A Special Fondness for Beetles

Natural History, January 1993 | Go to article overview

A Special Fondness for Beetles


Just as the Lord holds the whole world in his hands, how we long to enfold an entire subject into a witty epigram. The quotable one-liner is a mainstay of culture, not an innovation in our modern era of sound bites. How could we grasp the eternal truths of nature and humanity if we couldn't ask Sam to play it again or didn't know that nice guys finish last.

The most widely quoted one-liner in evolutionary biology brilliantly captures the central fact about life's exuberant variety and composition. According to an older tradition that Darwin overturned, we should be able to infer both God's existence and his benevolence by studying the organisms that he created. This idea of "natural theology" dominated British zoology, at least from John Ray in the late seventeenth century to William Paley in the generation just before Darwin. The natural theologians sought God's handiwork not merely in the good design of organisms but especially in the supposed arrangement of nature to reflect human superiority and domination.

As a powerful corrective to this arrogant tradition of natural theology, evolutionists argued, early and often, that nature's undoubted order is neither benevolent in our terms (but "red in tooth and claw") nor established with us in mind or at the helm. The kind of God implied by nature's actual composition might not be a deity worthy of our worship.

At this point in the argument, almost any evolutionist will turn to our canonical one-liner for epigrammatic emphasis and support. J. B. S. Haldane (1892-1964), author of the phrase, was a founder of modern Darwinism (see his 1932 book, The Causes of Evolution) and a distinguished man of letters as well. I cite the famous words from the standard source--not Haldane himself, but a footnote on the first page of the most widely read paper in modern evolutionary biology: "Homage to Santa Rosalia, or Why Are There So Many Kinds of Animals" (American Naturalist, 1959), by G. Evelyn Hutchinson, world's greatest ecologist and the only twentieth-century British biologist who could match Haldane in brilliance and wit. Hutchinson wrote:

There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, of the distinguished British biologist, J. B. S. Haldane, who found himself in the company of a group of theologians. On being asked what one could conclude as to the nature of the Creator from a study of his creation, Haldane is said to have answered, "An inordinate fondness for beetles."

Lovely line, but did Haldane utter it--and if so, when, where, and how? The standard source illustrates the problem--not hard copy with a byline, but a secondary report, frankly labeled as "perhaps apocryphal." Haldane was a brilliant and copious writer, but he was an even more fluent barroom wit--and great comments in this venue end up either scratched into soggy napkins or dimly remembered in the midst of a hangover.

Haldane's line--an inordinate fondness for beetles--is now so famous and standard that we really do yearn to pin down the source. Yet nothing is so elusive as a canonical well-turned phrase, for the vast majority of such quips are either misstated or misattributed (see Nice Guys Finish Seventh: False Phrases, Spurious Sayings and Familiar Misquotations, by Ralph Keyes, Harper Collins, 1992). I tried to slip two of them by you in my first paragraph. Leo Durocher did not confine angels to the cellar; and Humphrey Bogart (as Rick in Casablanca) never told Sam to play it again (although Woody Allen purposely used this standard error as the title for a film).

Thanks to a charming, if somewhat cranky, English tradition--lengthy and passionate exchanges in letters to the editor on the minute details of smallish subjects--we finally have both as good a resolution as we can get, and a catalog of the usual mistakes that make canonical quotations so hard to trace. It all started in the October 5, 1989 issue of Nature, when my friend (an Oxford professor) Bob May reviewed a meeting on interactions between ants and plants under a title that parodied Haldane's quip--"An Inordinate Fondness for Ants. …

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