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Lamarck and His Theory of Evolution

Thomas E. Hart

                        amarck's very real contribution to biology lies in
                        his division of animal life into the vertebrate and
invertebrate categories. He recognized that there was a major break along
the lines of those species (fish, apes, people, horses, cats, dogs) that
have backbones, and those species (lobsters, crabs, insects, conches,
snails, oysters) that have none. Lamarck's controversial reputation comes
from the belief that he asserted that living beings change by consciously
willing to change. This reputation has been enhanced, so to speak, by his
association with the evolutionary theories of two literary men, Samuel
Butler and George Bernard Shaw. Butler, Shaw, and their debt ot Lamarck are
discussed below. The primary purpose of what follows is to give some idea of
what Lamarck actually said in his work on evolution, and to establish, as
far as possible, the source for any misinterpretations that still exist
about his work.

It has been claimed that, unlike his contemporary Cuvier, "Lamarck had scant
knowledge of anatomy, or at least seemed unfamiliar with dissection
methods."[177] Lamarck's prose is unclear, so much so that Pietro Corsi was
moved to say that it is hardly surprising that Lamarck's thought should have
spawned such a wide variety of interpretations, not only by naturalists of
the first half of the nineteenth century but also by historians of the
transformist doctrine. Some have sought to portray Lamarck as theoretician
of life's intrinsic capacity to mastermind the increasing complexity of
organized being through an immanent or divinely preordained plan.
Undeniably, many quotations can be found to support such a view. Opposite
interpretations, emphasizing the exclusive role of the environment, have
focused on other passages of the naturalist's works. In both cases, exegetes
have often resorted to the dubious method of isolating the passages that
bear out their view from the general context of Lamarck's thought and from
the problems he faced in developing the successive versions of his
ideas.[178] It is this lack of clarity that makes Lamarck difficult to read
and interpret. When Lamarck discusses the "special organ" he gives a
dsecription of it leaves the reader wondering where the special organ is
located. Lamarckian doctrines can be summarized in six points.

  1. Organic entities are the products of nature, and the production takes
     places through eons of time.
  2. Only the simplest bodies are fashioned immediately.
  3. The environment in which an organism originates causes the gradual
     development of organs. This is the cause of diversity.
  4. Growth is inherent in all parts of the organism.
  5. Changes in conditions cause the modification of the organism over time.
  6. All living bodies have undergone changes in their "organization" and
     "parts." Species are thus not fixed in nature, but are in a constant
     state of flux. [179]

The fundamental characteristic of Lamarckism, as it is commonly understood,
is the inheritiance of acquired characteristics. This means that the
acquisition of a something, an elongated neck, for example, will be
transmitted either wholly or in part to the next generation of a species.
Each acquired characteristic will be reflected by a change in organic
tissue, so that an organ, or the remnant of an organ or a structure, e.g.,
the appendix, the coccyx, is a habit.

[Tom Hart has generously shared with the readers of the Victorian Web the
preceding materials from his ongoing project, Anti-Darwin: The Literary and
Philosophical Opposition to Darwininism. He welcomes comments, which can be
directed to him at]