Lamarck in Nature.

In yesterday’s issue of Nature, Dan Graur and co-authors provide a “book review” of Lamarck’s 1809 treatise Philosophie Zoologique. It’s not so much a literary review per se as a brief essay on Lamarck’s unflattering and unwarranted legacy. Lamarck was the first to propose a scientific theory of evolution, and he coined the terms “invertebrate” and “biology”. Unfortunately, Lamarck’s important contributions are often clouded by misconceptions about what he actually said, both by critics and by modern authors who insist on (mis)labeling the inheritance of acquired characteristics as “Lamarckian”, especially when discussing epigenetics research. (For my comment on this, see here and here). Thankfully, Graur et al. hit on both of these issues, and make a much-needed appeal for clarification and recognition of Lamarck’s contributions.

Note the following parts, which are particularly important:

Recently, Lamarck has been invoked once more, again wrongly in our view, in the field of epigenetics — the study of phenotypic and gene-expression changes that occur without a change in the genetic material.

Recognition of Lamarck’s contribution is hindered by two persistent misconceptions. First, people wrongly assume that he believed in the direct induction of advantageous hereditary changes by the environment. Yet he writes repeatedly against this notion: “For, whatever the environment may do, it does not work any direct modification whatever in the shape and organization of animals.” The second misconception concerns volition. A popular caricature of Lamarckism depicts an animal, usually a giraffe, wishing to reach the upper branches of trees, and acquiring a long neck through will alone. This error may have originated from the mistranslation of the French ‘besoin‘ — meaning ‘need’ — into the ambiguous term ‘want’, which can mean both ‘desire’ and ‘need’. This poor choice by the 1914 translator was probably influenced by Cuvier’s use of the word “désir” in his damning eulogy.

More Lamarck:

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