The Creator Has an Inordinate Fondness for Beetles

Charles Darwin? J.B.S. Haldane? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

darwinbeetles76Dear Quote Investigator: I have been studying rain forests and came across the following passage in a New York Times article [NYFB]:

Charles Darwin surmised that the Creator must be inordinately fond of beetles: the earth is home to some 30 million different species of them.

The phrase “inordinately fond of beetles” makes me chuckle, and I can imagine the creator carefully designing each beetle. But I have read The Voyage of the Beagle and this phrase does not sound like something that Darwin would say. Could you investigate this phrase?

Quote Investigator: Your suspicions of the Darwin attribution are justified. The most likely originator of the saying was another biologist named J.B.S. Haldane. But the words “possibly apocryphal” appear even in the earliest citation.

The phrase sometimes occurs as part of an anecdote. Here is an example from 1997 in the Charlotte Observer of North Carolina [CNC]:

The movie reminded me of a great British entomologist who had classified hundreds of species of beetles, perhaps the most widely varying form of life on Earth. Late in his career, he spoke to a group of churchgoers about his work. Feeling metaphysical, they asked him to reflect on what science had taught him about the mind of God.

“I’ve deduced,” he replied, “that God is incredibly fond of beetles.”

Yet, the saying does not trace back to an entomologist. Instead, the phrase is credited to one of the founders of the field of population genetics, J.B.S. Haldane. An anecdote about Haldane is contained in the footnote of a paper published in The American Naturalist in 1959. Here is the complete text of the footnote [ANH]:

There is a story, possibly 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.”

This is the earliest cite that QI has located that uses the phrase “inordinate fondness” or “inordinately fond”, and it is the same as the one given on the Haldane webpage of WikiQuote. Yet, there is significant evidence that Haldane wrote and spoke on this theme. Superlative researcher Stephen Goranson notified QI of relevant writings by J.B.S. Haldane and Stephen Gould. Haldane discussed the prevalence of stars and beetles in his book “What is life?” published in the 1940s [HWIL]:

The Creator would appear as endowed with a passion for stars, on the one hand, and for beetles on the other, for the simple reason that there are nearly 300,000 species of beetle known, and perhaps more, as compared with somewhat less than 9,000 species of birds and a little over 10,000 species of mammals. Beetles are actually more numerous than the species of any other insect order. That kind of thing is characteristic of nature.

So Haldane did say that the Creator has a “passion” for beetles. Yet, this turn of phrase is not as memorable as the phrase using “inordinate fondness”. More data concerning Haldane’s views was uncovered by the biologist and popular writer Stephen Gould. He investigated this topic in a column in “Natural History” magazine in January of 1993 because the saying is well-known in biological circles. Gould says that Haldane gave a speech to the British Interplanetary Society in 1951 and a report appeared in volume 10 of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society. Here is an except [NHSG]:

Coming to the question of life being found on other planets, Professor Haldane apologized for discoursing, as a mere biologist, on a subject on which we had been expecting a lecture by a physicist. He mentioned three hypotheses:

(a) that life had a supernatural origin;

(b) that it originated from inorganic materials;

(c) that life is a constituent of the Universe and can only arise from preexisting life.

The first hypothesis, he said, should be taken seriously, and he would proceed to do so. From the fact that there are 400,000 species of beetles on this planet, but only 8,000 species of mammals, he concluded that the Creator, if he exists, has a special preference for beetles.

The totals given for the number of species have changed but the theme is the same. This is evidence that Haldane used the phrase “a special preference for beetles.” Yet, this version is still not as memorable as “inordinate fondness.” Finally, Gould discusses a letter in the August 1992 issue of “The Linnean” from a friend of Haldane named Kenneth Kermack who insists that Haldane did say “God has an inordinate fondness for beetles” and more often than not he said [NHSG]:

God has an inordinate fondness for stars and beetles.

So, QI concludes there is still some uncertainty about what Haldane said, but he definitely had an inordinate fondness for talking about creators, stars, and beetles. Thanks for your question.

[NYFB] 1989 November 25, New York Times, The Editorial Notebook: Burning the Book of Nature by Nicholas Wade, New York. (Online New York Times archive) link

[CNC] 1997 January 31, The Charlotte Observer, Movie Review: An Artsy, Close-Up Look at Insects by Lawrence Toppman, Page 5E, Charlotte, North Carolina. (NewsBank Access World News)

[ANH]  1959 May-June, The American Naturalist, “Homage to Santa Rosalia or Why Are There So Many Kinds of Animals?” by G. E. Hutchinson, Page 146, Volume XCIII, Number 870. (JSTOR)

[HWIL] 1949, What is life? by J.B.S. Haldane, The Layman’s View of Nature, Page 258, L. Drummond, London. (Google Books snippet view; Verified on paper by Stephen Goranson at Duke University)

[NHSG] 1993 January, Natural History, A Special Fondness for Beetles by Stephen Jay Gould, Page 4, Issue 1, Volume 102, American Museum of Natural History, New York. (EBSCO Academic Search Premier)

4 thoughts on “The Creator Has an Inordinate Fondness for Beetles

  1. I first saw this quote in The Insect World of J Henri Fabre, the great early 20th century entomologist. Even if he didn’t say it first, the book is a wonderful collection of Fabre’s essays .
    ,

  2. Nancy Barlow: Thanks for visiting the website. That sounds like an interesting citation. Could you tell me the exact quotation and the page?

  3. (The following note was sent via email to the QI website on August 18, 2013. Noel Smith is a researcher at the University of Sussex in the Veterinary Laboratories.)

    I worked with John Maynard Smith for 10 years at the University of Sussex and, of course, John did his first degree in Biology with J. B. S. Haldane. I asked John about this quote one day and he said Haldane first voiced it on BBC Radio and, as far as John knew, it was completely without precedent.

    Dr. Noel Smith

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