Sunday, September 9, 2007

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829)

Sierra Club


The thesis that the living creatures have always been composed of different species was established in a time where no sufficient observations had been made and when science hardly existed. This thesis is denied every day by those who have made accurate observations, who have long time observed nature and who have had the benefit from studying our musei's large and rich collections.


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Jean-Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, Chevalier de Lamarck (1744-1829) was not only a major 19th century biologist: he coined the very term "biology". Lamarck developed a now discredited theory of evolution. While the ideas involved were not Lamarck's own, he has come to personify pre-Darwinian ideas on evolution. Born into poor nobility (hence 'chevalier'), Lamarck served in the army before becoming interested in natural history and writing a multi-volume flora of France. This caught the attention of Le Comte de Buffon who arranged for him to be appointed to the Musee d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris. After years working on plants, Lamarck was appointed curator of invertebrates -- another term he coined. He began a series of public lectures. Before 1800, he was an essentialist who believed species were unchanging. After working on the molluscs of the Paris Basin, he grew convinced that transmutation occurred over time. He set out to develop an explanation, which he outlined in his 1809 work, Philosophie Zoologique. His theory rested on two 'observations' which nearly all observers of his day accepted:

Use and disuse - Individuals lose characteristics they do not require and develop those which are useful. Inheritance of acquired traits - Individuals inherit the acquired traits of their ancestors. Examples include: the stretching by giraffes to reach leaves leads to offspring with longer necks; strengthening of muscles in a blacksmith's arm leads to sons with like muscular development. With this in mind, Lamarck developed two laws:

(1): "In every animal which has not passed the limit of its development, a more frequent and continuous use of any organ gradually strengthens, develops and enlarges that organ, and gives it a power proportional to the length of time it has been so used; while the permanent disuse of any organ imperceptibly weakens and deteriorates it, and progressively diminishes its functional capacity, until it finally disappears."

(2): "All the acquisitions or losses wrought by nature on individuals, through the influence of the environment in which their race has long been placed, and hence through the influence of the predominant use or permanent disuse of any organ; all these are preserved by reproduction to the new individuals which arise, provided that the acquired modifications are common to both sexes, or at least to the individuals which produce the young."

Thus, change in environment brings about change in "needs" (besoins), brings change in behavior, brings change in organ usage and development, brings change in form over time - and thus transmutation of a species. Lamarck saw spontaneous generation as being ongoing, with the simple organisms thus created being transmuted over time (by his mechanism) becoming more complex and closer to some notional idea of perfection. He thus believed in a teleological (goal-oriented) process where organisms became more perfect as they evolved.

Modern science should not villify Lamarck as it does. At least he believed in organic evolution. At the time there was no other theoretical framework to explain evolution. He also argued that function precedes form, an issue of some contention among evolutionary theorists at the time.

On the other hand, the inheritance of acquired characteristics is now widely refuted. August Weismann disproved the theory by cutting the tails off mice, demonstrating that the injury was not passed on to the offspring. Jews and other religious groups have been circumcising men for hundreds of generations with no noticible withering of the foreskin among their descendants. However Lamarck did not count injury or mutilation as a true acquired characteristic, only those which were initiated by the animal's own needs were deemed to be passed on.

Nowadays, the idea of inheriting characteristics that were acquired during an organism's lifetime is called Lamarckian, which has become almost synonomous with 'false'. The environment cannot cause hereditary changes, according to the current orthodox view. However, recent work by for example E. Jablonka and M.J. Lamb, seems to show there is some room for a sort of Lamarckian evolution, which goes by the name of epigenetic inheritance.

Charles Darwin praised Lamarck in the third edition of The Origin of Species for supporting the concept of evolution and bringing it to the attention of others. Indeed, Darwin accepted the idea of use and disuse, and developed his theory of pangenesis partially to explain its apparent occurrence. It was not Darwin who killed theories of the inheritance of acquired characteristics, but the discovery of cellular mechanisms of inheritance and genetics -- both ideas that Darwin acknowledged he required to complete his theory. [This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License and uses material adapted in whole or in part from the Wikipedia article on Jean-Baptiste Lamarck.]

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