Happy 265th Birthday

| 25 Comments

By Joe Felsenstein, http://www.gs.washington.edu/faculty/felsenstein.htm

265 years ago today was the birth of the first major evolutionary biologist. On 1 August 1744, in Bazentin-le-Petit, France, Jean Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet was born into the impoverished minor nobility.—Who?—He is best known by his title, the Chevalier de Lamarck.

He was the first major biologist to argue that organisms had evolved, the first to suggest a mechanism for the evolution of adaptations, and the first to draw an evolutionary tree that branched. He is also unfairly criticized by many biologists.

Two misconceptions:

  • He was not a pseudoscientist or a quack, but was the great figure of invertebrate biology (he coined the word “invertebrate” and the word “biology”).
  • He was not the originator or major advocate of inheritance of acquired characters (miscalled “Lamarckian inheritance”). He accepted it and used it in his mechanism, but he had nothing to do with its wide acceptance.

His mechanism for evolution turned out not to be right, but he does deserve the designation on his statue in the Jardin des Plantes; “Fondateur de la doctrine de l’Évolution”.

25 Comments

Joe Felsenstein Wrote:

He is also unfairly criticized by many biologists.

.

That’s especially unfair because we have an obligation to alert nonscientists of the huge difference between practicing scientists who didn’t have the luxury of today’s hindsight (and are not here to defend themselves), and today’s anti-science activists who refuse to develop their own theory, but devote all their efforts to mining data and quotes only to misrepresent the one we have.

In fact, great scientific contributors of the past were often wrong about some developing issue, about which they lacked the data we now have.

Virchow opposed germ theory. Golgi opposed the idea that the CNS was made up of cells. A number of famous biologists and biochemists resisted the idea that nucleic acids could be the genetic material, favoring the idea that it had to be protein.

It’s very valuable to look at these historic issues and note how they were resolved - invariably, with definitive experiments and/or observations.

Thanks for this. I like attempts to rehabilitate Lamarck’s image. One question, though, about Lamarck drawing a branching evolutionary tree. While it seems that Lamarck’s theory could be compatible branching, I didn’t think that he had explicitly worked it into his account. I thought he believed that new lineages were always arising spontaneously and that each evolved greater complexity on its own.

harold said:

Virchow opposed germ theory. Golgi opposed the idea that the CNS was made up of cells. A number of famous biologists and biochemists resisted the idea that nucleic acids could be the genetic material, favoring the idea that it had to be protein.

… Einstein opposed the idea of black holes …

Mike Z said:

Thanks for this. I like attempts to rehabilitate Lamarck’s image. One question, though, about Lamarck drawing a branching evolutionary tree. While it seems that Lamarck’s theory could be compatible branching, I didn’t think that he had explicitly worked it into his account. I thought he believed that new lineages were always arising spontaneously and that each evolved greater complexity on its own.

You are correct that he had a scheme that was more like a Great Chain of Being. For reasons that now seem mysterious to us, he felt that there was some sort of principle that had evolution going up the chain, even to the extent of re-evolving species that happened to go extinct. His mechanism of use and disuse worked, I think, to evolve sideways off the chain. Stephen Jay Gould has an essay on Lamarck’s acceptance of a large branch in his chain (“A Tree Grows in Paris” in his collection “The Lying Stones of Marrakech”).

Lamarck’s scheme seems kind of wierd to us now, but is related to the grand developmental sequence that people like the German Naturphilosophen believed in, in about the same era. However he did have a mechanism (use and disuse) to explain the evolution of adaptation, and he was genuinely evolutionary.

More info about Lamarck is good, but he wasn’t the first proponent of biological evolution, and we should also avoid giving the idea that Charles Darwin just revived his evolutionary ideas of transmutation, adding natural selection. The impression I currently have is that Darwinian common descent in a branching pattern was a significant novelty, while Lamarck and others including Geoffroy and Grant had this bizarre idea of continued spontaneous generation of new simple organisms which evolved in parallel, so that we were more evolved than apes but not descended from them. While Lamarck did allow some branching, that seems to have been just a minor refinement of his main idea of parallel development.

We should also praise Lamarck for his very significant work on invertebrates, which had considerable influence even among those who rejected transmutation.

dave souza said:

The impression I currently have is that Darwinian common descent in a branching pattern was a significant novelty, while Lamarck and others including Geoffroy and Grant had this bizarre idea of continued spontaneous generation of new simple organisms which evolved in parallel,

Still when one looks at his figure from 1809 it would seem that the idea of a branching and bifurcating radiation was at the least inspired by Lamarck and not entirely original from Darwin.

http://pubpages.unh.edu/~jel/images[…]27s_Tree.jpg

To us non-biologists, he is perhaps best known from his appearance in classic cinema :

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QGAgu6zI9v0

For those looking for round-number anniversaries to celebrate for important historical figures in evolutionary biology, if 265 is not round enough a figure, we have coming up on December 18 the 180th anniversary of Lamarck’s death.

He was the first major biologist to argue that organisms had evolved.…

We understand the concept of evolution through the eyes of Darwin and his converts. It was Darwin’s vision of evolution that science accepted. Lamarck postulated a ladder concept, quite different from branching tree. In addition: Lamarck relied upon spontaneous generation to keep the “evolutionary” process going. David Clifford, Ph.D., tells us what this means—exactly:

http://victorian.lang.nagoya-u.ac.j[…]amarck1.html

“In 1809 he published his most famous work, Philosophie Zoologique. This volume describes his theory of transmutation. The theory that Lamarck published consisted of several components. Underlying the whole was a ‘tendency to progression’, a principle that Creation is in a constant state of advancement. It was an innate quality of nature that organisms constantly ‘improved’ by successive generation, too slowly to be perceived but observable in the fossil record. Mankind sat at the top of this chain of progression, having passed through all the previous stages in prehistory. However, this necessitated the principle of spontaneous generation, for as a species transformed into a more advanced one, it left a gap: when the simple, single-celled organisms advanced to the next stage of life, new protozoans would be created (by the Creator) to fill their place.”

Lamarck’s “evolution” included Divine interdiction. Quote marks justified. Any theory that includes Divine power operating in reality, in any respect, is Creationism.

Some years ago I read Lamarck just to see what he said, expecting it to be simplistic and bad, and I was surprised to find myself thinking he’d done a pretty decent job considering what was known at the time. The man was thinking. He was wrong about a lot, but who at that time wasn’t?

Ray Martinez said:

Lamarck postulated a ladder concept, quite different from branching tree.

No, as Gould and Lamarck’s own diagrams make clear, it could occasionally branch in major ways, and smaller sideways branches off the main stems were very common.

(Martinez citing David Clifford at the Victorian Web site) “Underlying the whole was a ‘tendency to progression’, a principle that Creation is in a constant state of advancement. It was an innate quality of nature that organisms constantly ‘improved’ by successive generation, too slowly to be perceived but observable in the fossil record.”

Lamarck’s “evolution” included Divine interdiction. Quote marks justified. Any theory that includes Divine power operating in reality, in any respect, is Creationism.

Lamarck felt that his theory was fully materialist. He felt that the principle of “tendency to progression” was a natural law. He certainly did not invoke any other kinds of interventions by any supernatural power. The fact that this strikes us as mystical is because we cannot see a mechanism for these forces. Lamarck felt that they would be accepted as natural phenomena. Grand patterns like these were very common in the works of the Naturphilosophen and continued throughout the 1800s in theories such as orthogenesis.

Ray Martinez said:

Lamarck’s “evolution” included Divine interdiction. Quote marks justified. Any theory that includes Divine power operating in reality, in any respect, is Creationism.

Even if it did (which I doubt, knowing the creationists’ quote-mining fetish), so what? He worked with what he had, and he was wrong about a lot of things.

Reading around, I encountered a fine post by John Wilkins on the historian of science Polly Winsor’s conclusions about Lamarck and Darwin. It tends to work against my conclusions (and Stephen Jay Gould’s too, I guess) that Lamarck should be regarded as having made a genealogical evolutionary tree. You will find it here.

QrazyQat said:

Some years ago I read Lamarck just to see what he said, expecting it to be simplistic and bad, and I was surprised to find myself thinking he’d done a pretty decent job considering what was known at the time. The man was thinking. He was wrong about a lot, but who at that time wasn’t?

It’s equally true that we’re wrong and ignorant about a lot today. We just don’t know which pieces are wrong!

“One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike – and yet it is the most precious thing we have.”

— Albert Einstein

Ray Martinez said -

Any theory that includes Divine power operating in reality, in any respect, is Creationism.

If this were true, you would have no problem with the theory of evolution.

As we all know, Ken Miller, Francis Collins, the Pope, the Dali Lama, etc, etc, etc, all accept the theory of evolution as the explanation of life on earth, but also believe in “Divine power operating in reality, in any respect”.

However, as we also all know, the term Creationism does not include such people, who accept scientific reality but also maintain some sort of religious belief.

The usual (somewhat clumsy) term for that combination of beliefs is “theistic evolution”.

Now, if you want to accept scientific reality and acknowledge the religious faith of others who do, I strongly applaud that, but let’s not lie about what “creationism” means.

This is completely off-topic, but I’m putting in a shameless plug for the Sensuous Curmudgeon’s blog article, The Ten Laws of Creationism. Its hilarious. The only real question I’m left with is literary: is it Poe or Swift?

Oh no! My humble blog is getting hits from Panda’s Thumb.

An essay commemorating the 200 anniversary of Philosphie Zoologique by Lamarck was published in Nature (Graur et al. 2009. In retrospect: Lamarck’s treatise at 200. Nature 460:688-689).

Dan Graur said:

An essay commemorating the 200 anniversary of Philosphie Zoologique by Lamarck was published in Nature (Graur et al. 2009. In retrospect: Lamarck’s treatise at 200. Nature 460:688-689).

Thanks, that is an interesting article. It leaves me with some unanswered questions, probably because of length constraints. However, I can ask you as you are the senior author!

Two issues: how unequivocal is it that Lamarck had an evolutionary tree, as opposed to a common track along which different species evolved? I am thinking of the issues raised by Polly Winsor, which were mentioned in the post by John Wilkins which I referenced in my previous post here.

Second, I was tantalized by the reference to the mistranslation of “besoin”. So does Lamarck, or doesn’t Lamarck, allow organisms to change by effects of use and disuse of organs? In your note I could see what he didn’t say, but not what he did say.

Joe Felsenstein said:

Ray Martinez said:

Lamarck postulated a ladder concept, quite different from branching tree.

No, as Gould and Lamarck’s own diagrams make clear, it could occasionally branch in major ways, and smaller sideways branches off the main stems were very common.

Lamarck’s view was predominantly ladder and not branching. You are misapplying the exception to be the norm.

Read Peter J. Bowler and Iwan Ryhs Morus in the “Making Of Modern Science” (2005)

http://www.press.uchicago.edu/press[…]ookkey=40779

Lamarckian “evolution” had no correspondence to Darwinian evolution—-whatsoever.

Dr. Felsenstein:

“Lamarck felt that his theory was fully materialist. He felt that the principle of ‘tendency to progression’ was a natural law. He certainly did not invoke any other kinds of interventions by any supernatural power.”

http://victorian.lang.nagoya-u.ac.j[…]amarck1.html

David Clifford, Ph.D. [describing Lamarck’s “evolution”]

“However, this necessitated the principle of spontaneous generation, for as a species transformed into a more advanced one, it left a gap: when the simple, single-celled organisms advanced to the next stage of life, new protozoans would be created (by the Creator) to fill their place.”

AGAIN, Lamarckian “evolution” INCLUDED Divine intervention. We call any theory that includes Divine intervention, Creationism.

Dr. Felsenstein: you ignored the main point of my previous post—this is why I had to repeat that point. You should not stray outside your area of expertise (genetics) and into historical matters.

[SNIP.…]

fnxtr said:

Ray Martinez said:

Lamarck’s “evolution” included Divine interdiction. Quote marks justified. Any theory that includes Divine power operating in reality, in any respect, is Creationism.

Even if it did (which I doubt, knowing the creationists’ quote-mining fetish), so what? He worked with what he had, and he was wrong about a lot of things.

I posted the link, which contained the full (short) essay by David Clifford, Ph.D.

And no one disputes your conclusions. The point is that Dr. Felsenstein is wrong: Lamarck did not propose or advocate “evolution” as we understand the term and concept since Darwin 1859.

Lamarck’s views (and I confess to knowing very little about them) are important for the history of biological thought. However, ought one to credit the *idea* of evolution (and even natural selection) to Empedocles? (Who failed to compile sufficient evidence in its favour, of course, nor deal with other aspects of “consilience” learned in the intervening 2300 years.)

QrazyQat said: [Lamarck] was thinking. He was wrong about a lot, but who at that time wasn’t?

Well said. That’s one point that’s sometimes difficult to get across to the masses who’ve been shouted at by religious folk and have bought into filmic caricatures of white-coated scientists. They don’t appreciate how science is generally solid in its core theories but will always necessarily be tentative at its leading edges as evidence is gathered and arguments resolved. Lamarck was at the leading edge of evolution and entitled to be wrong, but neo-Darwinian theories are now core to biology.

Lamarck got stuff wrong. But he was trying to be right.

Creationists also get stuff wrong. But they are trying to be more wrong.

Ray Martinez said:

fnxtr said:

Ray Martinez said:

Lamarck’s “evolution” included Divine interdiction. Quote marks justified. Any theory that includes Divine power operating in reality, in any respect, is Creationism.

Even if it did (which I doubt, knowing the creationists’ quote-mining fetish), so what? He worked with what he had, and he was wrong about a lot of things.

I posted the link, which contained the full (short) essay by David Clifford, Ph.D.

And no one disputes your conclusions. The point is that Dr. Felsenstein is wrong: Lamarck did not propose or advocate “evolution” as we understand the term and concept since Darwin 1859.

Of course, by that standard, Galileo (or Newton) was not a pioneer in physical theory of motion, “as we understand the concept since Einstein 1905”. Which may be literally true but is utterly irrelevant to any discussion of the history of physics.

Lamarck rejected fixity of species and proposed a mechanism for evolutionary change. He also proposed that species were “related” but the issue here is whether by that he meant genealogical relationship or having evolved along a common track. See Adrian Desmond’s wonderful book “The Politics of Evolution” for a treatment of the great effect Lamarck had on public discourse about evolution in the mid-1800s.

Dr. Felsenstein: you ignored the main point of my previous post—this is why I had to repeat that point. You should not stray outside your area of expertise (genetics) and into historical matters.

Oh, so you are a professional historian of science?

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