Lamarck, from Michael Ruse's "Monad to Man"

This account of Lamarck's work, particularly his Philosophie zoologique, 1809, is taken from Michael Ruse's Monad to Man: The Concept of Progress in Evolutionary Biology (reproduced with permission). To aid coherence, some paragraphs have been moved out of sequence, and cross heads have been added. References have been replaced with ellipses (…) to suggest the scholarly thoroughness of the original without impeding the flow of Ruse's highly accessible writing for non-scholarly readers.

It is important not to approach Lamarck too directly through ideas familiar to us today. To use a term which did not come into general modern use until the second half of the nineteenth century, there is little question that Lamarck was an "evolutionist," unambiguously so. He believed that all organisms living today came gradually, by law-bound processes, from forms widely different. He believed, indeed, that all organisms come from the same kinds of most primitive forms. But here--starting to move now from the notion of evolution as fact to that of evolution as path--the kinship with modern thought ends. We, influenced by Darwin's theory in the Origin of Species, tend to think of evolution as a branching path, with all organisms descended from (in Darwin's words) "one or a few forms." Lamarck… planted his thinking firmly in the Chain of Being tradition, believing evolution to be a climb up a main path, in animals from monad (the most primitive form) to man. "One can therefore truly say that there exists for each kingdom of living beings a unique and gradual series in the range of sizes, corresponding to the known degree of organization, rising, in the kingdom of animals, from the most simple 'animalcules' to the most perfect animals"… More than this, Lamarck thought that new forms are being spontaneously created (by the powers of electricity and heat and the like) all of the time. Thus, new organisms are forever getting on the bottom of the Chain--which then carries them up.

In fact, as we move now toward evolution as theory, we find even more complexity in Lamarck, quite apart from the fact that he believed in a separate chain for plants. Lamarck even denied "vitalism”—the notion that there is a kind of force which directs life, a view to be found in Aristotle. He rather thought of himself as a mechanist and spoke of nature as this "blind force"… which for all its results has "however neither goal nor intention, able to do only that which it does, and is itself only a collection of limited causes, and not a particular being"… Nevertheless, it is capable of driving the path of organisms upward. At the more immediate level, Lamarck argued that organisms experience "needs" (besoins). These needs, brought about by changes in the environment, then trigger subtle fluids (like electricity) which, circulating in the body, enlarge or develop the appropriate organs. In higher animals, a crucial causal factor is the "inner consciousness"(sentiment intérieur), which makes parts respond and develop: "it is the impetus of all the actions of the individual, that which directs all the movements it can make, and inasmuch as an individual is capable of intelligent thought, is again that alone which guides the actions"…

Then, overlaid on top of this upward drive, Lamarck located a secondary mechanism, the one everyone knows of and which now indeed carries his name, "Lamarckism": the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Although this was not in fact an original idea with Lamarck (it occurs in Buffon and others), initially he may have seen it as the primary mechanism of change, and there are some suggestive passages hinting that he may have bound the idea up with an embryological analogy… By the time of the Philosophic zoologique, all of this seems somewhat downgraded, but the effect was still sufficiently powerful to spoil the beauty of the scale of nature, for Lamarck believed that the inheritance of acquired characters brings about all kinds of side effects, leading various organisms off on tangents. Although his own diagram was inverted, he was on the way to making the tree metaphor become inseparable from the history of evolutionism.

Yet, do not be misled. In Lamarck's mind, all diversions were always tangents, however much they may complicate the overall picture. Essentially, evolution involves an upward climb, from monad to orangutan, and then on to our own species. And this was the position to which he stuck for the rest of his life. 

Lamarck and progress in nature

Can we say something about the connection (assuming there is one) between evolution and Progress? It has to be admitted that there is something very suggestive about the timing. For two thousand years there is stasis on the organic origins front--both Progressionism and evolutionism were blocked by Greek thought and Christian theology. Then, just at the point (and in the place) where people start to preach the virtues and inevitability of upward social change, biologists start to talk about the virtues and inevitability of upward organic change. But suggestiveness is not enough. We must dig more deeply, using criteria suggested at the end of the last chapter: a theme of progress, a belief in Progress, and a move beyond the evidence.  

The story of [Lamarck’s] life provides lots of straw for our bricks. Politically, Lamarck was forward-looking, endorsing moderate change and reform and optimistic about the possibility of Progress in improving social and political conditions. A politic philosophy during the Revolution, given his birth. Certainly his personal life confirms that Lamarck hardly fitted a conventional, conservative mold: by one of his three or four wives he fathered six children, though he married her only on her deathbed. For this reason alone it is well that Lamarck had little empathy for traditional Christian beliefs; he was quite open in his "de- ism," the philosophy that God stands at a distance, letting all happen according to His (or Its) unbroken law.

Lamarck and the idea of “Progress”

Lamarck believed that humans are improvable, especially through the inheritance of acquired characteristics; that ultimately this capacity for positive change aims at social improvement, in the sense of harmony and balance between people, and between society and nature; and that the intellect seems to be the key. Indeed, Lamarck went so far as to suggest that what we need are a few philosopher-kings running the state, with scientists and science occupying a prominent place. It will come as no surprise to learn that Lamarck linked his position with views about the natural superiority of Europeans. Apparently, they have been in existence longer than other races of humans, and they have therefore had more opportunity to move up the scale of perfection… Note the contrast with Buffon, who saw Europeans as the original best stock and others falling away, thanks to alien climates.

Of course, at a point like this, Lamarck's progressionism and his belief in Progress really collapse into one--as they do also when he talks of the human propensity to form groups and the consequent needs which (natu- ralistically) trigger the evolution of language. Apparently, inferior animals can get by with sighs. We, however, have a great number of diverse needs, multiplied proportionately to our ideas, and hence "it is necessary to use more complex methods to communicate with one's fellows"… Furthermore, intellectual achievements become increasingly complex as civilization advances: "In considering each society with respect to its degree of civilization, one might say that there is a direct proportion between the sophistication of science required for its members' well-being and the needs that they express”… Savages are simple folk, with simple needs. We Europeans, on the other hand,...!

Lamarck was committed to Progress. Further, this commitment did not come from thin air. He was identified with the idéologues and their predecessors and friends, those who supported and preached Progress, specifically Condillac, Helvétius, and Condorcet. Lamarck's beliefs about the genesis of language point to a firm link with the group, given the way that the idéologues stressed the significance of speech in the development of reason. Moreover--and here comes the key point--we know that Lamarck himself saw his work in biology as directed by and backing up the philosophical thesis about Progress. A good half of the Philosophie zoologique deals with "the physical causes of sentience"--that is, with the development of and reasons behind the nervous system generally and the brain and thought in particular. Explicitly, Lamarck tells us that he sees the non-human world through the lens of the human world, and inversely he thinks the non-human world a key to understanding ourselves. Change in the human world echoes change elsewhere, and vice versa.

Specifically following another ideologue, Cabanis, Lamarck located physical and moral attributes of individual human beings in the organization of their social world and argued that using this perspective to view the lower world tells us much about ourselves. Indeed, what he writes could as well have been written by Cabanis--the author most often referred to in the Philosophie zoologique, a man who believed not only in spontaneous generation but a limited form of evolution, and one sufficiently committed to the philosophy of Progress that it was he who sheltered Condorcet in the Terror:

Without doubt, it is possible, by a plan of life, wisely conceived and faithfully followed, to alter the very habits of our constitution to an appreciable degree. It is thus possible to improve the particular nature of each individual; and this goal, so worthy of the attention of moralists and philanthropists, requires that all the discoveries of the physiologist and physician be considered. But if we are able usefully to modify each temperament, one at a time, then we can influence, extensively and profoundly, the character of the species, and can produce an effect, systematically and continuously, on succeeding generations. (Cabanis 1802, 434; quoted in Richards 1987, 28-29)   

The associationism of Condorcet, Cabanas, and Lamarck--the belief that through experience one can pile up information which can then be transmitted wholesale, whether culturally or biologically--may be traced to Condillac's seminal work of 1754, Traits des sensations. In this treatise Condillac tried to meet the challenge of Berkeleian idealism while build- ing on John Locke's attack on innate ideas and arguing that all knowledge could come from sensory experience and habit.

Association with Lamarck brands evolution as pseudoscience

Finally, in our quest to link Progress and evolution, we have the third point: the gap, and its extent, between theory and evidence… Nor should we think that things were much different for Lamarck, however we today might revere him as a major figure in our history. Whatever the cause of conversion, once he became an evolutionist Lamarck's attitude to the evidence--real or apparent--was positively cavalier. Most obviously, if one were going to build a case for progressionism, at least with respect to evolutionary paths, one would show some interest in the fossil record. This Lamarck singularly failed to do. He postulated progression right up to humankind, and that is it. His only worry was that of fitting all living organisms into the picture. There is a chasm here between belief and evidence and--given the background belief in the Chain of Being--it is Progress which provides the bridge we are seeking.

The three possible levels of evidence concur. The case is made for the connection between the philosophical thesis about Progress and the be-ginnings of organic evolutionism in France in the second half of the eighteenth century. Particularly for Lamarck, the form of evolutionism he proposed--deeply progressionist--reflects the form of Progressionism the philosophers promoted. The French view of culture posited a kind of upward movement fueled by the development of ideas, as needs arise, and by their subsequent direct transmission. It is precisely the biological equivalent of this view that Lamarck proposed. It is often said today that cultural evolution is "Lamarckian," meaning that it centers on the spread of acquired ideas. Such a truth is hardly contingent. Culture is Lamarckian because Lamarck was cultural…

In respects, Lamarck… was--and was regarded by his contemporaries--a real Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of the professional/popular division. Some of his work was praised by all as precisely that which one expects of a professional scientist focusing on organisms. It was careful, it was descriptive, it was repeatable, it was useful. It was acknowledged as being of the best quality. I refer specifically to Lamarck's taxonomic labors, including (before he became an evolutionist) his work in botany and (after he became an evolutionist) his massive treatise on the invertebrates… But there was another side to Lamarck, and here he developed a reputation for being very unsound--with good reason, for he was wildly speculative, flew in the face of solid empirical evidence, and predicted in ways that were not simply wrong but embarrassingly so. In chemistry, Lamarck adopted the pre-Lavoisier theory of four elements--earth, air, water, and fire--and persisted through his career in using them to explain everything, from sound to magnetism, from color to organisms, despite nigh definitive evidence as to the untenability of his initial premises… In meteorology--where Lamarck really thought he was a founding genius--he speculated on the influence of the moon and made proclamations that truly must be judged pseudo-predictions, the inadequacy of which became apparent to all (including an irate Napoleon) after much state expenditure… And in geology likewise, Lamarck was much given to wild speculation: again the moon was a key operative factor, this time in swirling water around the globe, thus causing mountains to be built from the precipitates of organic remains within the waters…

Lamarck's evolutionism fell firmly into the speculative branch of his labors and was seen as such by his contemporaries, who (as professionals) responded (for many years) with (at the Institute) professional silence and (at the College de France) public scorn. They regarded his evolutionism as being in major respects part and parcel of his ridiculous chemistry and geology and more--which it was. To suppose spontaneous generation was to fly against both conventional biology and conventional chemistry. To suppose that all change comes through needs and environmental pressures is to suppose an ongoing changing earth, as predicted by Lamarck's geology. To suppose ... Unfortunately to suppose evolution after the fashion of Lamarck was simply not to suppose professional science.

Lamarck’s life

Born into the minor nobility, he enrolled in the army but was soon forced by injury to seek a less active life. This he found in Paris, gaining status among the capital's scientists, as well as the patronage of Buffon, for producing the first definitive French Flora (Flore frangoise, 1778). Later Lamarck moved from botany to zoology, studying those lowly animals which include the insects and the worms. It was Lamarck himself who was to invent the term invertebrate for this hotch-potch group, and in the course of his long career he was to produce a major study of this field--one on which his contemporary reputation was to rest… Interested in just about every branch of science, the young Lamarck was strongly opposed to evolutionary ideas--apart from anything else, they would play havoc with botanical classification. But, starting cautiously in 1800, Lamarck became more and more sympathetic to beliefs about organic change, and he produced his best-known discussion, the Philosophic zoologique, in 1809…

Below, microdata:

Evolution for the Humanities
Monad to Man evolution

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