The Unfortunate Legacy of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck

Excerpt from my forthcoming book Epigenetics and Public Policy The Tangled Web of Science and Politics to be released February 2018 by Praeger

Although the ultimate goal of this book is to explain or predict the policy implications of epigenetics, which probably seems to not require much attention to the history of epigenetics, this history is actually necessary to understand a number of aspects of contemporary epigenetics and its political implications. For example, this history is absolutely necessary to understand why epigenetics has only begun to emerge within the last couple decades, especially given that epigenetics as we now know it—minus the suggestions of transgenerational inheritance—was first proposed around eighty years ago.

In this context, a common tactic used to downplay or denigrate epigenetics is to refer to epigenetics as ‘Lamarckian.’ This is a reference to the almost universally discredited theory of evolution of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, which is contrasted with the Darwinian theory of evolution by natural selection. The twist of all this, though, is that this version of history is a fundamental misconstrual of both Lamarckism and epigenetics. Why Lamarckism was misconstrued in this specific way, and how Lamarckism came to be anathema to mainstream genetics, and why epigenetics came to be misidentified as Lamarckian are all questions which are answered by this history.

Lamarck, evolution, and world history

The first comprehensive theory of organic evolution was formulated by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829), and first publicly presented by him at the Museum of Natural History in Paris in May of 1802, more than 50 years before Darwin presented his theory of evolution by natural selection. Although Lamarck is mostly remembered now, if at all, as a footnote in the history of evolutionary theory, it was Lamarck’s theory of evolution as the inheritance of acquired characteristics which was utilized by the progressive social reformers of the 1800s, such as Marx, Engels, and many others, in their struggles against the defenders of the status quo. At the same time, Lamarckism is also the theoretical framework which was invoked by Herbert Spencer and the other so-called Social ‘Darwinians’ at the end of the 19th century, and which was ostensibly the basis for the state-sanctioned science of the Soviet Union in the mid-20th century.

In other words, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck has had as much an impact on the political history of the modern world as any biologist, perhaps save Darwin—but, notably, much of this impact is based on misunderstandings and reinterpretations of Lamarck’s actual theory of evolution. Likewise, contemporary epigenetics is often compared with Lamarckism in a way which paints both in an unfavorable light; but, as I will also show, these comparisons are also again usually based on misunderstandings of Lamarck’s actual theory of evolution, or misunderstandings of contemporary epigenetics, or both.

The unfortunate legacy of Lamarck

First, although Lamarck is remembered most for his description of biological change over time via the inheritance of adaptive characteristics acquired during the life of an organism, as a member of the French Academy of Sciences and a professor of botany and zoology at the Museum of History in Paris his scientific interests and pursuits were much broader than just biological inheritance. In fact, according to the historian of science Jean Gayon,[1] heredity as such was actually only of minor interest to Lamarck in his scientific work.

As described in detail by historian Richard Burkhardt in a recent article published in the journal Genetics,[2] the history of science is often marked by three almost perverse kinds of remembrances: When an event or discovery that seems significant in retrospect is barely noticed at the time,[3] or when an event or discovery is trumpeted as significant at the time but disappears from history, or when someone is remembered for something that is not what he or she would have considered to be his or her most significant achievement. Lamarck is an unfortunate example of the last of these kinds of perverse remembrances.

As Burkhardt explains, in contrast to the common perception of Lamarck, he did not claim as his own the notion that acquired characteristics could be inherited. “While it is true that Lamarck endorsed the idea of the inheritance of acquired characters and made use of it in his evolutionary theorizing,” Burkhart observes, “neither Lamarck nor his contemporaries treated this as Lamarck’s ‘signature’ idea.”[4] That inheritance of this kind was an accepted explanation of the time helps also to explain why Lamarck did not feel the need to confirm his theory for his audience through a vast assemblage of supporting facts or by experimentation. Rather, Lamarck, like most of his contemporaries, treated this idea as the well-known alternative theory it was—even though it was counter to the more generally accepted theory of the time of species as fixed.

For example, in the introduction to his multi-volume Histoire naturelle des animaux sans vertèbres (Natural History of the Invertebrates) published in 1815, Lamarck described the idea that individuals of one generation inherit the biological organization acquired by their parents during their lives as a “law of nature” which is “so much attested by the facts, that there is no observer who has been unable to convince himself of its reality” (Lamarck 1815, p. 200). Burkhardt also describes how the eminent naturalist Charles-Georges LeRoy (1723–1789) and the political philosopher Marquis de Condorcet (1743–1794) also invoked this inheritance of acquired characters in regard to the perfectibility of both animals and humans as examples of the company Lamarck kept in upholding such a theory. Likewise, the historian of science Pietro Corsi, in a meticulous analysis of French scientific thought,[5] places Lamarck squarely amidst the scientific debates of the time, and not as the ridiculous, possibly insane outcast on the fringes of science as he is so often portrayed in conventional accounts.

In other words, and contrary to how Lamarck is usually described, he was neither on the lunatic fringe of the science of his time with his theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics, nor was he even particularly concerned with the inheritance with which he is now so indelibly associated. Instead, it seems, Lamarck was using a common alternative account of biological change as one piece of his more comprehensive systematic theory of development and change.

As such, a basic understanding of Lamarck’s actual theories of evolution and inheritance is important in understanding not only how biological inheritance and interaction with the environment was understood and used politically in the past, but also why contemporary epigenetics is not Lamarckism, which will help to reveal the actual ‘hidden’ political content of contemporary references to epigenetics as Lamarckism.

[1] Gayon, J. (2006). Hérédité des caractères acquis, pp. 105–163 in Lamarck, Philosophe de la Nature, edited by P. Corsi, J. Gayon, G. Gohau, and S. Tirard. Presses Universitaires de France, Paris.

[2] Burkhardt, R. W. (2013). Lamarck, evolution, and the inheritance of acquired characters. Genetics194(4), 793-805.

[3] Burkhardt gives the example of Thomas Bell, the president of the Linnean Society of London in 1858, who in his annual review of the Society’s meetings for that year concluded that nothing revolutionary had been brought up in their meetings of that year, even though Bell was actually presiding over the Society meeting of July 1, 1858 in which a paper by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace expressing their views on natural selection was read and discussed.

[4] Ibid., p.794.

[5] Corsi, P. (1988). The Age of Lamarck: Evolutionary Theories in France, 1790–1830. University of California Press, Berkeley.

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