Lamarck’s Evolution: Two Centuries of Genius and Jealousy

Ross Honeywill

Lamarck's Evolution: Two Centuries of Genius and Jealousy
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Lamarck’s Evolution: Two Centuries of Genius and Jealousy

Ross Honeywill

Before Darwin, Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck created the first theory of evolution, an idea so powerful it promised to become the great unifying force of science. Instead, for 200 years, Lamarck’s grand idea polarised the scientific establishment and became a byword for discredited beliefs - until, on the eve of his bicentenary, science finally caught up and proved him right. With a narrative as lively as fiction, this is the true story of Lamarck and his hard-won legacy. It is the story of Lamarck’s own travails in treacherous times and of the Australian scientist Ted Steele who, almost two centuries later, would decode the evidence and put Lamarck back on the world stage.

Review

Australian scientist Ted Steele chanced on nineteenth-century French scientist, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, on a long plane flight in 1978. Reading Arthur Koestler’s Janus, he was particularly struck by the chapter ‘Lamarck Revisited’.

In 1809, Lamarck had published Philosophie Zoologique, a work in which he anticipated Darwin’s theory of evolution. What struck Steele about Lamarck’s theory was that he posited that characteristics acquired by an organism during its lifetime could be genetically passed on to its progeny. At the time, Lamarck’s theories gained many enemies and he died 20 years later: penniless and largely unacknowledged. Fifty years after Philosophie Zoologique, Darwin published On the Origin of Species. While Darwin did acknowledge Lamarck’s contribution, he disagreed with his idea that acquired characteristics could be passed on to the next generation. The ascendancy of Darwinian theory meant that few scientists pursued Lamarck’s ideas with much vigour. (Although Austrian Walter Kammerer’s experiments with the midwife toad seemed to confirm Lamarck’s theories; in the Soviet Union, agronomist Trofim Lysenko used Lamarckian theory to improve crops.) It was Steele and his colleague Reg Gorzynski who advanced the research to prove Lamarck right. In 1979, Steele (a fiery and driven character) published his findings in Somatic Selection and Adaptive Evolution. Like Lamarck, Steele was challenged by the prevailing scientific community – ultimately, he was driven, or drove himself, out of the academy. However, 200 years after his work was first published, Lamarck’s theories are finding their place.

Ross Honeywill makes what already was a fascinating story into a wonderfully compelling narrative that puts all the pieces together. In doing so, he has done science a great service.

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