Lamarck, Darwin and Wallace


Jean-Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, later Chevalier de Lamarck (1744 – 1829) was a distinguished professor at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. His advance over Aristotle’s static Scala Natura, or Great Chain of Being, was to introduce the dynamic concept that life’s behavior propels the ongoing evolution of species in a theory he called Transformism. His thoughts on the role of behavior in evolution were precursors to James Baldwin’s concept, now called the Baldwin Effect, that an individual’s lifetime learning would affect its capacity to reproduce and so affect the course of evolution.

Fifty years before Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, Lamarck published his best-known work, Philosophie Zoologique in 1809, the year of Darwin’s birth. Lamarck integrated three facets of his interest in zoological philosophy. First, he looked at the natural history of living things, addressing issues in taxonomy. Second, he considered the physical causes of life in rapport with its environment. Finally, he explored the physical causes of sentience, the ability to receive and process sensations.

Darwin rightly acknowledged his predecessor, “Yes, ‘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.” Charles Darwin. 1869 and 1872. Origin. Variorum Text.

William Paley (1743 – 1805) and Jean Baptiste Lamarck represent opposed views, the first dogmatic, the second speculative. Curiously, they published their views the same year — 1802. Paley’s theological argument for Intelligent Design contrasted with Lamarck’s radical view of transformism, an early attempt to understand how novelty originates.

In 1802 William Paley published his Natural Theology — or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of a Deity Collected from the Appearances of Nature, which contained his “argument from design,” often cited as one of the most influential arguments for the existence of God. Most then believed that Intent belonged to a God-like Mind (Capital I for Intent and Capital M for Mind), that William Paley had argued the case for Intelligent Design. Credit for the wonders of life went to an all-knowing Designer, God.

Paley-watch-smPaley described how, if you found an object, such as a watch upon the heath, even if you didn’t know how it came to exist, its precision and intricate design would force you to conclude “that the watch must have had a maker. . . , an artificer or artificers, who formed it for a purpose which we find it actually to answer, who comprehended its construction and designed its use.” Paley concluded that nature, even more than the watch, manifests supreme intricacy of design

Paley drew the same conclusion from other natural objects. So, just as a watch’s parts are all perfectly adapted for telling time, the parts of an eye are all perfectly adapted for the purpose of seeing. Paley compared the human eye with a telescope, asserting that the purpose of the eye is vision, just as the purpose of the telescope is to assist vision. In this way Paley argued that the eye, like the telescope, must have had a Designer.

For many years Paley had the classic compilation of arguments. Even Charles Darwin admitted having at first accepted Paley’s view. Paley used the power of metaphor to advance his teleological “argument from Design,” founded on the unity and adaptability of created things.

Paley’s Natural Theology was a bestseller for many years, inspiring the Earl of Bridgewater to commission the Bridgewater Treatises. The ninth and last was written by Charles Babbage, inventor of the Analytical Engine, forerunner of the computer.

Lamarck developed a method for classifying invertebrates that Darwin later used. Lamarck started from Aristotle’s concept that potential within has the capacity to become actualized, that nature is inner-directed and self-propelled. Lamarck made a significant break (as Darwin acknowledged) from the Great Chain of Being in focusing on “orthogenesis” (evolution through internal direction). This word became politically charged, associated with mystery, rather than mechanism.

Guenon-monkey-facesHarking back to Lamarck’s insight that behavior (in this case facial pattern recognition) impacts evolution, recent studies have shown that Old World guenon monkeys have highly diversified features, both across species and even for individuals, an evolutionary advantage that prevents interbreeding, but only given monkey ability to recognize and avoid breeding with relatives. Seen close up, the uniqueness of these individual monkeys is striking.

3guenon-facial-variationIn Lamarck’s last publication of 1820, he embraced a precursor to Darwin’s own theory of evolution:

Let us consider the most influential cause for everything done by nature [which] resides in the power that circumstances have to modify all operations of nature, to force nature to change continually the laws that she would have followed without… these circumstances, and to determine the character of each of her products. The extreme diversity of nature’s productions must also be attributed to this cause.

Alfred Russel Wallace (1823 – 1913) not only co-published the theory of evolution by natural selection jointly with Charles Darwin in 1858, but he also contributed to subjects as diverse as glaciology, land reform, anthropology, ethnography, epidemiology, and astrobiology and committed to social rights.

Darwin also acknowledged Wallace’s contribution to the theory of evolution: “It is curious how we hit on the same ideas.” Charles Darwin to Wallace, 1867

And three years later, “…very few things in my life have been more satisfactory to me – that we have never felt any jealousy towards each other, though in one sense rivals.” Darwin to Wallace, 1870

Related topics:

What Daedalus told Darwin: Darwin’s dilemma & the struggle for existence

       ZIG, ZIR & their Zebra

J.B. Lamarck. 1984 [1809]. Zoological Philosophy: An Exposition with regard to the Natural History of Animals. With the Eulogy by Georges Cuvier. trans. Hugh Elliot. University of Chicago Press.

In April 2008 Charles Darwin’s papers were made available via the internet through Cambridge University Library. In 2009 two major Darwin anniversaries were celebrated, the 200th anniversary of his birth and the 150th anniversary of his publication of Origin of Species. But Lamarck, for whom this was also a 200th anniversary continued to be forgotten.


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