What Lamarck and Darwin had in common

In my series on the phases of theistic evolution I touched on the interesting link between the spirit of the age and which scientific theories (and what kind of theistic evolution) are popular, or even possible. It’s hard sometimes to tell what dictates that spirit, but it does seem that it is at least as much the case, or possibly more so, that worldview dictates science rather than that the scientific evidence forms the worldview. Which is curious indeed.

I’ve no idea why that should be, but if it’s true, then one would expect Darwinian evolution to have beeen “a theory waiting to happen” rather than “a discovery that changed the world”. One would also expect that, if the Darwinian paradigm is ever replaced, it is more likely to happen because people no longer want to buy into it than because the evidence disproves it. That’s a bit depressing for natural scientists, but probably quite good news for sociologists.

What I want to do in this post is just offer some supporting evidence for the thesis that Darwin’s contribution was to put plausible flesh on the existing hopes and expectations of his age, through the examples of predecessors and especially of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Like Paley, Lamarck is one of those guys that we all refer to as “debunked”, but have never read. But Lamarck, in a number of ways, anticipated salient features of Darwin’s theory, as did other writers of the 18th century who, for the most part, were Deists like Darwin.

Let me start with Lamarck’s predecessor and patron Georges Buffon (1707-88). Though he is said to have publicly affirmed his Catholic faith on his deathbed, he was in frequent trouble with the Church for his views, and one biographer says,  “…he almost certainly was a deist in the 1730s and may very well have become an atheist in his later years.” This source continues: “He recognized that the wonderful intricacies of nature’s productions, especially plants and animals, and the astonishing fertility of natural processes could not be used as evidence of God’s existence or of His providential concern and powers.” Much of his wide-ranging work on natural phenomena was very speculative, but despite any real evidence: “[b]y the 1780s Buffon regarded events in nature as the mere result of blind chance and believed that ‘nature’ itself was no more than an assemblage of regular but probably inscrutable laws. Their delimitation remained the naturalist’s foremost task.”

So we see in Buffon one of the first to give chance the main creative role apart from God, a concept that has carried on through Darwin to the present day, but is still as much a metaphysical assertion as it was originally, rather than a scientific deduction.

Lamarck’s popular image is of the man who said that organisms evolve through the need, or desire, to do so, inheriting what they manage to acquire in life. The evolution part of that, at least, is right, but was not unique to Lamarck. His older contemporary James Hutton (1726-97), another Deist, who was the first to suggest deep time through the observations of geology, wrote this:

“…if an organised body is not in the situation and circumstances best adapted to its sustenance and propagation, then, in conceiving an indefinite variety among the individuals of that species, we must be assured, that, on the one hand, those which depart most from the best adapted constitution, will be the most liable to perish, while, on the other hand, those organised bodies, which most approach to the best constitution for the present circumstances, will be best adapted to continue, in preserving themselves and multiplying the individuals of their race.” – Investigation of the Principles of Knowledge, volume 2.[40]

This quite remarkable passage anticipates not only Darwin’s idea of infinitely shaded variation, but even natural selection. Indeed, though it does not actually teach the mutability of species, one could say the idea is inherent, since those “best adapted” survivors will also show “indefinite variety”. In the absence of Darwin’s extensive field study, one could see Hutton’s thesis as remarkably prescient. But an alternative view was that his Deistic presuppositions, like those of Buffon, made some such concept a requirement.

Lamarck (1744-1829), despite his differences from Darwin, nevertheless suggests many of the key features of Darwin’s theory. That Darwin does not acknowledge his debt, though he does interact with, and even accept, Lamarckian notions in later editions of the Origin, is probably because such ideas were, in fact, common currency in the circles in which he moved. Let’s look at some of them.

First, ateleology:

Life, in a body whose order and state of affairs can make it manifest, is assuredly, as I have said, a real power that gives rise to numerous phenomena. This power has, however, neither goal nor intention. It can do only what it does; it is only a set of acting causes, not a particular being. I was the first to establish this truth at a time when life was still thought to be a principle, an archeia, a being of some sort.
‘Système Analytique des Connaissances Positives de l’Homme, restreintes a celles qui proviennent directement ou indirectement de I’observation’ (1820), trans. M. H. Shank and quoted in Madeleine Barthélemy-Madaule, Lamarck the Mythical Precursor: A Study of the Relations between Science and Ideology (1982), 102.

This disposes, for a start, of the misapprehension that Lamarck’s evolution was based on some “desire” for change. But it proves that ateleology was the spur for evolutionary theory from the start. Yet for all Lamarck’s claim to have established this “truth”, it is still just a metaphysical assumption. How does he know that his giraffe doesn’t aim at tallness (or some life principle, or God’s will)? Lamarck actually used the example of the giraffe, stretching its neck for food, and acquring and passing on its advantage. Darwin used the same example in terms of natural selection. But in fact both, together with many successors their successors, have now been shown to be wrong about the height of food determining giraffe height, so neither has disproved teleology. It is a mere assertion.

The power of time and chance is also a theme of Lamarck as it was of Buffon:

On our planet, all objects are subject to continual and inevitable changes which arise from the essential order of things. These changes take place at a variable rate according to the nature, condition, or situation of the objects involved, but are nevertheless accomplished within a certain period of time. Time is insignificant and never a difficulty for Nature. It is always at her disposal and represents an unlimited power with which she accomplishes her greatest and smallest tasks.
Hydrogéologie (1802), trans. A. V. Carozzi (1964), 61.

Now at this time Hutton’s ideas on deep time were very far from established – it took Lyell’s work to do that. Darwin is remembered for depending on Lyell’s chronology to allow the time his theory would require, yet 57 years earlier Lamarck needed no such evidence to make the same claim about the creative powers of time. Presumably the need for gradual evolution required such time, and maybe too the “sidelining” of God from nature rejuvenated the old classical idea of an eternal earth. It’s an interesting thing that, now the complexities of life are better understood, even a time frame far greater than these early biologists envisioned has become a constraint rather than an explanation. And time is still not a causal agent.

A similar passage adds another dimension:

The great age of the earth will appear greater to man when he understands the origin of living organisms and the reasons for the gradual development and improvement of their organization. This antiquity will appear even greater when he realizes the length of time and the particular conditions which were necessary to bring all the living species into existence. This is particularly true since man is the latest result and present climax of this development, the ultimate limit of which, if it is ever reached, cannot be known.
Hydrogéologie (1802), trans. A. V. Carozzi (1964), 77.

Here this creative role of time is held responsible, as it was by Darwin, for the creation even of mankind. So mankind’s common descent from the animals was a requirement, rather than a deduction, of evolutionary theory. Necessarily, it had to provide a fully comprehensive account of man:

It would be an easy task to show that the characteristics in the organization of man, on account of which the human species and races are grouped as a distinct family, are all results of former changes of occupation, and of acquired habits, which have come to be distinctive of individuals of his kind. When, compelled by circumstances, the most highly developed apes accustomed themselves to walking erect, they gained the ascendant over the other animals. The absolute advantage they enjoyed, and the new requirements imposed on them, made them change their mode of life, which resulted in the gradual modification of their organization, and in their acquiring many new qualities, and among them the wonderful power of speech.
Quoted in Ernst Heinrich Philipp August Haeckel The Evolution of Man (1897), Vol. 1, 70.

Related to this is the idea, so fundamental to Darwin but so alien to contemporary evolutionary theory, of progessive complexity and perfection:

The plan followed by nature in producing animals clearly comprises a predominant prime cause. This endows animal life with the power to make organization gradually more complex, and to bring increasing complexity and perfection not only to the total organization but also to each individual apparatus when it comes to be established by animal life. This progressive complication of organisms was in effect accomplished by the said principal cause in all existing animals. Occasionally a foreign, accidental, and therefore variable cause has interfered with the execution of the plan, without, however, destroying it. This has created gaps in the series, in the form either of terminal branches that depart from the series in several points and alter its simplicity, or of anomalies observable in specific apparatuses of various organisms.
Histoire Naturelle des Animaux sans Vertèbres (1815-22), Vol. 1, 133. In Pietro Corsi, The Age of Lamarck: Evolutionary Theories in France 1790-1830, trans. J. Mandelbaum (1988), 189.

Evolution here is a “prime cause” (is this a conscious rebuttal of Aristotle’s “Prime Cause”, God?). Note that, although chance is part of the process, as in Darwin, its effect is minimised by the “prime cause” to a few anomalies. Like God, it achieves near-perfection.

Although Lamarck did not have Darwin’s idea of natural selection, he too emphasises the role of the environment, rather than the organism:

It is not the organs — that is, the character and form of the animal’s bodily parts — that have given rise to its habits and particular structures. It is the habits and manner of life and the conditions in which its ancestors lived that have in the course of time fashioned its bodily form, its organs and qualities.

Given, as before, the lack of empirical evidence, one may wonder why both Lamarck and Darwin emphasised the environment so much. Perhaps the reason is the key need to eliminate teleology entirely, by attributing the creative role, ultimately, to a lifeless environment. So perhaps against our expectation, far from attributing evolution to some kind of animal desire, Lamarck too tries, though less successfully than Darwin, to account for a designed-looking world by undirected and unplanned processes.

In one way Lamarck is bolder than Darwin, in that unlike him he proposes a Origin of Life Theory:

Spontaneous generation, he considered, might be easily conceived as resulting from such agencies as heat and electricity causing in small gelatinous bodies an utricular structure, and inducing a “singular tension”, a kind of “éréthisme” or “orgasme”. Link

There is an interesting continuum here between Lamarck’s ideas, his contemporary Mary Shelley’s 1818 Frankenstein, and the Miller-Urey experiments of the twentieth century. All of them treat life as an essentially simple, emergent property of matter plus raw energy. All of them, too, grossly underestimate the problems involved. And all of them, like the whole of early evolutionary theory and the broad concept of evolution today, depend ultimately on metaphysical assumptions running in a direct line from Buffon.

Deism is a discredited theology, but its presuppositions still underpin our biological sciences. Who would have thought it?

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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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