Friendly way to science

Lancelot Hobgen, Scientific Humanist

July 31, 1998

Max Perutz reviews a life of L Hogben, the son of fundamentalists who put his faith in zoology and socialism.

Lancelot Hogben, who died in 1975, was a leading biologist, a brilliant expositor of science and a dedicated Quaker, socialist and scientific humanist. An inborn dynamism and voracious thirst for knowledge made him rise to these heights from a home that tried to stifle all independent thought. Hogben's "unauthorised" biography (unauthorised, because it has been compiled by his elder son and daughter-in-law from several unedited versions of a projected autobiography by Hogben himself)begins with the words: "I come of poor but intellectually dishonest parents and was spared material poverty because they, with their offspring, lived as pensioners of my maternal grandparents." His father was a fiery fundamentalist preacher intent on spreading the gospel and saving souls from hell-fire. When father and son went on a tram, the father would distribute Methodist pamphlets to all the passengers, much to the boy's embarrassment.

Lancelot was a premature baby brought into the world in 1895 with such difficulty that his pious mother vowed to devote him to her godly mission if he arrived safely, but the adult later devoted his life to missions very different from the one to which his mother had consecrated him. Hogben's austere childhood in a home from which books other than religious tracts were banned and where Sundays were all prayer and no play reminded me of Edmund Gosse's classic Father and Son. Gosse's parents belonged to the Plymouth Brethren, a fundamentalist sect founded about 1830 in the west of England. After a difficult birth, they dedicated their child to the Lord, to be kept "unspotted from the world". Once, when young Edmund was invited to a children's party his father ordered him to pray to God to save him from such sinful temptation. To the father's fury, the boy announced after his prayer that God had told him to go to the party.

Lancelot's mother's genteel aspirations led her to send him first to a private school for the sons of gentlemen where he learnt little. When he was ten, his parents moved from Southsea near Portsmouth to Stoke Newington in London and sent Lancelot to a Middlesex county secondary school for which he was ill prepared. Aged 14, scarlet fever kept him at home for a term, which changed his life, because school books left there by a cousin made him discover his ability to teach himself. That, and his discovery in the public library of several volumes of the Cambridge Natural History, awakened his interest in zoology, stimulated his ambition, emancipated him from his pious surroundings, and set him on a successful academic career.

Aged 17, he won a scholarship to Trinity College in Cambridge, and aged 19 a first in Part I of the natural sciences tripos, coupled with a prize for the best candidate in zoology. Hogben writes: "As an educational institution, Trinity was ideally fitted to foster my intellectual development. Perhaps because of an overdose of family prayers, I had acquired a lifelong resistance to information transmitted by the spoken word, especially to monologues. There was very little pressure on a scholar of Trinity to attend lectures or, if present, to attend to what a lecturer was saying. Few of the lectures on biological topics were inspiring, but the organisation of laboratory work and the equipment provided could not have been much better."

Once a fellow student took him to a Quaker Adult School. He writes: "I already knew of the Quakers taking an active part in the emancipation of the slaves, that they regarded military service as contrary to the profession of a Christian and that they proclaimed no dogma to which a modernist could not subscribe." He joined the Society of Friends and remained a member for most of his life.

In August 1914, Hogben volunteered for service with the Quakers' War Victims Contingent, building bungalows for French families made homeless by the war, and later for the Friends' Ambulance Unit. When conscription came in 1916, he regarded these activities as no longer voluntary and returned to Cambridge to await his call-up. When that came, he refused to serve and was sentenced to three months' imprisonment at Wormwood Scrubs. He spent them mostly in solitary confinement sewing mail bags. It was a stark contrast to the fleshpots of Trinity College, with dinner menus of six courses and a choice of at least three items for each. "The Tudor oak panelling, the retinue of waiters with white ties and the massive array of solid silver implements gave dinner in my day a flavour of baronial pageantry appropriate to its gastronomic profusion."

The luxury grated on Hogben's frugal, puritanical upbringing and may have contributed to his conversion to socialism. Hogben's conversion reminded me of my former Cambridge teacher, the Irish crystallographer John Desmond Bernal, a great scientist whom we called "The Sage" because he knew everything. He was converted from Catholicism to communism in a single night and clung to his new faith through Stalin's purges, the gulags and Lysenko's persecution of Mendelian geneticists. I wonder if some people's religious upbringing creates in them a need for an absolute faith to guide their lives.

Hogben's philanthropic socialism chimed with his Quaker ethics, which he practised throughout his life. In the words of Frank Landgrebe, who worked with him for many years: "His training of postgraduates in biological research was an inspiration. Full of ideas himself, he was also generous in encouraging the ideas of others; intensely critical, yet his criticism always carried an affirmation of hope. Even when the ideas were his, he scrupulously refrained from putting his name to a paper unless he had done a fair share of the work with his own hands." Today, some heads of laboratories put their names on all the papers published there, even on those that they have hardly read.

Hogben believed that "scientific knowledge rationally applied in a socially reconstructed world could bring about The Age of Plenty -Jnot an age of luxurious extravagance, but an age in which war and poverty have been abolished and the fundamental needs of all humanity are satisfied. However, as an essential preparation for the necessary reorganisation, the full potential of scientific discovery must be known and understood by all responsible people. The current educational system was designed to produce docile experts rather than citizens prepared for drastic social changes." Bernal tried to achieve this with The Social Function of Science, in which he argued for a rational organisation of science from above, somewhat on the lines practised by the former state-controlled Soviet Academy. Hogben, to his credit, endeavoured to do it from below, by bringing mathematics and science to the people.

While confined to hospital with a persistent throat infection, he turned a series of lectures on mathematics into a 650-page introduction to basic mathematics from Euclid to integral calculus, with a strong emphasis on practical applications. He called it Mathematics for the Million. It was written in accordance with his humanist creed that "without a knowledge of mathematics, the grammar of science and order, we cannot plan a rational society in which there is leisure for all and poverty for none". The book became a bestseller, and so did his Science for the Citizen, an 1,100-page, richly illustrated volume that takes the reader from "The conquest of time reckoning and space measurement" by the Babylonians to the "Conquest of power, hunger and disease" and the "Conquest of behaviour" in modern times.

Both books are self-educators, taking readers from basic principles to practical applications; each chapter is followed by a list of problems. Both are still in print, more than 60 years after they were written. Hogben's utopian faith was characteristic of many idealistic scientists and other intellectuals earlier in this century who failed to foresee or recognise the disastrous consequences of centralised planning in eastern Europe and China.

While Hogben campaigned for a rationally ordered society, he debunked the eugenicists' ideas of planning the future composition of the human race. In Genetic Principles in Medicine and Social Science, published in 1931, he recounts the obstacles encountered in studying the genetic basis of physical differences among human beings and argues that these obstacles "are as nothing to the pitfalls which beset the study of hereditary factors contributing to man's social behaviour. The extreme complexity of man's social behaviour is evident to every intelligent man or woman whose outlook has not been biased by a prolonged occupation with the varieties of sweet-peas and mice or the patterns on the feathers of poultry" (to which I would add the social life of ants). Hogben counters contemporary talk about the superiority of the Nordic race by quoting a 15th-century Moorish savant, Said of Toledo, who describes the people beyond the Pyrenees as "of cold temperament, never reaching maturity; they are of great stature and of a white colour, but they lack sharpness of wit and penetration of intellect."

Hogben's academic career began in 1917 with a lectureship at Birkbeck College. He next found a post at the Animal Breeding Research Laboratory in Edinburgh, and then as assistant professor of medical zoology at McGill University of Montreal. He was overjoyed when he was offered the post of professor and head of department of zoology at the University of Cape Town, where he found a zoologist's paradise. The beginnings of apartheid, however, drove him away after only three years to a new chair of social biology at the London School of Economics. He was befriended by its director, William Beveridge, whom he admired, and by the school's founders, the socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb, whom he looked upon as foster parents because they had made higher education possible for him by introducing London County Council maintenance grants for winners of open scholarships to Cambridge or Oxford.

According to Hogben, "the Webbs devoutly believed that lads and lasses who studied economics deeply would eventually become good collectivists. From the start both believed that a mariage de convenance between economic theory and factual social studies, if solemnised with a sufficient dowry to the latter, would advance the Fabian cause on a wide front. They continued to believe this despite the fact that at the time of my advent the school was the last stronghold of the most ultra-individualist metaphysical nonsense masquerading as economic science west of Vienna." Hogben enjoyed his contacts with M. M. Postan, the economic historian, because he had a lively appreciation of the scientific basis of economic advance for which Nathan Rosenberg and L. E. Birdzell argued so brilliantly in their recent book, How the West Grew Rich. On the other hand, Hogben regarded Hayek's free-market economics, which later influenced Margaret Thatcher, "as a mental exercise comparable with astrology". Hogben did not take kindly to the students, "a sizeable and truculent minority of whom had Communist Party Cards", and whose outlook and demeanour he describes as a by-product of the disputatious attitude to learning encouraged by the Hayek-Robbins circus and by Harold Laski. After seven years at the LSE, Hogben moved to Aberdeen and finally to Birmingham, where he occupied a chair in medical statistics specially created for him.

My interest in Hogben's autobiography waned after the first few chapters describing his childhood and youth, because, apart from the occasional vivid vignettes about well-known people and institutions, it is filled with a humdrum account of his many activities and moves. His research, which earned him his fellowship of the Royal Society, was concerned with endocrinology, mainly of amphibians, but he fails to explain what was interesting about it, or what he achieved as professor of social biology at the LSE or of medical statistics at Birmingham; one can get some idea from the long list of his publications appended to the text.

The article by G. P. Wells, the biologist son of H. G. Wells, in the Biographical Memoirs of the Royal Society (1978), gave me a much better picture of the man than his autobiography. He extols Hogben's talent, tremendously broad erudition and amazing productivity, but he also describes him as "a difficult colleague, incapable of concealing personal dislike; ambitious, intent on reforming university education according to his humanist faith; frustrated and unforgiving in defeat; a tremendous rocker of other people's boats, and never very calm in his own." Wells's article and Hogben's other books convinced me that he was a very remarkable man, something that his autobiography would not have made me guess, perhaps because the later parts were clearly compiled from notes he left after his death.

Max Perutz is a Nobel laureate in chemistry.

Lancelot Hobgen, Scientific Humanist: An Unauthorised Autobiography

Editor - Adrian and Anne Hogben
ISBN - 0 85036 470 1
Publisher - Merlin
Price - £14.95
Pages - 254

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