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Lamarck, Scientific Bridesmaid

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A giraffe in a bridesmaid's veil.

Some scientists never achieve any prominence outside their fields of expertise, whereas others capture the popular imagination or become linked to a famous discovery. Lamarck belongs to the unfortunate group whose discoveries nearly catapult them to fame before another scientist gains the credit, leaving them holding the bouquet. To be fair, Lamarck isn't unknown, but he has become notorious rather than famous. He is known to most people as a figure unfavourably compared with Charles Darwin, as he also proposed a popular theory of evolution - however, Lamarck's was fatally flawed.

The life of the Chevalier

Jean Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, Chevalier de Lamarck (1744 - 1829) was the youngest of eleven children in a noble, but not wealthy, French family. Science came to him as a career after several others had been attempted. Intended for the priesthood, he was sent to the Jesuit seminary at Amiens when he was twelve. However, when he was seventeen, shortly after his father died, he left to join the French army. He allegedly1 distinguished himself in battle in Germany and was made an officer, but was invalided out of the army on a measly pension a few years later after a peacetime accident2.

The Fame

Lamarck then spent some time as a bank clerk, but became interested in botany, and also in medicine (which one of his brothers was studying). He gave up on both finance and medicine, and after ten years of study succeeded in having his Flore Française published, helped by the patronage of Buffon, a prestigious French botanist. This book became a standard work for many years (so Lamarck wasn't entirely without acclaim in his lifetime). Lamarck was elected to the French Academy of Sciences in 1779, the year after the book was first published, and appointed assistant botanist at the royal botanical garden - the Jardin des Plantes. This was more than simply horticulture and involved the collection of new species as well as medical education and biological research.

Professor of Invertebrates

Following the dissolution of the French monarchy in 1793 Lamarck called for the Jardin des Plantes to be reorganised as the Musée National d'Histoire Naturelle (National Museum of Natural History), which was to be run by twelve professors in 12 different scientific fields. This allowed Lamarck to be appointed as one of the professors, though in a field no-one (including Lamarck) knew or cared much about at the time - the natural history of insects and worms. The museum already possessed large collections, but these were poorly organised. Lamarck can be credited with many advances in clarifying the different types of invertebrates - not least coining the word 'invertebrate' itself, for all those animals lacking a spine.


Lamarck's work also provided him with the evidence which led to the formulation of his theory of evolution. Early in the 19th Century he began publishing essays which detailed what later became known as Lamarckism. At the time his theory appeared to be a reasonable contender as an explanation of the complex diversity found on Earth. Like Charles Darwin half a century later, Lamarck was compelled by the evidence to accept the fact of evolution but, unlike Darwin, proposed a method for evolution of species that was fatally flawed. It is worth stressing that Lamarck's mechanism for the process of evolution was only comprehensively disproved by the discovery of the particulate nature of DNA genetic inheritance.

The theory that Lamarck proposed rested on two 'laws' and is often summed up as the 'inheritance of acquired characteristics'. The first law was that use or disuse causes structures in an organism to enlarge or shrink. The second law was that all these changes were inheritable. Thus as generations pass the descendants become better adapted to their environments.

The example often given of this is the supposed method for the evolution of the giraffe's long neck - each generation stretched their necks to reach the higher branches, until eventually giraffes had developed greatly elongated necks.

As an explanation for adaptive complexity we see in the world Lamarckism has a simplistic emotional appeal, but is inadequate for two major reasons. The first is that 'use and disuse' is too crude a tool to create the variety of finely-tuned complexity that exists. The second is the difficulty in providing a feasible method for appropriate acquired characteristics to be inherited. These objections have not prevented people trying to prove Lamarckism true.

As with his proposals for the naming of clouds, mentioned below, his thoughts on evolution did not gain popularity when he was writing them; indeed some of his contemporaries, such as Cuvier, used their influence to discredit him. He was not alone in his beliefs though, as Erasmus Darwin, Charles's grandfather, subscribed to an evolutionary mechanism remarkably similar to Lamarck's.

Another doomed attempt

Lamarck also indulged his scientific predilection for categorisation with clouds. He first suggested in 1802 that clouds could systematically be described as en forme de voile (hazy), attroupés (massed), pommelés, (dappled), en balayeurs (broom-like) or groupés (grouped). These particular cloud-forms he believed were due to easily ascertained causes and would be useful to recognise.

Unfortunately for Lamarck his scheme was not taken up by any other scientists, not even in France. The winner of this contest, also first publishing his ideas in 1802, was Luke Howard, a man over 30 years younger. Howard made the sensible choice of Latin as the language in which to define his terms, making his categories understandable to most scientists of the day, almost regardless of their nationality.

The End

Most of Lamarck's life was a struggle against poverty. Around 1818 he also began to lose his sight, spending his last years completely blind, cared for by his daughters (he had been married four times). Lamarck died blind and destitute on 28 December 1829, and was buried in a rented grave. After five years the grave was emptied and his remains are now lost.

His name is now most familiar for his flawed process for evolution. When his writings were rediscovered in the mid-19th Century they were a popular alternative to Darwinian evolution. It should be noted that while writing about evolution in 1861 Charles Darwin himself praised the achievements of Lamarck:

Lamarck was the first man whose conclusions on the subject excited much attention. This justly-celebrated naturalist first published his views in 1801... he first did the eminent service of arousing attention to the probability of all changes in the organic, as well as in the inorganic world, being the result of law, and not of miraculous interposition.

1The only source of his military exploits was one of his daughters, who some believe exaggerated his accomplishments.2He was apparently lifted by his head as a practical joke, and this unfortunately caused severe inflammation of his lymphatic glands.

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