Saturday, April 5, 2008

The Real Jean-Baptiste Lamarck?

Well, I set out to write something about Lamarck today, and as usual, I ran into a brick wall that prevented me from writing the article I set out to write. This is the nature of history. I think I have a great story, but the facts just don't fit it. I guess I'll leave the lying to those with less scruples.

The problems started when I looked beyond Wikipedia for better information. Always a bad idea. Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of Wikipedia, but I also belong to the school of thought that considers multiple sources to be better. This is almost as fatal a flaw as honesty. If I'd just stick to Wikipedia, my life would be easy, and my views on history would fit into a tidy, sometimes one sided, little box.

So I set out looking for articles explaining Lamarck's theories on evolution, and their significance to the history of science. I ran into an article that threw me for a bit of a loop, even though nothing in it really surprised me. You can find the article here. It's done by a group called the Textbook League, and basically rails against textbooks that overstate Lamarck's work in an attempt to pit Lamarck against Darwin in a sort of evolutionary battle royale. It states that Lamarck's achievements are overstated, and made more scientific than they actually were.

Of course, I was aware that a great deal of Lamarck's theory was total bunk, and that much of it was taken from earlier works. His belief that evolution works towards "perfection" is hardly helpful, and his belief in spontaneous generation was fairly ludicrous. The only part of the theory that is credible is the proposition that organisms evolve to better survive in their environment. However, this is proposed in terms of a sideways evolution. Basically, environments make creatures evolve, sidetracking them in their "quest" for perfection.

So after thinking about it for a while, I was left questioning what Lamarck's contribution to science actually was. I guess it could be stated that he helped to start enquiry into evolution, and that the chain he started lead indirectly to the much better work of Darwin and others. But should we really be treating Lamarck as a giant of evolutionary biology?

I'd be really interested to hear what other people think about this! So if anyone else has ever delved into this chapter of history, I'd love to hear from you, agree or disagree.

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