What did Lamarck and Darwin really say?

Historically and conceptually, modern Genetics and modern Evolutionary Theory are closely intertwined. Mendel and Darwin both published their masterpieces in the mid-1800s and both were promptly misunderstood and discounted for half a century. Both theories required several more “kicks at the can” before final acceptance. Put simply: the Theory of Evolution itself evolved in response to an emerging understanding of Genetics.

Some quick questions:

Question: Name the scientist that first suggested “the effects of use and disuse” were passed from one generation to the next?

Answer: Charles Darwin and NOT Jean-Baptiste Lamarck who actually had a somewhat different theory.

Question: Name the scientist who first to employed the term evolve/evolution while also suggesting human beings had “evolved” from apes?

Answer: That would be Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. (Lamarck in fact invented the word “evolution”, a word which never appeared in Darwin’s Book “Origin of the Species”).

Question: Why had scientists at the turn of the previous century (including Julian Huxley) concede the “eclipse of Darwinism” as a failed theory, requiring a later resurrection under the rubric of “Neo-Darwinism” by August Weismann? (more to come)

Answer: Charles Fleeming Jenkin (inventor of the cable-car) “conclusively” contradicted Darwin with a decidedly racist rebuttal premised on a misunderstanding of how genetics operates. Jenkin’s rebuttal was so outrageously racist, that modern politically-correct textbooks refrain from even whispering a mention of that nasty exchange. Such omissions constitute a terrible mistake! The citation of one particular instance of racism and how it lead to incorrect conclusions slowing down the progress of science (no differently than Nazism, as another example) should be highlighted in class, not ignored!

Question: So how was it Mendel could see what Jenkin and others could not?

Answer: Because Mendel was a great researcher but a terrible teacher. Because Mendel could not find a job as a teacher or as a professor, Mendel needed to resort to “Plan B” and ended up side-lined as a celibate monk. Mendel’s perspective of sex “from the outside” may have permitted the insights that inspired his experiments

Darwin subscribed to a “blending theory” of inheritance by mistakenly believing in the inheritance of acquired characteristics including the “effects of use and disuse” That is correct; Darwin’s theory of genetics, called “Pangenesis”, is no different than what textbooks today would call “Lamarckism”. Darwin shared Lamarck’s belief that reproductive tissue somehow responded directly to environmental stimuli in order to generate adaptive changes in the next generation.
http://www.literature.org/authors/darwin-charles/the-origin-of-species/chapter-05.html

Historical irony is compounded further, upon consideration that Gregor Mendel, a (frustrated and perhaps sexually preoccupied?) celibate Catholic clergyman clearly recognized that sexual reproduction necessarily contradicted “blending inheritance”. Consider the offspring of any couple; individuals of the next generation are decidedly masculine or feminine and not intermediate. (Please – No gratuitous Michael Jackson jokes! – Let the poor man rest in peace…). Accordingly, we are supposed to believe that Mendel’ new laws should have been able to rescue Darwin’s theory, had Darwin only known.

True, Mendel’s cerebral work was theoretical and his convoluted purple prose almost incomprehensible. But, there was little chance that Mendel’s principles, predicated on the peculiarities of pea plants would have ever been acknowledged “Scientific Law” at the time. Animal genetics (human genetics in particular) appeared to follow a different and non-particulate; in other words, decidedly non-Mendelian model. The offspring of African and European parents present a “mixed-race”, i.e. apparently “blended” phenotype. Henry Charles Fleeming Jenkin (inventor of the cable-car) “conclusively” contradicted Darwin with a decidedly racist rebuttal – so egregiously racist in fact, that modern textbooks refrain from even whispering a mention of that nasty exchange. Darwin had already conceded that “blending inheritance” contradicted Natural Selection but was unable to resolve the discrepancy.

In correspondence with Wallace, Darwin himself appreciated that a correct and proper appreciation of genetics was required to rebut Fleeming Jenkin. Fleeming Jenkin rebuttal was premised on “Blending inheritance” which presumed that the mechanics of inheritance was the mixing of fluids from both the mother and the father.

… Suppose a white man to have been wrecked on an island inhabited by negroes…. Our shipwrecked hero would probably become king; he would kill a great many blacks in the struggle for existence; he would have a great many wives and children, while many of his subjects would live and die as bachelors…. Our white’s qualities would certainly tend very much to preserve him to good old age, and yet he would not suffice in any number of generations to turn his subjects’ descendants white…. In the first generation there will be some dozens of intelligent young mulattoes, much superior in average intelligence to the negroes. We might expect the throne for some generations to be occupied by a more or less yellow king; but can anyone believe that the whole island will gradually acquire a white, or even a yellow population …?
Here is a case in which a variety was introduced, with far greater advantages than any sport every heard of, advantages tending to its preservation, and yet powerless to perpetuate the new variety.
– North British Review, June 1867, 46:277-318.

Darwin said that this objection gave him more trouble than any other. “Blending inheritance” indeed contradicts Natural Selection obliging Darwin to propose his alternative model of “particulate inheritance”. Darwin suggested a hypothesis called Pangenesis, in which parts of the body emitted “gemmules” that accumulated via the circulatory system in the gonads. Heredity has something to do with “bloodlines”.

Francis Galton the great Victorian polymath (and Darwin’s cousin) experimented with different lines of rabbits and determined that blood transfusions did not change their inheritance. http://galton.org/hereditarian.html

Of course, not all organisms have circulatory systems, so Darwin invoked other means of transport were also possible such as simple diffusion, but clearly his theory was in trouble.

Modification of inherited characters as selected by natural selection would then require modification these gemmules. How were these gemmules to be modified? Darwin proposed that parental response to the environment impacted gemmules which were then passed on to the next generation. This is starting to sound a lot like what modern textbooks incorrectly call Lamarckism.

To make matters even worse, the great Lord Kelvin (in whose great honor a brand new temperature scale had been named) toppled the other pillar of Evolutionary Theory; namely “geological time”. Shortly after Darwin’s publication, Lord Kelvin calculated the age of Earth to be a mere 20 million to 400 million years. Our planet at some point was a molten sphere, which means it must still be relatively early in its process of cooling. Kelvin’s calculations were indeed precise, but grossly inaccurate; as they failed to account for the heat generated by radioactive decay.

The inexorable accumulation of stable and heritable variability constituted one half of Darwin’s great Theory. Natural Selection constituted the other. Darwin and his supporters knew Evolutionary Theory just had to be true. If Victorian English farmers can produce novel breeds of pigeons or dogs; then, Natural Selection can produce new species! The devil was in the details, requiring resolution by pursuing further scientific inquiry. The millstones of scientific progress sometimes grind slowly. Another fifty years were required before neo-Darwinism rose again like a phoenix.

The specious Darwin vs. Lamarck dichotomy so often misrepresented in current textbooks is really a vestige of a much later Neo-Darwinism vs. Neo-Lamarckism debate that actually occurred latter in the 20th Century. Several historians, including Stephen Jay Gould, have contended that modern textbooks unjustly deal Lamarck a bad rap. Not only did Jean-Baptiste Lamarck coin the new verb “evolve”; Lamarck was also the first naturalist brave enough to publicly conjecture that human beings had evolved from apes (Philosophie zoologique, 1809)

Lamarck believed that a change in an animal’s habits eventually resulted in a change of heritable of characteristics; a response acquired through “effort” or “will”. (Remember those hungry giraffes stretching their necks.) Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (a colleague of Lamarck) took his line of reasoning one step further: Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire suggested heritable changes could also include more direct responses to the environment such as the inheritance of characteristics through use or disuse. At this point, vocabulary becomes confusing enough to require a flow chart: “Geoffroyism” and “Lamarckism” have both been subsumed into the compass of what Ernst Mayer would later call “soft inheritance”. Regrettably, various versions of “soft inheritance”, with all their disparate nuances and subtleties (including a conditional embrace of “Natural Selection”) have since been incorrectly labeled as “Lamarckism” (more on that later).

Darwin’s original “Pangenesis” in many ways resembles Lamarck’s (and Geoffroy’s) version of events. Darwin took for granted the now discredited idea of the “effects of use and disuse”. Darwin however did part paths with Lamarck on one key point: Lamarck embraced metaphysics, by imagining evolution to be a goal-driven process or “teleological”. Another name for this misconception textbooks often identify as “Lamarckism” often has another name: i.e. “Orthogenesis”, a version of events espoused by many 19th Century Naturalists such as the celebrated Ernst Haeckel of “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” fame.

Darwin on the other hand correctly recognized the capricious randomness of the natural order. Darwin recognized that Evolution does not correspond to some specious “vector of progress”, otherwise known as the “Scala Naturae” as espoused by Lamarck, Haeckel and many other Naturalists even as recently as Teilhard de Chardin in the 1950s.

67 thoughts on “What did Lamarck and Darwin really say?

  1. TomMueller: I always conceded Lamarck was excessively metaphysical in his Weltbild.

    Fine, but that has nothing to do with anything I’m talking about.

  2. John Harshman: Then I don’t think you have understood what the problem is.

    Funny you should mention that… What a coincidence. I was thinking exactly the same of you.

    John Harshman: It’s not a belief in spontaneous generation. It’s that frequent spontaneous generation is necessary to reconcile a) deep time, b) Lamarck’s drive toward perfection, and c) the current existence of “simple” organisms. That is, the simple organisms of the past have become the complex organisms of today and so can’t be ancestral to the simple organisms of today.

    I think you need to reread Gould on Lamarck. You seem to forget that Lamarck radically modified his original thesis.

    Lamarck’s invocation of some inexorable drive to so-called “drive toward perfection” … well that is not accurate, but leave it be for now… has become subordinated (in Lamarck’s revised thesis) to a greater over-riding cause. i.e. immediate singularities of environments and histories. Simply put, the potential or possibility for change does not always need to translate into the necessity of change, even over deep time. That would be the quick and easy version of a longer answer.

    Check out

    http://www.stephenjaygould.org/ctrl/archive/stephen_jay_gould/gould_division-worms2.html

    John Harshman:Also, whether the problem was unique to Lamarck is irrelevant to anything we’re discussing here, which is to what degree Lamarck’s views were similar to Darwin’s.

    Lamarck proposed that Life’s diversity took on its current form through natural processes, not through miraculous interventions. Do we at least agree on that? Did you notice my most recent posts to Joe Felsenstein above?

    John Harshman:I think you’re making up in your head what I’m trying to say rather than reading carefully.

    What a coincidence. Again, funny you should mention that. I was thinking exactly the same of you, given persistent precedent.

  3. John Harshman: Fine, but that has nothing to do with anything I’m talking about.

    Noooo…. but it was what I was just talking about, namely subtle nuances of translation that when corrected still did not change the original thrust of mine (& Gould’s) thesis.

    Thanks for publically conceding that point BTW, that Lamarck had indeed revised his thesis, I mean.

  4. John Harshman: That is, the simple organisms of the past have become the complex organisms of today and so can’t be ancestral to the simple organisms of today

    If we are descended from pond scum, why is there still pond scum?

    I can see this is a problem for anyone who believes in some inner drive toward complexity.

  5. petrushka: If we are descended from pond scum, why is there still pond scum?

    I can see this is a problem for anyone who believes in some inner drive toward complexity.

    I think Lamarck was astute enough to recognize this potential problem as well. That would explain his 1820 epiphany as so eloquently described by Gould.

    http://www.stephenjaygould.org/ctrl/archive/stephen_jay_gould/gould_division-worms2.html

    Of course, Darwin did not share this dilemma for the very reason he had discarded the metaphysics that Lamarck still embraced… bringing me back to what I was saying earlier…

  6. petrushka: If we are descended from pond scum, why is there still pond scum?

    I can see this is a problem for anyone who believes in some inner drive toward complexity.

    Good. Can you see it as a problem for Lamarck?

  7. TomMueller: Of course, Darwin did not share this dilemma for the very reason he had discarded the metaphysics that Lamarck still embraced… bringing me back to what I was saying earlier…

    If Lamarck still embraced that metaphysics in 1820, then how did his epiphany reconcile his contradictory claims?

    Lamarck proposed that Life’s diversity took on its current form through natural processes, not through miraculous interventions. Do we at least agree on that?

    This has, as far as I know, never been in contention.

    Simply put, the potential or possibility for change does not always need to translate into the necessity of change, even over deep time.

    Can you find support for that, notably as an explanation for the continued existence of simple organisms?

  8. TomMueller: John Harshman: Then I don’t think you have understood what the problem is.

    Funny you should mention that… What a coincidence. I was thinking exactly the same of you.

    If you understood me, I am at a loss to determine what you think Pasteur had to do with it, and why it was a problem for every naturalist up to that time. Can you explain?

  9. Joe Felsenstein: Walto, I have not looked at Lamarck’s 1815 or 1820 publications, but I have looked over Philosophie Zoologique of 1809. I did not ever see anything about natiural selection in it. (People can read it online here).

    Can you provide an example of where Lamarck’s work shows that he argued for natural selection as an evolutionary mechanism.

    Hi, Joe. I’ll try to do that when I get back to the states. As indicated though, I’ve gotten most of my Lamarck via Butler, and the latter may have put his own spin on the former. Butler noted a bunch of apparent weaseling on the subject of the inheritance of acquired characteristics in various editions of Darwin’s works, remarks which were assiduously ignored by Darwin and his posse. Of course. This could be easily done because Butler was a renowned quack/crank.

  10. walto: I found a description of Samuel Butler’s book critiquing Darwin’s work at the Victorian Web pages for Samuel Butler. They describe his book as concluding that there was nothing new in Darwin’s theory that was not already in Lamarck.

    This was the axe Butler chose to grind. So I would be suspicious of his bias toward seeing natural selection where it is not. Let us know what you find in Lamarck.

  11. Joe, most of what Butler says about this is in his Evolution Old and New, which I’m pretty sure is available for free download somewhere on the web.

    Without slogging through the whole book again, which is mostly about the failure by Darwin other Butler contemporaries to appropriately credit Buffon and Erasmus Darwin, he seems to focus on a few pages in Phil. Zool. for his view that Lamarck relied on natural selection (something that Butler thinks Lamarck picked up from Buffon):

    Let us conclude by showing the means employed by nature to prevent the number of her creatures from injuring the conservation of what has been produced already, and of the general order which should subsist….In consequence of the extremely rapid rate of increase of the smaller, and especially of the most imperfect animals, their numbers would become so great as to prove injurious to the conservation of breeds, and to the progress already made towards more perfect organization, unless nature had taken precautions to keep them down with certain fixed limits which she cannot exceed….

    Animals, except those which are herbivorous, prey upon one another; and the herbivorous are exposed to the attacks of the flesh-eating races….The strongest and best armed for attack eat the weaker, and the greater kinds eat the smaller. Individuals of the same race rarely eat one another; they war only with other races than their own….The smaller kinds of animals breed so numerously and so rapidly that they would people the globe to the exclusion of other forms of life, if nature had not limited their inconceivable multitude. As however, they are the prey of a number of other creatures, live but a short time, and perish easily with cold, they are kept always within the proportions necessary for the maintenance both of their own and of other races….As regards the larger and stronger animals, they would become dominant, and be injurious to the conservation of may other races, if they could multiply in too great numbers. But as it is, they devour one another, and breed but slowly, and few at a birth, so that equilibrium is duly preserved among them. Man alone is the unquestionably dominant animal, but men war among themselves, so that it may be safely said the world will never be peopled to its utmost capacity. [p. 111-113]

    From passages such as these, Butler concludes,

    This seems to contain, and in a nutshell, as much of the essence of what Mr. Herbert Spencer and Mr. Charles Darwin have termed the survival of the fittest in the struggle for existence, as was necessary for Lamarck’s purpose. To Lamarck, as to Dr. Darwin and Buffon, it was perfectly clear that the facts, that animals have to find their food under varying circumstances, and that they must defend themselves in all manner of varying ways against other creatures which would eat them if they could, were simply some of the conditions of their existence. In saying that the surrounding circumstances–which amount to the conditions of existence–determined the direction in which any plant or animal should be slowly modified, Lamarck includes as a matter of course the fact that the “stronger and better armed should eat the weaker,” and thus survive and bear offspring which would inherit the strength and better armour of its parents. Nothing therefore can be more at variance with the truth than to represent Lamarck and the other early evolutionists as ignoring the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest; these are inevitably implied whenever they use the word “circonstances” or evironment….

    Years ago, after having read that book, I read a Gould essay on Lamarck, which suggested that the latter’s theory was in some sense simpler than Darwin’s. That seemed wrong to me because (assuming Butler was right), Lamarck needed natural selection as well as his mysterious “striving mechanism” to produce mutations. But, as you correctly suggest above, Butler was full of resentment toward Darwin, and that may have colored his his book (as well as a couple of others).

  12. walto: Thanks. I can see in this a discussion of ecology, and different species eating each other. But although there is a slight hint of some genotypes surviving better than others, that could as easily be a statement about some species surviving better than others.

    Although Lamarck is loud and clear elsewhere about inherited effects of use and disuse, I don’t see him making use, in these statements, of these ecological interactions as an explanation of adaptations.

    Butler’s highlighting of this passage seems to me to diagnose in him a case of Darwin Derangement Syndrome.

  13. John Harshman: Yes, It certainly seems from this short passage that Lamarck had abandoned his earlier theory. But now he has a problem: if new “infusoria” are not constantly arising from the muck, how can they still be around given his theory of an innate drive toward perfection? Does he abandon that drive too, or does he fail to reconcile the contradiction?

    Hi John

    So-called Aristotelian notions of Spontaneous Generation/ Equivocal Generation/Heterogenesis were gradually whittled down before Pasteur by experiments such as Needham’s and Reddi’s.

    Since you apparently defer to Wikipedia to arbitrate our disputes I shall cite the following:

    Today it is generally accepted to have been decisively dispelled during the 19th century by the experiments of Louis Pasteur. He expanded upon the investigations of predecessors (such as Francesco Redi who, in the 17th century, had performed experiments based on the same principles). However, some experimental difficulties were still there and objections from persons holding the traditional views persisted. Many of these residual objections were dealt with by the work of John Tyndall, succeeding the work of Pasteur.[2]
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spontaneous_generation

    A problem that pesisted until Pasteur (if I understand correctly) was that many still regarded Spontaneous Generation of primitive infusoria to be ”commonplace and regular.”

    The brilliance of Lamarck’s experimental design (a detail over-looked by many modern readers) is that putative “Vital Principle” (in the Aristotelian sense) was presumably present in air. Therefore an experiment was required that
    1 – permitted continued exposure to the putative vital principle in air
    2 – and simultaneously precluded contamination by airborne germs

    That all said, Pasteur still believed in Vitalism as some form of governing principle even if he did disprove the hitherto presumed ubiquity of spontaneous generation.

    Moving along with what I think is your line of contention. Gould wrote a great essay on Huxley’s Bathybius haeckelii or what Haeckel referred to in German as Urschleim even after Pasteur’s famous swan-neck experiments.

    Bathybius and Eozoon (starts on page 236)
    http://s-f-walker.org.uk/pubsebooks/pdfs/Gould_Stephen_Jay_The_Panda's_Thumb.pdf

    I love Darwin’s sanguine reaction to Huxley’s impetuous but eventually abandoned hypothesis

    Your reviewer believes that certain lowly organized animals have been generated spontaneously—that is, without pre-existing parents—during each geological period in slimy ooze. A mass of mud with matter decaying and undergoing complex chemical changes is a fine hiding-place for obscurity of ideas.
    http://darwin-online.org.uk/content/frameset?viewtype=text&itemID=F1729&pageseq=1

    Darwin goes on to decry the metaphysical principle ascribed to Lamarck ”…that there is some necessary law of advancement, against which view I have often protested.”

    There are several issues here
    1 – It is not clear to me that Lamarck himself believed that spontaneous generation was ”commonplace and regular.” to the contrary…
    2 – … and that some presumed metaphysical drive to greater complexity was necessary and inexorable. Again, to the contrary, organisms exquisitely adapted had no reason for further change or greater complexity (it appears that Lamarck actually subscribed to some version of stabilizing selection as it were – for lack of better words). My reading of Lamarck’s treatment of Botany (in the original French) confirms what I say (more on that later)
    3 – Meanwhile, any adaptive change as proposed by Lamarck’s version of evolution still requires geological deep time (as suggested by the fossil record)
    4 – Finally, Gould explains better than I how that any Lamarckian invocation of some metaphysical principle was subordinated to “les circonstances”
    http://www.stephenjaygould.org/ctrl/archive/stephen_jay_gould/gould_division-worms2.html

    I did a little research into Lamarck’s thinking into “les circonstances” – fascinating stuff and again, more on that later.

    In any case, to answer your original question:

    Yes, It certainly seems from this short passage that Lamarck had abandoned his earlier theory. But now he has a problem: if new “infusoria” are not constantly arising from the muck, how can they still be around given his theory of an innate drive toward perfection? Does he abandon that drive too, or does he fail to reconcile the contradiction?

    My reading of Lamarck would be: “… there is no problem?”

    If infusoria are already exquisitely adapted to muck, no change is required unless “les circonstances” present a need for change. Provided there always persists a ready and constant supply of muck then, infusoria shall similarly persist.

    In this regard, Lamarck and Darwin overlap considerably, although Darwin took it further by suggesting that Foraminifera were in themselves remarkably complex and evolved in their own right.

    It appears that others – aka so-called Neo-Lamarckians took metaphysical matters further but I am not concerned about them

  14. John Harshman: I think you underestimate the degree to which Darwin’s tree marked a break with previous ideas of evolution. Lamarck, for example, envisioned evolution as independent progression of lineages along a single track with a few switching points and some local variation, with the main differences among species being that some had started earlier along that track and some later. Darwin was the first to propose universal common descent and divergence.

    And denying that natural selection was one of his major contributions? I’m speechless.

    Hi, John.

    This strikes me as quite similar to the reception Butler got after publication of his three or four books on evolution. (To Butler’s dismay, the Darwin gang was LITERALLY “speechless”: I think I read an article years ago according to which there is some evidence that Darwin was actually advised that the best response to Butler was silence. Butler, who was quackish by nature, got similar responses from academia to his books pushing (i) the theory that the author of the Odyssey was a woman and (ii) the theory that Shakespeare’s sonnets were written to his male lover. He’d have been a barrel of fun on the internet, no doubt.)

    Anyhow, Tom’s OP and several of his comments on this thread, e.g., about Darwin’s discussions of use and disuse and his “evolving” language in the various editions of his work reminded me of Butler’s critiques, particularly in Evolution Old and New. (IIRC, there’s a bunch of stuff on the evolution of planaria that at some point or other was arguably…..”Lamarckian.”)

    So, I’m wondering what you think about Butler’s excerpts from Lamarck that I reproduced above: do you think they have little in common with the Darwinian notion of natural selection? Do they betray the conflation you mentioned above regarding types of adaptation? I’d be interested in your comments on this (as well as Tom’s response to my suspicion that Tom is a–maybe closet– Butlerian).

    Thanks.

  15. walto,

    Yes, I think Butler was reading into Lamarck something that just wasn’t there at all. The quotes don’t mention adaptation at all, much less a mechanism for it, and certainly have nothing to do with natural selection.

  16. Hi walto

    I am becoming more and more fascinated with the question of what Lamarck actually said and what Darwin may have thought Lamarck actually said.

    Charles Lyell had a huge impact on Darwin and the two became friends although Darwin evinced much disrespect for Lyell’s sycophancy.
    Check out this link:
    http://www.victorianweb.org/science/lyell.html

    Lyell was obsessed with the implications of the evolutionary theory of J.B. Lamarck. In Lyell’s view, if Lamarck was right then religion was a fable, Man was just a better beast, and the moral fabric of society would crumble to dust. A concerted refutation of Lamarck’s theories of progress and evolution became a central part of the Principles. However, by devoting such extensive treatment to Lamarck, Lyell paradoxically made Lamarck’s views better known in the English-speaking world than they ever had been. (Lamarck’s evolutionary work was not translated into English until 1914.) For example, the oft heard remark that Lamarck believed that a giraffe’s neck was long because each generation stretched its neck to reach higher branches and passed on its stretched neck to its offspring is a mocking example from Lyell, not from Lamarck himself.

    Darwin was fluent in French, I am not clear how much of Lamarck Darwin actually read in the original

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Darwin_(medical_student)#Childhood_and_classical_education

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