Hostname: page-component-7dc689bd49-6fmns Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2023-03-20T20:33:00.654Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "useRatesEcommerce": false } hasContentIssue true

J. B. S. Haldane's Darwinism in its religious context

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 January 2009

Gordon McOuat
Department of Contemporary Studies, University of King's College, Halifax, Nova Scotia B3H 2A1, Canada.
Mary P. Winsor
Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, University of Toronto, Ontario MSS 1A1, Canada.


Early in this century, only a few biologists accepted that natural selection was the chief cause of evolution, until the independent calculations of John Burdon Sanderson Haldane (1892–1964), Sewall Wright and R. A. Fisher demonstrated that ideal populations subject to Mendel's laws could behave as Darwin had said they would. Evolutionary theorist John Maynard Smith, a student of Haldane's, has raised the question of why Haldane, who was no naturalist, took up the subject of evolution, and he suggests that the answer may have to do with Haldane's lively interest in religion. In fact Maynard Smith's answer has much more evidence in its favour than he knew.

Research Article
Copyright © British Society for the History of Science 1995

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1 Bowler, Peter J. deserves much credit for calling attention to historians' neglect of the decline of natural selection, in The Eclipse of Darwinism, Baltimore, 1983Google Scholar, and The Non-Darwinian Revolution, Baltimore, 1988Google Scholar. We are deeply in his debt not only for those pioneering books, but for his generous advice on our manuscript. For stylistic suggestions we thank Alan T. R. Powell and Michael Laine.

2 Smith, J. Maynard, ‘J. B. S. Haldane’, in Founders of Evolutionary Genetics (ed. Sarkar, S.), Dordrecht, 1992, 45–6.Google Scholar

3 Haldane, J. B. S., What is Life?, New York, 1947, p. v.Google Scholar

4 Huxley, J.S., Evolution: the Modern Synthesis, Oxford, 1942, 7Google Scholar; Mayr, E. and Provine, W. B., The Evolutionary Synthesis, Cambridge, MA, 1982, 89.Google Scholar

5 Haldane, J. B. S., The Causes of Evolution, Princeton, 1990.Google Scholar

6 Provine, W. P., Sewall Wright and Evolutionary Biology, Chicago, 1989, 283.Google Scholar

7 Heseltine, G. C., ‘Professor Haldane and evolution’, English Review (1932), 55, 1118Google Scholar; Haldane, , op. cit. (5), 2.Google Scholar

8 Lunn, A. H. and Haldane, J. B. S., Science and the Supernatural, New York, 1935, 111Google Scholar. Lunn repeated his complaint about the ‘fake quotation’ in The flight From Reason: A Criticism of the Dogmas of Popular Science, London, 1932, p. xxxivGoogle Scholar, where he also attacked Wells, H. G., Wells, G. P. and Huxley, J. S., The Science of Life, London, 19291930.Google Scholar

9 Driesch's 1907 Gifford Lectures in Aberdeen contained a section called ‘Darwinism fails all along the line’. Driesch, Hans, The Science and Philosophy of the Organism, London, 1908, 269.Google Scholar

10 Lunn, and Haldane, , op. cit. (8), 138.Google Scholar

11 Lunn, and Haldane, , op. cit. (8) 1.Google Scholar

12 Haldane, J. B. S., Possible Worlds, London, 1927, 27.Google Scholar

13 Richard England intelligently compared these two texts for us point by point. We are grateful to him and to David McGee for research assistance.

14 Brome, V., Six Studies in Quarrelling, London, 1958, 170–89.Google Scholar

15 Chesterton, G. K., The Thing, London, 1929.Google Scholar

16 Belloc, H., Mr. Belloc Still Objects to the Outline of History, London, 1926, 10.Google Scholar

17 Belloc, , op. cit. (16), 13.Google Scholar

18 Belloc, H., A Companion to Mr Wells's ‘Outline of History’, London, 1926, 11Google Scholar. We are grateful to Peter Bowler for saving us from the blunder of omitting this crucial part of the story.

19 The rhetorical strategies of all the contenders are worth much more study. The deathbed metaphor was doubtless a reply to atheists who were proclaiming the death of God and religion.

20 Belloc, H., ‘A few words with Mr. Wells’, Dublin Review (1920), 166, 182202Google Scholar; Belloc, H., ‘Mr. Wells' “Outline of History”’, London Mercury (1920), 3, 4362.Google Scholar

21 Maidane, J. S., ‘Biology and religion’, Nature (1924), 114, 468–71.Google Scholar

22 Livingstone, B.E., ‘The American Association at Toronto’, Nature (1922), 109, 285CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Bateson, W., ‘Evolutionary faith and modern doubts’, Nature (1922), 109, 553–6.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

23 Huxley, J. S., ‘Kentucky bans evolution’, The Nation & the Athenaeum (1922), 31, 68–9Google Scholar; Bateson, W., ‘The revolt against the teaching of evolution in the United States’, Nature (1923), 111, 313–14.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

24 Discussions in the popular press include Keith, A., ‘Is Darwinism at the dusk or the dawn?’, Nineteenth Century (1922), 92, 173–82Google Scholar; Robinson, J.H., ‘Is Darwinism dead?’, Harper's Magazine (1922), 145, 6874Google Scholar. Reports in the scientific press include ‘The present position of Darwinism’, Nature (1922), 110, 751–3Google Scholar; Willis, J. C., ‘The inadequacy of the theory of natural selection as an explanation of the facts of geographical distribution and evolution’, Report of the Proceedings of the BAAS, 1922, 399Google Scholar; Cunningham, J. T., ‘Origin of species and origin of adaptations’, Report of the Proceedings of the BAAS, 1922, 399400.Google Scholar

25 Keith, A., ‘Why I am a Darwinist’, RPA Annual (1922), 1114Google Scholar. As Peter Bowler rightly reminds us, Keith used the word Darwinism to mean evolution (see, for example, his introduction to the 1928 edition of Darwin's Origin for Everyman's Library).

26 Whyte, A. G., The Story of the R.P.A. 1899–1949, London, 1949.Google Scholar

27 Haldane, J. B. S., Daedalus or Science and the Future, London, 1923, 810, 90.Google Scholar

28 Minutes, , 26 11 1923Google Scholar, Cambridge Philosophical Society.

29 Sarkar, S., ‘A centenary reassessment of J. B. S. Haldane, 1892–1964’, BioScience (1992), 42, 779.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

30 Haldane, J. B. S., ‘A mathematical theory of natural and artificial selection. Part IV’, Proceedings of the Cambridge Philosophical Society (1927), 23, 607.CrossRefGoogle Scholar