Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Larmarck: Another Textbook, Another Bad Rap


Last month, I substituted for a seventh grade science teacher. The topic du jour was evolution. There's been no controversy about course content in Pocahontas County since I've been here, but I must say that the text explained evolution so poorly that it's no wonder many people don't believe in it.

Among other flaws, the text juxtaposed natural selection with the inheritance of acquired characteristics. "Lamarck believed in the inheritance of acquired characteristics, while Darwin believed in the inheritance of inherited characteristics." I paraphrase, but the authors should be ashamed of both the non-parallel comparison and the tautology they attribute to Darwin. In fact, Darwin knew of no mechanism for inheritance, and didn't discount inheritance of acquired characteristics.

This set me thinking of all the biology textbooks I've had to use through the years. Poor Jean-Baptiste Lamarck took a beating in most of them. I spent a little time tracking down articles about him, and I felt even worse about all the Lamarck abuse, as he had a difficult life, and was eventually evicted even from his rented grave. The University of California Museum of Paleontology's biographical sketch of Lamarck points out Lamarck's great contributions to the study of invertebrate taxonomy and anatomy, a field dear to my heart.

Aside from a stint as tutor to Buffon's son during a tour of Europe in 1781, Lamarck continued as an underpaid assistant at the Jardin du Roi, living in poverty (and having to defend his job from cost-cutting bureaucrats in the National Assembly) until 1793. That year, the same year that Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette went to the guillotine, the old Jardin des Plantes was reorganized as the Musee National d'Histoire Naturelle (National Museum of Natural History), which was to be run by twelve professors in twelve different scientific fields. Lamarck, who had called for this reorganization, was appointed a professor -- of the natural history of insects and worms (that is, of all invertebrates), a subject he knew nothing about.

To be fair to Lamarck, we should mention that since the time of Linnaeus, few naturalists had considered the invertebrates worthy of study. The word "invertebrates" did not even exist at the time; Lamarck coined it. The invertebrate collections at the Musee were enormous and rapidly growing, but poorly organized and classified. Although the professors at the Musee were theoretically equal in rank, the professorship of "insects and worms" was definitely the least prestigious. But Lamarck took on the enormous challenge of learning -- and creating -- a new field of biology. The sheer number and diversity of invertebrates proved to be both a challenge and a rich source of knowledge.

Here are some links to biographical material, modern, well-informed discussions of Lamarck's ideas, and English translations of Lamarck's books. There's not an exposition of giraffe neck stretching among them.


Jonathan Badger said...

I've always wondered if the constant Lamarck-dissing found in textbooks isn't really an effect of the Cold War. After all, until the downfall of Lysenko in the 1960s, so called "Neo-Lamarckian" theories were quite popular in the Soviet Union where the parallels between natural selection and the free market made the former politically suspect. So perhaps Lamarck was seen as the Commie Evolutionist by textbook writers in the West.

Rebecca Clayton said...

That's a very interesting idea, Jonathan. I wonder when the original Lamarck vs. Darwin dichotomy first turned up? Text books plagiarize one another quite shamelessly--perhaps we could pinpoint the original author and find out.