The Most Unfairly Treated Person in the History of Science

By Ross Pomeroy - RCP Staff
May 21, 2020
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In the mid-20th century, under Joseph Stalin's Soviet regime in Russia, Trofim Lysenko pushed an ideological system of agriculture that, among many questionable planks, contended that various crop plants could be physically reshaped and their new characteristics passed on, thus producing more food. Lysenkoism became state dogma amidst Stalin's war on 'western' genetics, and the effects were predictably tragic: crops failed and tens of millions starved.

Lysenko's notion that acquired traits can be inherited did not originate with him. Rather, he repurposed ideas expounded upon by French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who himself repurposed commonly held ideas.

"[Lamarck] merely endorsed a belief which had been generally accepted for at least 2,200 years before his time and used it to explain how evolution could have taken place," historian of science Conway Zirkle wrote.

In Lamarck's book Philosophie Zoologique, published in 1809, he described two laws to explain biological evolution, constituting the first cohesive theory to do so, later dubbed 'Lamarckism'. Bryan M. Turner, a Professor of Experimental Genetics at the University of Birmingham in the U.K., described them in a 2013 article.

"The first law explains the idea that the strength, capacity, or capabilities of an organ can be enhanced by use, or diminished by disuse.

The second law proposes that the changes brought about by organisms’ own efforts (through use–disuse) can be transmitted to succeeding generations, thereby allowing evolutionary progression…. Lamarck was well aware that the changes he proposed required long periods of time."

Lamarck also thought that evolution drives organisms to increasingly complex, more perfect forms. 

These ideas all turned out to be wrong, but keep in mind that this was fifty years before Charles Darwin would publish On the Origin of Species, which convincingly argued the case for evolution by natural selection. Far from espousing boneheaded ideas, Lamarck was making an honest attempt to promote and explain evolution at a time when few in the scientific community even deigned to consider it.

Unfortunately, Lamarck's reputation has been tarnished by others' attempts to use his theory of inheriting acquired characteristics to question Darwinian evolution in defiance of scientific evidence. Today, "Lamarckism" is almost a dirty word in biology.

However, as a scientist, Lamarck was dutifully dedicated to following the facts, and likely would not have supported his ideas being adopted by pseudoscientists (like Lysenko), nor would he have opposed natural selection.

"I suspect there would have been no fundamental disagreement from Lamarck about the concept of natural selection itself," Turner wrote. "Like his own evolutionary ideas it was based on extensive and careful observation of the living world. Nature's continual selection of naturally occurring, heritable variants provides a mechanism for change that is unavoidable, an inevitable consequence of life itself, as Lamarck proposed."

In fact, the inimitable Charles Darwin did not think of Lamarck as a rival, but as a forebear.

"Lamarck was the first man whose conclusions on [evolution] excited much attention…" Darwin wrote. "He first did the eminent service of arousing attention to the probability of all changes in the organic, as well as in the inorganic world, being the result of law, and not of miraculous interposition."

Towards the end of his career, Lamarck apparently began questioning his own theory.

"He started out thinking that evolution is a progressive force leading upward and he completely reversed himself based upon the evidence," Yale neurologist Steven Novella remarked on a recent episode of The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. "He did experiments. He looked at the fossil record and said 'nope, it’s just adaptation to local environment – that's it'. He listened to the evidence over his preconceived notions and changed his mind. Good for him."

Though Lamarckism is commonly associated with charlatans and pseudoscience, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck himself is a model of scientific integrity, proving that you don't have to be always be correct to be a great scientist.

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