Great Throughts Treasury

This site is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Alan William Smolowe who gave birth to the creation of this database.

J. B. S. Haldane, fully John Burdon Sanderson Haldane

English Geneticist, Biologist, Author

"A single mind can acquire a fair knowledge of the whole field of science, and find plenty of time to spare for ordinary human affairs. Not many people take the trouble to do so. But without a knowledge of science one cannot understand current events. That is why our modern our modern literature and art are mostly so unreal."

"I have never met a healthy person who worried much about his health, or a good person who worried much about his soul."

"So many new ideas are at first strange and horrible though ultimately valuable that a very heavy responsibility rests upon those who would prevent their dissemination."

"The ideal society would enable every man and woman to develop along their individual lines, and not attempt to force all into one mould, however admirable."

"The making of friends who are real friends, is the best token we have of a man's success in life."

"We do not know, in most cases, how far social failure and success are due to heredity, and how far to environment. But environment is the easier of the two to improve."

"A time will however come (as I believe) when physiology will invade and destroy mathematical physics, as the latter has destroyed geometry."

"In scientific thought we adopt the simplest theory which will explain all the facts under consideration and enable us to predict new facts of the same kind. The catch in this criterion lies in the world "simplest." It is really an aesthetic canon such as we find implicit in our criticisms of poetry or painting. The layman finds such a law as dx/dt = K(d^2x/dy^2) much less simple than "it oozes," of which it is the mathematical statement. The physicist reverses this judgment, and his statement is certainly the more fruitful of the two, so far as prediction is concerned. It is, however, a statement about something very unfamiliar to the plain man, namely, the rate of change of a rate of change."

"A fairly bright boy is far more intelligent and far better company than the average adult."

"I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose."

"And if we must educate our poets and artists in science, we must educate our masters, labour and capital, in art."

"I suppose the process of acceptance will pass through the usual four stages: i) this is worthless nonsense; ii) this is an interesting, but perverse, point of view; iii) this is true, but quite unimportant; iv) I always said so."

"It seems to me immensely unlikely that mind is a mere by-product of matter. For if my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true. They may be sound chemically, but that does not make them sound logically. And hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms."

"In fact, words are well adapted for description and the arousing of emotion, but for many kinds of precise thought other symbols are much better."

"Man armed with science is like a baby with a box of matches."

"Science is as yet in its infancy, and we can foretell little of the future save that the thing that has not been is the thing that shall be; that no beliefs, no values, no institutions are safe."

"The advance of scientific knowledge does not seem to make either our universe or our inner life in it any less mysterious."

"Science is vastly more stimulating to the imagination than are the classics."

"The wise man regulates his conduct by the theories both of religion and science. But he regards these theories not as statements of ultimate fact but as art-forms."

"The conclusion forced upon me in the course of a life devoted to natural science is that the universe as it is assumed to be in physical science is only an idealized world, while the real universe is the spiritual universe in which spiritual values count for everything."

"We must learn not to take traditional morals too seriously. And it is just because even the least dogmatic of religions tends to associate itself with some kind of unalterable moral tradition, that there can be no truce between science and religion."

"This is my prediction for the future - whatever hasn't happened will happen and no one will be safe from it."

"There is no great invention, from fire to flying, which has not been hailed as an insult to some god."

"While I do not suggest that humanity will ever be able to dispense with its martyrs, I cannot avoid the suspicion that with a little more thought and a little less belief their number may be substantially reduced."

"The main objection to religious myths is that, once made, they are so difficult to destroy. Chemistry is not haunted by the phlogiston theory as Christianity is haunted by the theory of a God with a craving for bloody sacrifices. But it is also a fact that while serious attempts are constantly being made to verify scientific myths, religious myths, at least under Christianity and Islam, have become matters of faith which it is more or less impious to doubt, and which we must not attempt to verify by empirical means. Chemists believe that when a chemical reaction occurs, the weights of the reactants are unchanged. If this is not very nearly true, most of chemical theory is nonsense. But experiments are constantly being made to disprove it.... Chemists welcome such experiments and do not regard them as impious or even futile."

"An attempt to study the evolution of living organisms without reference to cytology would be as futile as an account of stellar evolution which ignored spectroscopy. "

"If materialism is true, it seems to me that we cannot know that it is true. If my opinions are the result of the chemical processes going on in my brain, they are determined by the laws of chemistry, not those of logic."

"Quantitative work shows clearly that natural selection is a reality, and that, among other things, it selects Mendelian genes, which are known to be distributed at random through wild populations, and to follow the laws of chance in their distribution to offspring. In other words, they are an agency producing variation of the kind which Darwin postulated as the raw material on which selection acts."

"(a) That life had a supernatural origin, (b) That it originated from inorganic materials, and (c) That life is a constituent of the Universe and can only arise from pre-existing 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 beetle on this planet, but only 8,000 species of mammals, he concluded that the Creator, if he exists, has a special preference for beetles, and so we might be more likely to meet them than any other type of animal on a planet which would support life."

"A man is free in proportion as his perceptions and his actions express his personality in spite of the variety of forms which perceptions and motives take."

"A discussion between Haldane and a friend began to take a predictable turn. The friend said with a sigh, 'It's no use going on. I know what you will say next, and I know what you will do next.' The distinguished scientist promptly sat down on the floor, turned two back somersaults, and returned to his seat. 'There,' he said with a smile. 'That's to prove that you're not always right.'"

"An inordinate fondness for beetles."

"Capitalism, though it may not always give the scientific worker a living wage, will always protect him, as being one of the geese which produce golden eggs for its table."

"An ounce of algebra is worth a ton of verbal argument."

"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 [J. D. Bernal]. He mentioned three hypotheses:"

"Every Christian church has tried to impose a code of morals of some kind for which it has claimed divine sanction. As these codes have always been opposed to those of the gospels a loophole has been left for moral progress such as hardly exists in other religions."

"From the fact that there are 400,000 species of beetles on this planet, but only 8,000 species of mammals, he [Haldane] concluded that the Creator, if He exists, has a special preference for beetles."

"I am quite sure that our views on evolution would be very different had biologists studied genetics and natural selection before and not after most of them were convinced that evolution had occurred."

"I had it for about fifteen years until I read Lenin and other writers, who showed me what was wrong with our society and how to cure it... Since then I have needed no magnesia."

"I have come to the conclusion that my subjective account of my motivation is largely mythical on almost all occasions. I don't know why I do things."

"I have tried to show why I believe that the biologist is the most romantic figure on earth at the present day. At first sight he seems to be just a poor little scrubby underpaid man, groping blindly amid the mazes of the ultra-microscopic, engaging in bitter and lifelong quarrels over the nephridia of flatworms, waking perhaps one morning to find that someone whose name he has never heard has demolished by a few crucial experiments the work which he had hoped would render him immortal."

"I think, however, that so long as our present economic and national systems continue, scientific research has little to fear."

"I will give up my belief in evolution if someone finds a fossil rabbit in the Precambrian."

"If human beings could be propagated by cutting, like apple trees, aristocracy would be biologically sound."

"I'd lay down my life for two brothers or eight cousins."

"If one could conclude as to the nature of the Creator from a study of his creation it would appear that God has a special fondness for stars and beetles."

"In our perceptions of beauty, and particularly perhaps of beauty in nature, we are participating directly in divine perception, however imperfectly."

"In the development and the maintenance of a living organism the coordination is very clear. The development of each part can be shown to be dependent on that of other parts, including the immediate environment; and the more closely development and maintenance are studied the more evident does this become. But the particular manner in which the parts and the environment influence one another is such that the specific structure and activities of the organism are maintained. They are unmistakably developed and maintained as a whole, and this is what we mean when we say that the organism lives a specific life. The conception of its life enables us to predict the general behavior of its parts so long as it is alive, and in particular it enables us to predict the general manner of its reproduction from a rudimentary part of the same organism? it is this co-ordinated maintenance that we call life."

"In ultimate analysis, the universe can be nothing less than the progressive manifestation of God."

"It is in our personal relations with other persons, and with other forms of unity which are independent of ourselves as mere individuals, that we become aware of the personality of God. The fact that man is subject to error does not belie the fact that it is in the search after truth that the presence of God in man is revealed."