John Burdon Sanderson Haldane, an English biochemist and geneticist, was born Nov. 5, 1892. Haldane, always referred to as J.B.S., was a pioneer in the study of the origin of life (inventing the term “primordial soup”), and he also played a major role in what is called the Neodarwinian Synthesis, where Darwinian evolution and population genetics were fused in mutual support around 1930. But to most biologists, Haldane is best known for a quotation that he may or may not have made. Many have looked for the origins of the quotation, and everyone agrees that he uttered a sentiment like the quotation on several occasions, but no one has confirmed that he ever actually stated it just this way. So just what did Haldane supposedly say? Haldane was purportedly asked by a theologically-minded audience what could be inferred about God from a study of His creation. Replied Haldane, “He seems to have an inordinate fondness for beetles.” Should this need explaining to the zoologically impaired, Haldane was referring to the fact that there are some 10,000 species of mammals on earth, but about 350,000 species of beetles. The phrase that makes this quotation so memorable is, of course, the doublet: “inordinate fondness”, which is such an exquisite pairing of words. It is this phrase that no one can confirm Haldane having written or said. If that is the case, it would be nice to know who first said that Haldane uttered it just that way, since that person may deserve a good share of the credit.
“Inordinate fondness for beetles” – which we will refer to as “the phrase” – is now a standard idiom in the lexicon of any coleopterist (student of beetles), so that if I were to comment at a meeting of the Coleopterists Society that Charles Darwin had an inordinate fondness for beetles (which he did), everyone would snicker and nod and think I was a deucedly clever fellow. The Oxford University Museum of Natural History has a display of beetles with the phrase as the title. And there are other beetle displays in which the phrase is certainly implied (first image). The phrase has recently been expanding its horizons. There are two in-print books with the phrase as the title, one about Alfred Russel Wallace (third image). There was a blog of that title, which has unfortunately shut up shop. We even found a Valentine’s Day card using the phrase, should you have an inordinate fondness for negative feedback.
There are not as many photographs of Haldane as there ought to be. This one shows him in the mid-1930s, in his mid-forties.
Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to firstname.lastname@example.org.