La Marque de Lamarck

The sentences that 20th century history gave to Jean-Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, Chevalier de Lamarck, in its encyclopaedias and biographical dictionaries, resulted in his having gone down as being a pre-Darwinian naturalist and evolutionist who got it wrong. Furthermore, in books about evolution, if mentioned at all, he was vilified by neo-Darwinists throughout the century as someone who perverted the course of justice. For instance, in his 1995 book “River out of Eden”, Richard Dawkins described Lamarckian thinking as ‘deeply pernicious’. Lamarck was effectively incarcerated – held as a political prisoner without a proper trial – by the neo-Darwinian scientific Establishment.

However, a growing number of people in the 21st century, including behind-the-scenes scientists, acknowledge not only Lamarck’s historical importance and influence, but also that his views were probably right. My brief is to effect the retrial that could not only establish Lamarck’s enormous contribution to the history of science but also the prescience of his views, and hence his innocence. I believe Lamarck deserves not only to be liberated and pardoned but also to be considered as a 21st century icon for several reasons: 
1) his insistence on the importance of the environment in this age where the environment is all-important;
2) his assertion that our behaviour has greater consequences for future generations than generally believed;
3) his teaching which provides the only plausible bridge across the gulf that exists between the atheistic meaninglessness of neo-Darwinism and the anthropocentric romanticism of many religions.

So what was it that caused Lamarck to be locked away from public awareness for so long? What crime had he committed that warranted his being so ill-treated? In a nutshell, what did he do that was considered so wrong? I shall try to answer that by looking into his life and works.

Lamarck was born in 1744 into the minor nobility in a village in Northern France. As the eleventh child he was destined to go into the church and was thus sent to a Jesuit seminary. His father’s death enabled him to quit the seminary at 17 and fulfil his boyhood dream of joining the army. He distinguished himself during The Seven Years War with his bravery and tenacity, but a serious injury during a subsequent posting forced him to abandon a military career. By 1770 he had settled in Paris where he earned a living as a bank clerk. During this period, he became acquainted with the radical Swiss-born political philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), who is perhaps best remembered for inadvertently providing the slogan for the French Revolution – “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité”. Rousseau was at least partly responsible for Lamarck’s initial interest in botany which led him to the Jardin du Roi in Paris, the major centre of natural history collections in France. There, he came to the attention of the Museum’s director, Georges Buffon (1707-1788), who took Lamarck under his wing and undoubtedly had an enormous influence upon his future.

The celebrated Buffon had written a 44 volume “Histoire Naturelle”, published between 1749 and 1767. It was the most comprehensive and influential natural history book yet written. He was one of the most famous men in France, and undoubtedly an idiosyncratic and controversial maverick. He was extremely sceptical about the accepted Biblical creation story, and open-minded about the possibility of evolution. Whether or not he inculcated any belief in evolution in Lamarck, he would certainly have enabled the younger man to recognise alternatives to orthodox religious doctrine when looking at nature. Lamarck was a ripe subject for such an unorthodox outlook, being an unconventional man whose interest in biology extended to having six children by a woman whom he only married on her death bed, and then going on to have three more wives and two more children.

With Buffon’s assistance, Lamarck’s first book, “Flore Francoise” was published in 1779. He was also admitted to the French Academy – a distinguished body of scientists. He eventually secured a minor position as Assistant Botanist at the Jardin du Roi, where he spent most of his working life. One of his early duties, in 1781, was to accompany Buffon’s young son, nicknamed Buffonet, on his travels around Europe. This afforded Lamarck the opportunity to study foreign plants, though he apparently did not get on with Buffonet. Back at the Jardin du Roi, Lamarck expanded his passion for botany into many other scientific areas including zoology, chemistry, physics, geology and, most importantly, meteorology. That interest  would eventually lead to his emphasis on the environment as the chief cause of evolutionary change.

Before that personal revolution in his thinking became apparent, a more violent Revolution enveloped France. It seems that Lamarck was spared any personal suffering during the Revolution, and was indeed sympathetic to its aims, perhaps as a consequence of his admiration for Rousseau. It is worth noting that Buffonet was guillotined after the Revolution, though his father was spared that almost certain fate by dying naturally the year before it began. After the Revolution, in 1793, Lamarck became one of twelve Professors at the Jardin Du Roi, which had been renamed the Museum of Natural History. He was put in charge of all the simple, small animals with no backbone, for which he concocted the term ‘invertebrates’. During this time, he also coined the term ‘biology’ as the science of all living things. His main work was as a Taxonomist, classifying species into families and genera, and his approach was methodical and scientific. As Buffon had done, he saw natural progressive relationships between species, from simple to complex. However, no biologist, either then or in the 20th century, has criticised him for his work as a Taxonomist. It was about the only aspect of his work that was widely praised at the time, and largely ignored subsequently.

Philosophically, Lamarck had admired Rousseau, but became inclined to Sensationalism, which was the French equivalent of Empiricism. In other words, he believed in putting observation first and interpretation second. In religious terms, Lamarck believed that nature would be understandable on the basis of natural laws and that there was no need for recourse to an interfering God or Vitalism. He certainly believed in God, as the creator of the machinery that is the Universe, but not as an active agent, or ghost, in any of that machinery. It was from that standpoint that Lamarck would make his major contribution to the history of science.The Enlightenment and Revolution had brought about a sufficient liberalisation of thought at the start of the 19th century to allow Lamarck to develop, write and publish his masterpiece, “Philosophie Zoologique” in 1809 (the year of Charles Darwin’s birth). In it, he expounded his theory of transformism, which means mutability of species (or evolution, in modern terms). We do not know how long he had privately believed it, though it had been included in his lectures since 1800. Quite simply, it was the first comprehensive, rather than merely speculative or hypothetical, theory of the development of living organisms from simple origins.

What Lamarck maintained was that, over many generations, the environments in which any organisms existed had transformed them into different species. Over aeons of time, transformism had changed primitive life forms into complex species. Every complex plant and animal – these were the only two kingdoms known about then – had started off small and simple, gradually getting more complex over thousands of generations. Most evolutionary biologists would grudgingly applaud him for his bravery and foresight in advancing the idea of evolution as a process. Though it was the element of his work which caused most antagonism in his lifetime, it would be the cause of most praise today. It was not the evolution process, or even its implications for man’s place in nature, but the way in which he viewed evolution as occurring that caused later condemnation.

I have mentioned before that Lamarck attached great importance to the direct effects of the environment upon the changing organisms. In the broadest sense, the environment means everything that happens to an organism that originates from the outside world. It includes the temperature and weather conditions and fluctuations, diet, other organisms and species (with which it must co-operate or compete) within the same location, and the effects of electro-magnetic radiation and magnetic fields (though little was known about those in Lamarck’s time). Lamarck also attached much importance to the habitual behaviour patterns of higher animals in response to those environmental conditions. This became known as the issue of use and disuse, and was the subject of a general law of nature that he proposed:

That in every animal which has not passed its limit of development, the more frequent and sustained employment of any organ develops and aggrandises it, giving it a power proportionate to the duration of its employment, while the same organ in default of constant use becomes insensibly weakened and deteriorated, decreasing imperceptibly in power until it finally disappears.

In the simplest terms, that was the essence of Lamarck’s theory of evolution, although his book went to great lengths to explain and exemplify it in great detail. The two most important factors were the direct effects of the environment upon an organism and the habitual behaviour of an organism in response to its environment. The entire vast range of diverse species that exist today and have ever existed were created by those two factors. Simplistic? Yes. Incomplete? Yes. Wrong? No.

Evolutionists have always acknowledged the importance of the environment but, ever since Darwin, it has been seen as the backdrop against which evolution operates rather than the direct cause of evolution. Many evolutionists have also acknowledged the importance of the direct effects of the environment, especially upon plants, but only upon the life of the individual organism and not upon its evolution. Similarly, the effects of use and disuse are acknowledged to be significant upon the life of the individual organism but not to its evolution. As far as neo-Darwinists are concerned, the experiences and behaviours of individual organisms have no bearing upon evolution at all. This is where we really arrive at the heart of Lamarck’s alleged crime. His whole theory of evolution, as sketched in the previous paragraph, carries with it a necessary condition known as the inheritance of acquired characteristics. For any environmental or behavioural effects to cause permanent change in the development of a lineage (rather than just change an individual in its own lifetime) they have to be accumulative. That requires the inheritance of acquired characteristics, whereby every organism can build on the achievements of its ancestors.

Ironically, as it was what he would become famous for, Lamarck attached little importance to the inheritance of acquired characteristics; that was just an assumption. His emphasis was upon the acquisition of characteristics, which is not now seriously disputed in principle, rather than their inheritability, which is. It was an assumption which was made by every evolutionist until Darwin’s death. Even Darwin believed in Lamarckian inheritance, though he naturally chose to highlight his differing views. Neo-Darwinists have always chosen to overlook that fact. After Darwin’s death, his doctrine (though not his books) was censored in respect of Lamarckian inheritance, preparing the ground for a major battle with the anti-Darwinian Lamarckists. The most serious, heated and acrimonious split that occurred amongst evolutionists around the turn of the 20th century was over the issue of the inheritance of acquired characteristics.

It will be very evident by now which side is regarded as having won that battle. The grounds on which the neo-Darwinists claimed victory had little to do with empirical evidence; it was more to do with philosophy and politics. They claimed that Lamarckian inheritance was a theoretical impossibility. As scientific understanding increased rapidly from the late 19th century, it became clear that the essential material constituents of cells, now known as genes, could not be changed by experience during the lifetime of the individual. The big assumption that the neo-Darwinists were making, and still make, is that genes are solely responsible for inheritable characteristics. The reason for their making that assumption is that there is no other material factor that could transmit inheritance apart from genes. The key word in that sentence is ‘material’.

The prevalent philosophical paradigm under which almost all science has been conducted since time immemorial, and one that Lamarck himself subscribed to, is Scientific Materialism. Whether or not there is a God, whether or not there is an independent mind, the assumption under which science is conducted is that nothing interferes with matter in ways which make it behave other than in accord with universal laws. Our scientific studies here on earth have all been of matter and that which emanates from matter (radiation and magnetism), and that is all that is deemed to exist. That is why Lamarckism was dismissed and exiled. And that is why it became necessary for some of Lamarck’s supporters, including Samuel Butler and George Bernard Shaw, to resort to Vitalism in their battles with neo-Darwinism. Neo-Darwinists hated Lamarckists for being unscientific, and Lamarckists hated neo-Darwinists for being Materialists. Having won the case on a technicality, neo-Darwinists kept Lamarckism under lock and key because they knew how much appeal it had to the non-scientific public.

Socio-politically Darwinism has always suffered from the sheer heartlessness of its implications. With its emphasis on luck, survival and competition, it seems cruel and insensitive. It has been used to justify Capitalism, privilege and the exploitation of workers. In that sense, it acquired a rather right-wing association. From a human perspective, it makes people feel like helpless pawns, who are victims of their genes. Though neo-Darwinism does not in itself deny the existence of God, its message is so incompatible with there being any purpose or meaning to our existence that there simply is no room for God. The only point in (Darwinian) life is the perpetuation of pointless life.

By contrast, Lamarckism, with its emphasis on self-improvement had a more left wing flavour and appealed to Socialists. Indeed, in Stalin’s Russia, under the guidance of a political opportunist, Trofim Denisovich Lysenko, the inheritance of acquired characteristics became the official policy of Soviet science, much to the horror of Western scientists. That was another reason for Lamarckism falling into even greater disrepute. Whilst Darwinism rewards the lucky descendants of a lucky individual, Lamarckism rewards the efforts of all individuals in a way that could amount to the common good of the whole species. Lamarckism is responsive, harmonious and co-operative. Though Lamarckian inheritance by no means demonstrates the existence of any kind of God, it does leave the door open to a more religious interpretation of the evolution process. If Lamarckian inheritance was accepted by Western scientists, and by the West in general, it might make us seem less like infidels to many other countries. It might also allow people who feel alienated by science, because they feel there is a spiritual dimension to life, to become more accepting of science.

In the 21st century, a strong case can be made for saying that Lamarckian inheritance does occur, that it can be explained scientifically and that we are in no position to know how extensive its influence has been on the history of evolution. (See the essay, “Lamarckian Inheritance From Epigenetics”) To be a 21st century believer in Lamarckian inheritance, you do not need to believe in all of his teachings or that he gave the whole picture; you do not need to deny the importance of Natural Selection, either in its literal or its Darwinian meaning; you just need to believe that genes in themselves are not the sole determinants of inheritable characteristics and that, whatever other factors may be involved, at least one is accumulative in its effect. A whole new outlook follows.

Lamarck’s theory and books did not create much of a furore in his own lifetime. They probably only came to the attention of scientists and natural historians, amongst whom he had a few supporters and many opponents. One of his principal opponents was Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), who also worked at the Museum as an anatomist and fossil expert. Cuvier was undoubtedly the most powerful, influential and formidable figure in the field of biology at the time. He had achieved that status by ingratiating himself with his superiors, for which he was eventually made a Baron. He did not believe in the mutability of species and maintained that fossils were just species that had been destroyed in the Flood, or several floods. Napoleon had brought many mummified animals back to France from Egypt and they closely resembled their latter-day counterparts. Cuvier saw them as further evidence that species were fixed, and dismissed Lamarck’s views as speculative. Lamarck responded with the following passage, which also refutes the frequent criticism of Lamarckism that it means all species would be constantly changing:

The skeletons of some Egyptian birds, preserved two or three thousand years ago, differ in no particular from the same kind of creatures at the present day. But this is what we should expect, inasmuch as the position and climate of Egypt itself do not appear to have changed. If the conditions of life have not varied, why should the species subjected to those conditions have done so?

It is interesting to note that his view of species only evolving when conditions have changed can be seen to prefigure punctuated equilibrium theory.

However, Lamarck had a powerful ally in the Professor of Zoology at the Museum, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (1772-1844), who continued the battle of words with Cuvier long after Lamarck had been forced to retire, through blindness. He died over ten years later in 1829, in poverty and despair, at the age of 85. After his death, that pillar of the scientific establishment, Cuvier, produced a famous, damning ‘eulogy’, as a warning to anyone who sought to follow in Lamarck’s footsteps. Cuvier’s warning was unsuccessful, just as the damnation of the 20th century’s scientific establishment will prove to be. (For more information on Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and Cuvier, see the essay on “Elizabeth Gaskell”)

If you want to see the passages in “Lamarck’s Due, Darwin’s Luck”, from which the above was adapted, see here.