More on Lamarckism
The identification of Lamarckism with the inheritance of acquired characteristics is regarded by some as an artifact of the subsequent history of evolutionary thought, repeated in textbooks without analysis. Stephen Jay Gould wrote that late 19th century evolutionists “re-read Lamarck, cast aside the guts of it … and elevated one aspect of the mechanics - inheritance of acquired characters - to a central focus it never had for Lamarck himself.” He argued that “the restriction of “Lamarckism” to this relatively small and non-distinctive corner of Lamarck’s thought must be labelled as more than a misnomer, and truly a discredit to the memory of a man and his much more comprehensive system”. Gould advocated defining “Lamarckism” more broadly, in line with Lamarck’s overall evolutionary theory.
Lamarck incorporated two ideas into his theory of evolution, in his day considered to be generally true:
- Use and disuse – Individuals lose characteristics they do not require (or use) and develop characteristics that are useful.
- Inheritance of acquired traits – Individuals inherit the traits of their ancestors.
Examples of what is traditionally called “Lamarckism” would include:
- Giraffes stretching their necks to reach leaves high in trees (especially Acacias), strengthen and gradually lengthen their necks. These giraffes have offspring with slightly longer necks (also known as “soft inheritance”).
- A blacksmith, through his work, strengthens the muscles in his arms. His sons will have similar muscular development when they mature.
Lamarck stated the following two laws:
- In every animal which has not passed the limit of its development, a more frequent and continuous use of any organ gradually strengthens, develops and enlarges that organ, and gives it a power proportional to the length of time it has been so used; while the permanent disuse of any organ imperceptibly weakens and deteriorates it, and progressively diminishes its functional capacity, until it finally disappears.
- All the acquisitions or losses wrought by nature on individuals, through the influence of the environment in which their race has long been placed, and hence through the influence of the predominant use or permanent disuse of any organ; all these are preserved by reproduction to the new individuals which arise, provided that the acquired modifications are common to both sexes, or at least to the individuals which produce the young.
In essence, a change in the environment brings about change in “needs” (besoins), resulting in change in behavior, bringing change in organ usage and development, bringing change in form over time — and thus the gradual transmutation of the species.
However, as historians of science such as Michael Ghiselin and Stephen Jay Gould have pointed out, none of these views were original to Lamarck. On the contrary, Lamarck’s contribution was a systematic theoretical framework for understanding evolution. He saw evolution as comprising two processes;
- Le pouvoir de la vie (a complexifying force) - in which the natural, alchemical movements of fluids would etch out organs from tissues, leading to ever more complex construction regardless of the organ’s use or disuse. This would drive organisms from simple to complex forms.
- L’influence des circonstances (an adaptive force) - in which the use and disuse of characters led organisms to become more adapted to their environment. This would take organisms sideways off the path from simple to complex, specialising them for their environment.