have had a special disposition to tread on any corn in sight. He was a polymath of a type now extinct, possessed of a voracious intelligence which was seldom tempered by any show of modesty; but he also craved recognition, was quick to take offence and nursed a succession of resentments and grievances. He believed that his scientific work was undervalued and his attempts to improve the world thwarted by lesser men.

Yet he threw his eloquence and prestige as a public figure into opposing the pernicious eugenic doctrines that were taking hold in the years after the First World War, and he perceived and denounced the meretricious nature of attempts to link race with intelligence. He was a fine writer and popularizer of science, and his hugely successful books Science for the Citizen and Mathematics for the Million illuminated the subjects for a mass readership as never before. With Huxley and J. B. S. Haldane he founded the Company of Biologists and the Society for Experimental Biology, complete with its journal, which still thrives today. And in one of his first published papers he demonstrated, against the prevailing view, that chromosomes paired side-by-side in meiosis and not end-to-end.

So in the light of history the old curmudgeon stands well in credit. The biologists of today might be even more impressed to learn that it was Hogben who, during his time in South Africa, introduced Xenopus laevis, the indigenous clawed toad, as an experimental animal.

Hogben's elder son (who also became a professor of biology) and daughter-in-law have edited and annotated (perhaps even sanitized?) a mass of unpublished autobiographical material and have given us a prime historical document of science in a socially and politically tempestuous era. More, Hogben, for all his periodic outbursts of spleen and narcissism, could write with rare vivacity and even charm, most of all about his early life.

Brought up in a comfortless ambience of religious bigotry, threatened with everlasting hellfire should he deviate from the path of physical and intellectual self-denial, the young Hogben found consolation (which endured to the end of his turbulent life) in the study of animals and plants. His rejection of his parents' religion seems to have crystallized from his contempt for the theological dialectic of William Paley and Bishop Butler (who formulated the argument for religious belief, more commonly known now as Pascal's wager, that a prudent man will not take a chance on whether Hell really exists). Hogben relates how on a later occasion he found himself declaiming aloud in the street Swinburne's lines:

By the name that in hellfire was written, and burned at the point of the sword,

Thou art smitten, thou God, thou art smitten; thy death is upon thee, O Lord⃛.

Hogben won a scholarship to Cambridge where, influenced partly by his first patron, the noted geneticist Leonard Doncaster, he joined the Quakers, “the least pernicious variety of a Christian religion to profess if one feels the need for it”. More especially he fell under the sway of the Fabian socialists, notably G. D. H. Cole, for whom (along with the theoretician of the British Communist Party, Raja Palme Dutt) he conceived a great admiration. This did not extend to Cole's followers — a “dreary circuit of smugly self-seeking careerists” — of whom Hugh Gaitskell (who would, had he lived, have been prime minister) emerges as a particular target for Hogben's abundant bile.

Hogben's new-found convictions were to be cruelly tested with the coming of the First World War. He served for six months in a hospital unit in France, but when conscription was introduced he returned to Cambridge to show solidarity with other conscientious objectors and brave the jingoistic passions that by then had pervaded British society. Like Bertrand Russell, he served time in Wormwood Scrubs prison and bravely exposed himself to public and professional obloquy.

The war over, he returned to zoology as a lecturer at Birkbeck College, entered the London demi-monde and rose socially. Through G. P. Wells, the zoologist son of H. G., he met the latter's circle, including the Huxleys, and was invited to Lady Ottoline Morrell's salon at Garsington.

By this time he was interested in the new field of endocrinology, and was offered an appointment in Edinburgh in a decaying department headed by the academically moribund E. W. MacBride. MacBride was a vitalist and a Lamarckian, who also urged compulsory sterilization for all males with an annual income of less than £400. Hogben, on a lecturer's salary of £350, was by then already married and the father of two children.

Not surprisingly he soon moved on to his first professorial chair, at McGill University in Canada. This went well enough until it became known that he had joined the Society for Cultural Relations with the Soviet Union, which, in the eyes of the principal, branded him as a Bolshevik and therefore perforce an adherent of free love. Such a one, the principal informed the dean of the faculty, “could not safely work alone in a laboratory with a lady research assistant”. Answering an invitation to a chair at the University of Cape Town, the Hogben ménage moved on.

Cape Town offered a cornucopia of rare species to fire the zoologist. Hogben describes how he established a research programme in his department and how he became politically involved through his association with the largely Jewish intelligentsia. His vocal opposition to the increasingly stringent race laws soon ensured his departure for the next and most interesting appointment of his career: already an expert in statistics, he became the first and last occupant of the chair of social biology at the London School of Economics.

It was the wish of the principal, Sir William (not yet Lord) Beveridge, to unite social studies and biology, and Hogben's claims were pressed by the voluble left-wing economist Harold Laski, who was eager to avert the appointment of one of the many hard-line eugenicists then in the market. Hogben took the job on the condition that he would also be given facilities for laboratory work, and it was thus at LSE, no less, that the first Xenopus colony was set up.

Laski, at first a stout ally, later fell into the pit of Hogben's disapproval, as indeed did most of the faculty. Hogben clearly did nothing to assuage hostility either from the left or from the right. One opponent, C. P. Blacker, a respected psychologist with mild eugenic views (not so far from the position of Hogben, who supported the voluntary sterilization of “mental defectives”), has left a description of Hogben at his inaugural lecture, sporting a pink tie, with three curls artfully arranged over his forehead “rather like what you see behind a counter at Selfridges”. Nevertheless, Hogben — by many accounts besides his own a rousing lecturer — lauded the sociologists for resisting “the prevalent fashion of biologists to insist exclusively on the genetic factors in social change” and he appealed for collaboration.

Part of Hogben's efforts at this stage went into a new preoccupation with philology. He was a formidable linguist and believed in learning languages by related groups. With one of his South African acquaintances, F. W. Bodmer, he wrote another enduring bestseller, The Loom of Language. He also devised a universal scientific language, called Interglossa, which he expounded in a Pelican paperback. His scorn for the established order notwithstanding, he was eager to get into the Royal Society and, believing that popularization was looked on with distaste, he delayed publication of Mathematics for the Million until he had been safely elected. Indeed, it became known that he had tried to persuade Hyman Levy, the Communist mathematician and a (transient) friend, to allow the book to appear under his name in place of Hogben's.

But Hogben's credit at the LSE was running out; amidst the customary acrimony he again moved on, this time to a chair at Aberdeen. His sojourn there was interrupted by the Second World War. This time he played an active part, as director of medical statistics for the army. There followed his last academic appointment, that of professor of medical statistics and human genetics at Birmingham, whence he retired to a cottage in Wales. He had divorced his first wife and collaborator of 40 years, Enid Charles, and married a Welsh schoolteacher. But then he accepted the vice-chancellorship of the newly founded University of Guyana. His tenure again came to an abrupt and fiery end, and he returned to his Welsh village.

The death of his second wife left him a lonely and eccentric recluse, given to holding forth in the bar of the local pub to all who would listen, and cherished by the local villagers and hill-farmers. His memoirs end with reflections on science as it had become by the time of his death in 1975. On the whole he did not much care for what he saw: it was turning, he thought, into a profession dominated by research teams rather than individuals, industry with its demands for secrecy was encroaching, and teaching was becoming more authoritarian. The guiding principle of his youth, that nothing must be taken on faith, was being eroded, and, worst of all, statistics were being deployed by people who had not the faintest understanding of their mathematical basis. Can one imagine anything worse?

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