Lamarck’s Zoological Philosophy

The epigenetic revolution has reintroduced the idea of the inheritance of acquired characteristics into evolution, to the extent that some of Darwin’s devotees are trying to spin the story that Darwin believed in it all along, and that orthodox science never denied it. Which is tosh, of course – acquired heredity was the epitome of heresy throughout my lifetime, at least. As I wrote in a zoology essay in 1968, referencing Jean-Baptiste Lamarck:

There is no evidence that body cell characteristics can be transferred to reproductive cells.

Well, that ought to have settled the matter! But with Lamarck beginning to be mentioned in polite company again without the customary sneer, I thought it might be instructive to read his original work. I find “discredited” old writers are habitually misrepresented, and in some cases that they possessed valuable insights that have been lost.

Jean-Baptiste_de_LamarckIn Lamarck’s case, he has indeed been misrepresented, but his “valuable insights” are thinner on the ground. The main reason for this is that, although he wrote only two centuries ago, the state of science was just so different from ours that one quickly sees how few tools he had available to him to understand the processes of life. Remember that the science of “biology” was so young that the very word was first coined by him. On the other hand, given such ignorance, he did astonishingly well, though it’s easy to deny him enough credit since so much has changed.

One instance of his positive insights, which may lead into a wider discussion, is that he suggested that nerves function by the rapid transmission of a subtle fluid along them. The writer of the Introduction to my 1914 facsimile edition, Hugh Elliott, is disparaging of this “vitalist” idea. But we need to remember that science had yet to introduce the whole general concept of energy, and to Lamarck the “subtle fluid” was either galvanism, or something similar. With an inadequate conceptual vocabulary, he seems actually to have hit on the idea of the action potential sixty years before it was demonstrated.

However, the restricted range of natural entities and processes available to him makes his hypotheses about life and its orgins both incredibly naive and almost incomprehensible to someone from today’s scientific culture. Notably, Lamarck’s idea that life was more or less explicable by the known laws of nature acting in the interaction of “mucinous” or “gelatinous” inorganic masses and “subtle fluids” like caloric (heat energy to us), “galvanic” and “ordinary” electricity, producing “separations” and other purely mechanical effects, appears to explain nothing.

But we need to understand that in those days mechanics was science, for the most part. The whole philosophy of early modern science, which he inherited from Boyle and so on, was that a small number of divinely ordained laws acts mechanically on inert matter (particles and fluids) in different combinations, to produce all that we see. Light travelled in a fluid aether (even well into the twentieth century). The concepts of “energy” and “fields” eventually dispensed with such invisible fluids – simply by proposing other invisible, but more mystical, entities. Lamarck would have considered the idea of a particle that is a wave or vice versa mere superstitious obscurantism – and he would have had a point, since the wave-particle duality is unimaginable – and not what’s really happening anyway.

Nowadays we (within the ruling paradigm) consider that known laws of nature acting on known principles of chemistry must, somehow, explain the teleological organic something we call “life”. But why should that be any more true than Lamarck’s conjuration of the entities he thought he knew as an explanation for what he didn’t understand? Even now there are non-classical ideas being postulated by some thinkers as necessary additions to science, like the fundamental role of information in nature, or emergent laws not reducible to known laws. That doesn’t include entities or processes still as unknown to us as “energy” or “molecular biology” or “semantic codes” were to Lamarck. So one benefit of reading Lamarck is to humble us about the things we don’t know that we don’t know, by seeing how complacently confident he was in a science that is thoroughly discredited now.

Another lesson from this is that Lamarck’s incomprehensibility to us, after a mere 200 years, shows the nonsense of expecting God to have spoken scientifically in the Bible. Not only would the meaning have been opaque for most of history, but Lamarck forces us to realise that our own categories are bound to look just as comic in a century’s time as his do now. Science is not (as has often been pointed out) a steady drilling down on objective truth, but the way in which a particular society finds it helpful to understand nature. Real truths are indeed discovered, but may be possibly either useless or laughable to other societies and generations. If God had taught us Newton’s laws of gravity in Genesis, we’d have been wondering for millennia just how it is that a planet could be perceived to be huge, and yet actually be a point source, as Newton’s mathematics requires.

A further point, perhaps more honouring to Lamarck, touches on the general misunderstanding of his revolutionary evolutionary theories. He did not, in fact, teach that evolution occurs because of inner wants leading to acquired heritable traits (as I lied in my 1968 essay, though it got a tick from my zoology teacher!). In fact, he proposed two separate mechanisms (a forerunner of the separation of macroevolution and microevolution).

The first, more important, process was a lawlike tendency to increased complexity over deep time, responsible for the trajectory from simple protozoa to mammals. That he proposed this before there was any sytematic knowledge of the fossil record is remarkably astute. His second process was one of adaptation to the environment, which accounts for the diversity of individual forms. That his adaptation was based on acquired characteristics rather than random variation and natural selection appears, in context, to be a rather minor error. And if Michael Denton and others are right in thinking that natural selection cannot account for the broad sweep of “evolutionary progress”, but only adaptations to niches, Lamarck may prove in his “double theory” to have latched on to an important truth missed by Darwin and by all his orthodox successors.

The last lesson I draw from Lamarck is that, to my mind, he uncovers an increasing implausibility in materialistic science that, because it has crept up on us so slowly, has not shocked us as it should, rather like frogs failing to notice how hot the saucepan has got until it kills them. In my view he actually casts doubt on our whole received concept of “Nature”.

Lamarck was a cheerfully materialistic Deist. he believed, like most educated people of his time, that the Divine Artificer had set up the world like a clock, with its atoms and molecules as the cogs, and “subtle fluids” and “laws” as the springs. But it was his (absolutely typical) assumptions about the simplicity of what science had to explain that made that time-honoured mechanical universe plausible. Nowhere is this happy ignorance more obvious than in the matter of the spontaneous generation of life.

infusoriaThe existence of spontaneous generation was still unsettled at the time. As a working invertebrate zoologist he rejected the ancient view that it could apply to advanced oviparous creatures like insects, but had extensive personal laboratory experience of seeing it produce simple “infusoria”. We should note that though Darwin lived to see Pasteur finally disprove spontaneous generation, even his theory first developed in a context where it was seen as an observable scientific phenomenon.

Spontaneous generation made sense because unicellular and primitive metazoans were, to all appearances, truly simple and pretty homogeneous. They were defined by Lamarck (anĀ  invertebrate zoologist by profession) by their lack of organs. Not only that, but the kind of descriptions Lamarck gives for the likely mechanisms for the generation of life gloss over all complications – because to science at that time there really weren’t any complications to consider, of any consequence.

As I’ve mentioned, to him simple mucinous masses (for plants) and gelatinous ones (for plants), chancing to be in water, become infiltrated by ubiquitous “subtle fluids” of caloric (heat) galvanic (electricity) or something similar, which in combination produce separations and flows leading first to cells, then to what he called “orgasm” (the activity of cells), and then in an entirely logical progression to growth up to the limits of the particular system, then to reproduction above that limit, and finally to a gradual hardening of tissues resulting in death. That sequence seemed to him an entirely logical result of continuously applied natural forces.

Much as in Darwinism, once life exists and reproduces, he felt that evolution can then occur in response to environmental pressures. But the point I want to stress is that even if it was not fully understood, to Lamarck’s generation the actual appearance of life was (a) an intrinsically relatively simple problem and (b) a phenomenon widely observed, and therefore subsumed by the principle of uniformity: what we see happening now also must have been what happened in the deep past.

Lamarck is uncertain as to how far up the evolutionary scale such spontaneous generation occurs. But he has great faith in Nature (whom he personifies outrageously as a benign mother goddess, rather as moderns personify evolution), because basically she has only a relatively simple task given her by the distant God. He writes:

…it seems to me certain at all events that nature actually carries out such generations at the beginning of each kingdom of living bodies, and that she could never, except through this medium, have brought into existence the animals and plants which live on our earth. (p.248).

Now consider again what he means by this: spontaneous generation is a necessary deduction from the existence of life if life occurs naturally; nature has theoretically all the mechanical tools necessary to perform the task easily; nature is regularly observed to perform it, bringing it fully into the purview of science.

Against that background, the final overturning of spontaneous generation by Louis Pasteur in 1859 ought to have been a Copernican revolution for naturalism. Suddenly, all the easy assumptions of atomistic science – that a few laws pushing a few atoms around could explain a basically simple natural realm – were found wanting. Suddenly, from being an easily-demonstrated process of nature, life appeared – or ought to have appeared, from the evidence – miraculous. Darwin’s simultaneously-published theory of universal common descent (both 1859) was vindicated, but if life only comes from life, then its creation proves never to have been observed, nature no longer demonstrates the ability to create it, and there is no longer any actual evidence that life came about through natural processes. On the contrary, the principle of uniformity would strongly suggest that what nature doesn’t do now, “She” (God bless her!) never did at all.

magic2But the Deistic belief in Nature as a self-contained mechanical realm autonomous of God was too deeply rooted an axiom to overturn, even though it had only existed for two centuries. Belief in Nature, whether Deistic, or increasingly agnostic or atheistic, did not follow the obvious conclusion through, so that ever since, Darwin’s suggestion that God created the first form or forms has been treated as purely a metaphor for “Nature did it”: and that is as true for those who believe in God as for those who don’t. But it is, scientifically speaking, surely significant that nature doesn’t any longer do it – at least as Deistic scientists like Lamarck taught us to see Nature; that is, as a set of simple laws and particles running autonomously of God’s government.

The blindness to how utterly Pasteur had undercut the “life is easy-peasy” assumptions of scientific materialism becomes even more surprising as we see how biology progressively revealed that its complexity is exponentially more than had ever been imagined. In 1859 Pasteur showed that nature could not, after all, routinely create what was seen as a relatively simple phenomenon. In our time Nature’s abilities have not yet been shown to be much greater, conjectural “emergent laws” notwithstanding. But the task “She” has to perform is known to be almost infinitely greater. There is no simple life, we now know. serious biologists like Eugene Koonin invoke multiple universes just to account for the arrival of DNA, which is just a small part of the whole picture even of the most basic life we know. Belief in a “natural cause” for life is now purely a faith position, whereas in Lamarck’s day it was observational (if wrong) science.

David Berlinksi was right in his assessment that if life, to Watson and Crick, seemed like a Buick, it should now be understood to be a galaxy, such is the complexity. To Lamarck, of course, it was a shopping trolley. Now ID is criticised (incorrectly) for claiming that life is just too complicated to come about by natural processes. That is not its claim, but seen historically, such skepticism would be entirely justified. The science we know has become immensely more complicated since Lamarck’s time, but nothing in what we know currently comes anywhere like as close to explaining the complexity of what we know of life, as Lamarck was able to assume from his knowledge of both nature and biology. The goal has retreated by many light years – and we haven’t any idea how to build a hyperdrive to reach it.

But as far as I can judge the problem is not that science needs simply to try harder to probe the secrets of nature. Rather it is that the whole concept of “Nature” is a false one, a product of an Enlightenment dichotomy between God and his Creation that is fundamentally flawed. Most of the argument between TEs and IDists (when they’re not just slagging each other off) is about whether the business of life is “natural” or “supernatural”.

Yet in biblical terms (and, I venture to suggest, in the material reality that surrounds us) to ask whether a phenomenon is “natural” or “supernatural” is like asking whether the music you hear from a guitar is mechanical or human. The guitar is entirely mechanical, but the player is not, and you can’t hear one without hearing the other. Scripture presents nature rather as an instrument God plays, than as a clock he winds up.

Or a better (certainly more Scriptural) analogy is that Creation is God’s household (oikonomos). You could do time and motion studies on the staff, measure the architecture or monitor the power consumption, but unless you take account of what the head of the household is doing with it, your picture will be woefully insufficient.

Everything but the Girl - a crucial omission.

Everything but the Girl – a crucial omission.

Lamarck teaches me that we’ll only be able to explain life as a “natural” process by constructing a vastly broader model of science. My own conviction is that we will only achieve that by dissolving the false dichotomy between “natural” and “supernatural” – that is, by bringing God back into natural science as its governor and sustainer. Is it possible? I don’t know, because it hasn’t been widely attempted for 400 years. But you’d expect it to be possible to represent reality somehow.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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4 Responses to Lamarck’s Zoological Philosophy

  1. Robert Byers says:

    Darwin did say women could increase thier intellect to the level of men by carefully educating the girls and then by reproducing raise the sex. At least in this he thought acquired traits could be passed on.
    I think Lamarck was just guessing about complicated things. they still are. The bible makes real boundaries by not mechanisms.
    i do think we have triggering mechanisms within our bodies to change our bodies and so this is passed on. Human colours being the big case too me.
    I also need it as i see marine mammals suddenly to the seas after the flood from the land. likewise I see marsupials as just placentals who changed upon migration, suddenly, and ever since have the pouch.
    I think a triggering mechanism is within biology and thats the only way to change the genes and this be carried to the kids.

  2. pngarrison says:

    Jon, I don’t disagree with you on the difficulties for the origin of life, but comparing “now” to “then” is quite pointless. Even if the beginnings of life started now, it would immediately be faced with a ubiquitous presence of microbes and hydrolytic enzymes released from dying cells that coat everything in the world now, all “eager” to degrade or devour any molecule that looked at all lifelike. The situation was of course completely different in a pre-biotic environment. It did at least have that advantage.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      You’re quite right Preston. But my main point was that the apparent experimental evidence for spontaneous generation put the problem for Lamarck in a different order. He observed reality, theorised the “how” (details to follow with more detailed research), and then projected back to the beginning of life – although there was hardly any point, any more than the would be in discussing the first time hydrogen reacted with oxygen to form water: it’s no mystery when it happens all the time.

      It’s the old uniformitarian principle – if nature did something in the past, she used the same laws and materials that are operating now.

      And then, with Pasteur, reality irrevocably changes, and you have to start with a naturalistic origin of life as an undemonstrated axiom, and then explain why it doesn’t happen today. Your unequal competition answer is true, but has also to be combined with an assumption that it would be a difficult process anyway, or else it would be reproducible simply by using Pasteur’s apparatus to exclude the competition. As it is, everything we look at is a problem, down to the rather basic chirality problem.

      My other point, on the agreed difficulties of OoL, was that Lamarck woefully underestimated the problem not just because he was wrong about spontaneous generation, but because his conceptual apparatus was woefully inadequate: his kind of biology would never solve the problem without entirely new input from physics (energy etc), information theory (DNA transcription).

      I suggest that OoL is intractable not just through lack of knowledge, but through lack of concepts. More contentiously (well, it provokes thinking, doesn’t it?) I suggest that the kind of concepts needed may just not be available within the materialistic model of science we’ve inherited from Lamarck.

      Theologically, by regarding nature as an autonomous machine, we regard the invocation of God as a methodological error, the God of the Gaps, working miracles when he can’t program the machine to do it. I’m suggesting that things look different if we regard nature (as does the Bible) as God’s instrument, or household. Then there are no gaps, but equally we must recognise that all our materialistic science is at best addressing a smaller subset of reality than we think or, more likely, that every part of it is blind to the big picture.

      How would that work? It would be unfair to ask me to invent the science of the future – I’m just suggesting the need for it. But I guess the foundational reality of information, of mind and of teleology are areas that some are already working on, because the problems being tackled appear to require it.

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