Lamarck and science after the revolution

Wed Jun 21 16:13:13 MDT 1995

Well, Justin beat me to the punch with a brief and sufficient answer
to Rahul's question about the death of Lamarckianism.  But I already
have a longer answer written up on a disk, so here it is.


------------------- LAMARCK follows --------------------

>>> Rahul Mahajan <rahul at>  6/19/95, 07:49pm

As I understand it, Darwin himself never categorically denied the possibility of Lamarckian
evolution -- in fact, at times he was ready to concede that it could have been an important
mechanism. When did they put the nail in the coffin?


Unfortunately, the main Darwin text that is widely available and used is the 6th edition of Origin
of Species.  The first edition is rather better, I have been told.  During the decade that followed
the first edition, Darwin was subject to massive social assault, and troubled by the state of
physics and geology at the time.  He could hold up to the weight of religious outrage, but he
could not ignore the fact that honest geophysicists kept insisting that the planet could not be old
enough for natural selection to have created all the diversity of lifeforms.  This is why he had
to consider a faster mechanism than natural selection alone.  Also, he had not the evidence to
disprove the possibility of Larmarckian evolution working, if not instead of natural selection, then
perhaps in addition to NS.

The young-earth problem was not a religious problem, geologists were seriously and sincerely
doing their best.  But they were basing their claim partly on the temperature of the interior of
the planet, and they extremely over-estimated the cooling rate of a planet.  This is because they
didn't know about radioactivity, and the fact that it is nuclear fission [no chain reactions, just
decay] that keeps the earth hot inside.  So, their estimate was not in the biblical thousands, but
in many millions.  But that was not enough for Darwin, and Darwin knew it.

So, this was part of the debate at the time.  Darwin had to try to imagine some way that
evolutionary change could be speeded up.  Lamarckianism was the prevailing or major competing
view of the mechanism of evolution, (among those who believed in evolution as opposed to
special creation or repeated, alternating creations and catastrophes.)  And Darwin couldn't think
of anything better at the time.

One of my graduate committee tells me that I must get the first edition, it is much better, because
it is fresher, bolder.  Darwin hadn't been worn down to this accomodating position.  Also there
were other changes; in the 6th, he uses the phrase "nature, red in tooth and claw", but I think he
does properly credit Spencer, who clearly did coin the phrase.

Consider also that they all knew nothing about mechanisms of inheritance, DNA, Mendelian
inheritance, nothing.  So there was no view of nuclear DNA being held nearly inviolable
throughout life to be passed on.  Apparently, Lamarckians thought it more likely that the obvious
changes which can take place in one body during life would be passed on, and would obviously
suit the offspring to the parents' environment, rather than some mysterious inborn difference
being conserved throughout life and important enough to influence survival and reproductive
success.  (This I have been taught, but I confess I haven't read Lamarck himself, in his own

All these things changed soon after Darwin.  The "Great Synthesis" of genetics and Mendelian
inheritance and Darwin came around the turn of the century.  At first, it was not even known that
genetic info was in the nucleus of the cell - just being able to see the organelles of a cell did not
reveal their function.  Then they didn't know that DNA was the carrier of inheritance (although
it had been identified chemically as being part of the chromosomes), but thought it could be the
proteins which are combined with DNA to form chromosomes in the nucleus.  Later it was found
to be DNA, and later still came the structure of DNA.  (BTW, elucidating the structure of DNA
was important mainly because it helped to answer the question of how DNA works - how it
carries a code, how it is replicated, how it can be repaired [if only one strand is damaged], etc.)

I think by about the time that Mendel's work was discovered and united with Darwin, Lamarck
was partly forgotten and certainly on the way out.  A lot of research was focussed on the newly
emerging areas which were so fruitful in terms of getting new information and making sense of
it and applying it.  This was the dawn of modern biology, as I see it.

Some people continued with Lamarckian work for a while, (some of them just to get rid of it
once and for all).  Somebody cut the tails off mice for many many generations, and showed that
the descendants still kept growing tails just as long as the original ancestors.  Since there was
no evidence, no known mechanism, no logic to it, and because the earth was now known to be
well over a billion years old, so that slow NS had plenty of time to work, Lamarckianism simply
had no validity and no appeal.

Obviously, I guess, I'm "anti-lamarckian" except I've never thought about it in that way before,
because I've never heard the issue even come up like it has on this list lately.  Yes, it's true that
"mainstream" science has left Lamarck in the dust of history, but only because we think he
deserves it.  If Lamarckian research had come out with anything interesting, scientists might have
been interested!

Even money-grubbing technocrats would be interested, because theories that generate methods
that get results, i.e. theories that "work" are more likely to be profitable than pseudo-science BS,
i.e. theories that "don't work", No?  (Not that profit is any perfect tracker of good science, I
know, I know, but if there were any evidence that Lamarck is good for anything, I would not just
throw it away.  I've just never seen any.)

Besides, Lamarckianism was well-trashed before its association with Lysenkoism and
communism, so there is another reason to think it has not just been ignored because of
anti-communist bias.

In fact, since newness is often privileged within science, I could really make my name in biology
if I could show now that Lamarckianism really does work.  Famous forever.  Single-handedly
overturned Darwin.  Ended the century of be-nighted natural selection theoretical hegemony.
Ushered in the true, new revolution in biology.  Vive Lysenko!!

Not likely.

Now, to be extremely completely fair, I could go on about examples like bacteria obtaining DNA
from other bacteria during one's life, and then passing that to both offspring when it divides.  But
I think Lamarckianism was dead before such knowledge was available, and it wasn't intended to
address such a situation anyway.

Well, Rahul, I may have gone beyond the scope of your question, but this is my general reaction
to Lamarckianism.  Thanks for asking.  Sometimes I really hate it when people talk about
biology to try to support something unsupportable, probably like it bugs you when they invoke
particle physics.

For any who might have wanted to use the merits of Lamarck as a weapon against "science, evil
and inaccurate in theory and practice", I say try again, if you must, but Lamarck won't help you.
At least it is a novel approach.  Sometimes, although not usually on this list, I just hear ranting
about how science is "bourgeois" and therefore fatally flawed forever, which invokes shades of
Cambodia.  What I'd rather hear is how "socialist" or "proletarian science" would be different,
and I don't mean in abstract philosophical terms or in polemical terms without content.  A
specific practical example would be helpful in this conversation, or at least might help me to
understand what you are on about.

I'm not the first one to ask for an example, but I still haven't seen any offered by any of our
critics of science.

Lisa Rogers

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