Lamarckism and the Biology of Discontent in the 1800s

Excerpt from my book Epigenetics and Public Policy The Tangled Web of Science and Politics now available from my publisher here and at Amazon


Just how significant and real were the threats being confronted by the defenders of the status quo at this time? As described by John Bellamy Foster, England in the mid-1800s was “a seething cauldron of discontent” due to the sudden social, political and economic changes which accompanied rapid industrialization.[1]

Throughout England during this time there were strikes, demonstrations and riots against work conditions and wage disparities, and especially against the enforcement of the Poor Laws, passed in 1834. For example, the phrase ‘reading the Riot Act’ can be traced through this era as during many of these demonstrations the Riot Act was literally read aloud to advise demonstrators that they were assembling unlawfully and that deadly force would be applied if they did not disperse.

The Chartist movement in particular, so-called for the People’s Charter published in 1838, was a major force in this social unrest.[2] The Chartist movement focused primarily on reforms of the political system in England which favored the working classes, and was able to marshal the support of millions of people from all around the country, but especially from the newly industrialized areas. In 1839, 1842, and 1848, Chartist petitions with millions of signatures each were presented to the House of Commons, each of which were summarily dismissed without a hearing. As can be imagined, this refusal of the formal political institutions of the state to even hear the grievances of such a significant proportion of the population only increased the tension and the rancor.

Much to the alarm of the political establishment, and to the consternation of the English religious establishment of the early 1800s, most of the agitators of this time favored the materialistic (i.e., godless) natural philosophies coming out of revolutionary France, and Lamarckism in particular. In contrast to the hierarchical but increasingly individualistic and competitive view of nature that was promoted by mainstream science in Britain—coincident with the emergence of industrialization, capitalism, and modern liberal politics in British society—these other groups envisioned societies organized around more collectivist and symbiotic principles, and Lamarckism provided a biological explanation for how such societies could be realized out of the present state of affairs.[3] Buoyed by these reinterpretations—or misinterpretations—of Lamarckism, by asserting that at a basic level organisms respond rapidly to their environments, these groups advocated for changes in the environment in the form of fundamental reconfigurations of society to achieve their goals of “egalitarianism, female emancipation, [and] secularization” in the progressive development from barbarism to civilization.[4]

In other words, while the clerical naturalists and gentrified scientists of this era saw a natural—and therefore a social—world that was set and ordered by divine command, millions of others more exposed to the vicissitudes of the recent societal upheavals instead saw a social—and therefore a natural—world that can and did change, sometimes precipitously, and without the providential oversight of Deity. That each side gravitated towards an understanding of biology which mirrored their lived experience is not only understandable but in many ways inevitable.

As described by Margaret Anne Loose in her analysis of the Chartist literature of the era, “Lamarck’s 1809 hypothesis that offspring acquired traits based on the associations and environments of their forebears was favored by many working-class thinkers (perhaps because it allowed one to hope that s/he could alter the future).”[5] In other words, if things were not good now, Lamarckism—at least as interpreted by these reformist groups—provided a reasonable explanation for how they could be made better. In contrast, the mainstream science of the time instead allowed only the possibility of incrementally small changes over geological time scales (keeping in mind that Lamarck himself also actually employed these same ‘conservative’ uniformitarian and gradualist principles). These Lamarckesque ideas about adaptation and inheritance also had the benefit of seeming common sense, as this was how the natural world appeared to work to most people of this time. Thus, this more explicitly socialist version of Lamarckism seemed to confirm to many what they already knew about the world, and provided reasons to imagine the possibility of a future fundamentally different than the present.

These hopes for a better future via Lamarckian adaptations were predicated on alterations of current environments as sweeping social and political changes. As such, Lamarckism became a fundamental aspect of many of the rationalist (i.e., secular) progressive reform movements of the mid-1800s in which “a belief in the perfectability of humankind and the self-organizing power of matter according to natural laws [was] joined to a faith in the environment as a determinant of form and character.”[6] These interpretations of Lamarckian biology supported the expectation that “through the appropriate social and material environment, humanity’s spiritual qualities could be molded as a prelude to political change.”[7]

…For example, Friedrich Engels, the cofounder of Marxism with Karl Marx, explicitly incorporated a Lamarckian understanding of evolution into his formulation of communism and the labor theory of history by suggesting that the physical adaptations to work played a crucial part in the biological transition from ape to man, such that “in a sense, we have to say that labour created man himself.”[8] From these origins, Engels traces the subsequent technological developments relative to labor which have continued to shape man, culminating in the creation of the steam engine, which instrument “more than any other was to revolutionise social relations throughout the world.”[9] Engels continues:

By long and often cruel experience, and by collecting and analysing historical material, we are gradually learning to get a clear view of the indirect, more remote social effects of our production activity, and so are afforded an opportunity to control and regulate these effects as well. This regulation, however, requires something more than mere knowledge. It requires a complete revolution in our hitherto existing mode of production, and simultaneously a revolution in our whole contemporary social order.[10]

Against these direct challenges to the status quo, the geologist Charles Lyell—who would go on to have such an influence on Charles Darwin via his three volume Principles of Geology—along with many others in the mainstream scientific establishment in Britain undertook concerted action against Lamarckism and any other such notions of the malleability of essential forms, with the primary intention to demonstrate “that morals were not the better part of brute instinct” and particularly “to prove that man was no transformed ape.”[11] Part of this rearguard action by scientists such as Lyell was to intentionally restructure geology and paleontology “along safe non-progressionist lines…to preserve man’s unique status in creation.” These intentions were so explicit that, according to the historian of science Adrian Desmond, without a doubt “Lyell’s biology and geology were inextricably related in Principles of Geology and his ideology affected his science as a whole.”[12] This was the openly ideological nature of the geology which had such an overwhelming influence on Charles Darwin in the eventual formulation of his epoch-marking theory of biological evolution, which in turn came to eventually constitute some of the basic assumptions of contemporary genetics—including its entrenched dispositions against the responsiveness to the environment and inheritance via epigenetics.

As such, people on both sides of this social cleavage in 19th century Britain identified the ideas of biological responsiveness to the immediate environment and the inheritance of those adaptations with calls for fundamental reforms of the prevailing social order. Further, as will be discussed in more detail later, Engel’s combination of history and economics with a Lamarckian biology directly influenced the subsequent development of Leninism, Stalinism and Maoism, which would go on to play such a significant role in the social and political history of the 20th century in antagonism with the liberalism of the West. As will be shown in later chapters, these political and ideological antagonisms, with their roots in these disputes over biological theories, also undoubtedly influenced the reception to epigenetics in the West, with its biological openness to the immediate environment and the inheritance of those adaptations.

However, what cannot be forgotten, per the previous descriptions of Lamarck’s actual theories, is how similar his theory of evolution actually was to Darwin’s eventual theory of evolution, particularly in reference to the minute internal variations and the geological time scales required for change to occur. Thus, the Lamarckism utilized by these reformist groups downplayed or ignored these other more uniformitarian aspects of Lamarck’s Lamarckism, and instead emphasized those aspects which fit with their desire to describe human nature as malleable and history as progressive. Regardless, Lamarckism did at least provide them with a platform in natural science to explain and justify their social and political agendas.

This history thus suggests that contemporary epigenetics may also have affinities with specific contemporary political ideologies, and will likely also be put to similar political uses which may or may not accurately reflect the underlying science. Being aware of this likelihood for the ideological support of, or opposition to, the results from epigenetics may be of use to both scientists and policymakers (and those concerned with public policy) as epigenetics become more of a factor in policy and politics.

[1] Foster, John Bellamy. 2000. Marx’s ecology materialism and nature. New York: Monthly Review Press, p. 179.

[2] Thompson, D. (1984). The Chartists: popular politics in the Industrial Revolution. Pantheon.

[3] Harrison, J. F. C.  (1969). Quest for the New Moral World: Robert Owen and the Owenites in Britain and America. New York.

[4] Lenoir & Ross 1996, p. 376

[5] Loose, M. (2010). Literary Form and Social Reform: The Politics of Chartist Literature (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertation Express (UMI No. 3225641).

[6] Burkhardt, R. W. (1995). The Spirit of System: Lamarck and Evolutionary Biology: Now with” Lamarck in 1995″. Harvard University Press, p. 59.

Burkhart, R. (2011).  Lamarck, Cuvier and Darwin on Animal Behavior. In Gissis, S., & Jablonka, E. Eds. Transformations of Lamarckism: From subtle fluids to molecular biology. MIT Press, p. 40.

Haig, D. (2011). Lamarck Ascending! Philosophy & Theory in Biology3:e204.

Laurent, J., & Nightingale, J. (2001). Darwinism and evolutionary economics. Edward Elgar Publishing, p. 128.

[7] Lenoir & Ross 1996, p. 375.

[8] Engels, F. (1876/2015). The part played by labour in the transition from ape to man. In Dialectics of Nature: Explanation about Dialectical Materialism. CreateSpace, p. 171.

[9] Ibid., p. 191.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Desmond (1985), p. 25.

[12] Ibid.

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