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In Retrospect: Lamarck's treatise at 200

Fifty years before On the Origin of Species, a confusing, tiresome and prescient book laid the foundations of modern evolutionary theory, write Dan Graur, Manolo Gouy and David Wool.

Philosophie Zoologique (Zoological Philosophy)

  • Jean Baptiste Lamarck
First published by the author: 1809. Vol. I 428 pp; Vol. II 475 pp. Translated by Hugh Elliot (Macmillan: 1914). Vol. I translated by Ian Johnston: 1999 ( )

On 14 August 1809, Jean Baptiste Lamarck presented the two volumes of his most important book, Philosophie Zoologique, to France's Institut National des Sciences et Arts. Twenty years later, he died penniless, blind and scorned, surrounded by hundreds of unsold copies of his book. He was buried in a rented plot, exhumed and 'dispersed' five years later. Today, someone else occupies the grave of the man who founded the field of invertebrate zoology, coined the word biology and proposed the first scientific theory of evolution. His Philosophie Zoologique hasn't fared much better. It was mocked, ignored, belittled and purposely misunderstood for many years, remaining untranslated into English for 105 years. It took just 77 years, by contrast, to translate Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species into Ukrainian.

Ambiguous translation may have added to misconceptions about Jean Baptiste Lamarck's evolutionary opus (below). Credit: C. THEVENIN (1802–03)/PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIDGEMAN ART LIBRARY

But within the maddening, confusing and repetitive pages of Lamarck's exposition lurk concepts that are central to modern evolutionary thought. Stated in contemporary terminology, they include the ideas that species change through evolutionary time; that evolutionary change is slow and imperceptible; that evolution occurs through adaptation to the environment; that it generally progresses from the simple to the complex, although in a few cases it proceeds in reverse; and that species are related to one another by common descent. Furthermore, Lamarck incorporated into his theory the fact that the world is old, and proposed that the evolutionary process started with abiogenesis — the origin of life from inanimate matter.


So how and why has Lamarckism become a shorthand for foolishness? Lamarck's scientific reputation became tarnished soon after his death. In the 1830s, Georges Cuvier, Lamarck's fiercest opponent, published a 'eulogy' in French and English describing Lamarck's system as something that “cannot for a moment bear the scrutiny of anyone who has dissected a hand, a viscus [visceral organ], or even a feather”. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Darwin perpetuated the claim that his theory owed nothing to Lamarck's “nonsense”. Later, Lamarck's name was damaged further by its association with Trofim Lysenko's quack genetics in the Stalinist Soviet Union. Recently, Lamarck has been invoked once more, again wrongly in our view, in the field of epigenetics — the study of phenotypic and gene-expression changes that occur without a change in the genetic material.

Lamarck did have a few fans. One was the great geologist and Darwin's friend Charles Lyell, who in his youth “devoured Lamarck” and late in life admitted having been unjust towards the French naturalist. Lyell felt that Darwin merely modified Lamarck's theory of evolution to coin his own, an attribution that greatly upset Darwin: “You often allude to Lamarck's work ... it appeared to me extremely poor. I got not a fact or idea from it.”

Another notable champion of Lamarck was the German biologist Ernst Haeckel. He recognized the injustice in attributing all aspects of evolutionary theory to Darwin, and in 1902 suggested: “The portion of the Theory of Evolution (Entwickelungstheorie), which maintains the common descent of all species of animals and plants from the simplest common original forms might ... with full justice, be called Lamarckism. On the other hand, the Theory of Selection, or Breeding, might justly be called Darwinism.”

Recognition of Lamarck's contribution is hindered by two persistent misconceptions. First, people wrongly assume that he believed in the direct induction of advantageous hereditary changes by the environment. Yet he writes repeatedly against this notion: “For, whatever the environment may do, it does not work any direct modification whatever in the shape and organization of animals.” The second misconception concerns volition. A popular caricature of Lamarckism depicts an animal, usually a giraffe, wishing to reach the upper branches of trees, and acquiring a long neck through will alone. This error may have originated from the mistranslation of the French 'besoin' — meaning 'need' — into the ambiguous term 'want', which can mean both 'desire' and 'need'. This poor choice by the 1914 translator was probably influenced by Cuvier's use of the word “désir” in his damning eulogy.

Of course, Lamarck did err. He believed in the inheritance of acquired characters (as did Darwin); adhered to the principle of plentitude — according to which any conceivable organism that can exist does exist; violently opposed Antoine Lavoisier and modern chemistry; and believed that science has a deistic purpose — similar to the accommodationism of modern biologists such as Ken Miller and Francis Collins. In fact, the amount of scientific rubbish that Lamarck put on paper certainly exceeds the quantity of good science in his scientific oeuvre. In this respect, he is no different from Aristotle, Isaac Newton, Darwin, Albert Einstein, Fred Hoyle or Francis Crick. But by writing about evolution directly rather than en passant (as did dozens of philosophers from Empedocles to Count Buffon), and by tackling the subject of evolution in scientific rather than poetical terms (as did Erasmus Darwin), Lamarck is without doubt the father of evolutionary theory.

In this year bracketed by two celebrations of Darwin — the 200th anniversary of his birth on 12 February and the sesquicentennial of the publication of his masterpiece on 24 November — let us pause on 14 August to ponder the man whose biological insight preceded On the Origin of Species by 50 years.

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Graur, D., Gouy, M. & Wool, D. In Retrospect: Lamarck's treatise at 200. Nature 460, 688–689 (2009).

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