Sunday, February 22, 2009

English understatement

At the LRB, Eric Hobsbawm on Simon Winchester's biography of Joseph Needham. I loved Needham's history of embryology when I read it, but there's no doubt that it's the colorful biographical details that catch one's eye (Jonathan Spence had a good and rather fuller essay on Needham in the NYRB this fall). Here is a bit of Hobsbawm, in any case:
History was central to the red scientists not merely because they knew themselves to be living in times of extraordinary change. The sense of development and transformation over time, and (especially) the great question of the origin of life, provided both a bond between the sciences and the most exciting problems for biologists. All of them were absorbed by the changing relations, both past and present, between science and society. All memoirs of the period agree on the dramatic impact of the Soviet papers given at the 1931 London International Congress on the History of Science, to which the USSR sent an unusually distinguished delegation, whose Marxist perspective deeply impressed the British, not so much by the quality of their papers as by the new perspectives on the relations between science and society they opened. The 1931 Congress and his discovery of China in 1937 have been suggested as the two events that shaped Needham’s life.

So far as we know, Needham, a Marxist, never joined or was particularly close to the Communist Party, though his characteristic ‘millenarian fervour’, as T.E.B. Howarth describes it in Cambridge between Two Wars, made him more instinctively radical than the hard-headed left-wingers around him. He urged Haldane to choose the socialist materialism of the future – Haldane joined the Communist Party not long afterwards – and reviewed the Webbs’ Soviet Communism in 1936 with ‘enthusiasm bordering on rapture’. However, his widely advertised fondness for nudism and morris dancing, while giving him an aura of English eccentricity to which the otherwise conservative fellows of Gonville and Caius College assimilated his political heterodoxy, did not help his standing in the politics of the left. Admittedly, the long-lasting ménage à trois of Joseph and Dorothy Needham with Lu Gwei-djen (to whom Winchester ascribes his passion for China) was not yet established before the war, but the advertised sexual emancipation among their admired seniors was tolerated rather than imitated by the Communist generation of the 1930s.

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