Happy birthday to the first evolutionary biologist

| 114 Comments

by Joe Felsenstein

http://evolution.gs.washington.edu/felsenstein.html

Not only was he one of the most interesting evolutionary biologists, he was really the first major biologist to not only say that evolution happened, but to provide a mechanism to explain adaptation (albeit a wrong mechanism). He was born on August 1, 1744 in Bazentin-le-Petit, France. So if he had lived, he would be 267 years old today. He coined the term “invertebrate” (because he did brilliant work on them), and, for that matter, he coined the term “biology”! He did not invent “Lamarckian inheritance”, he just used it in his evolutionary mechanism – everyone back then already believed in it.

So happy birthday, Jean Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, Chevalier de Lamarck! here and here are my previous birthday postings for him, with interesting discussion over such issues as whether his evolutionary tree can really be regarded as an historical genealogy.

114 Comments

I join you in raising a toast to Lamarck’s memory.

“Quasi-Lamarckian” evolution has actually been observed in yeast through the formation and transfer of beneficial prions. You can read more about it here: http://lifeinsidethecell.blogspot.c[…]ase-and.html

Alas, Joe, he was not. Not only did Erasmus Darwin beat him by nearly a decade, both were trumped by Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis in 1745, who came up with an evolutionary biology on the basis of studying heredity (polydactyly).

Oh, and his tree is not a tree. It is a predetermined roadmap of how lineages might individually evolve. The first tree metaphor was due to Simon Peter Pallas in 1766 and the first actual phylogenetic diagram was published by Angier in 1801.

http://evolvingthoughts.net/2009/04[…]taxonomic_t/

I declared Lamarck to be

the first evolutionary biologist

John S. Wilkins said:

Alas, Joe, he was not. Not only did Erasmus Darwin beat him by nearly a decade, both were trumped by Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis in 1745, who came up with an evolutionary biology on the basis of studying heredity (polydactyly).

Looking at the description of Maupertuis’s work in Wikipedia, I don’t think he comes close enough to evolution (he has massive spontaneous generation, though some sort of selection as to which of those survive). As you are aware, evolution was mentioned by thinkers here and there all the way back to the ancient Greeks. But Lamarck is the first biologist who puts together a fairly complete package. As for Erasmus Darwin, I’d say he was the first evolutionary poet.

It is like the problem of deciding who built the first personal computer. Everyone gets to decide what constitutes a personal computer and disagree with each other. Happy birthday to Lamarck.

mrkus.rk said:

“Quasi-Lamarckian” evolution has actually been observed in yeast through the formation and transfer of beneficial prions. You can read more about it here: http://lifeinsidethecell.blogspot.c[…]ase-and.html

In that blog post, the author declares that

This, in so many, words, is the essence of Lamarckian evolution: progeny inherit the traits that their parents acquire. Because, over the course of their lifetimes, the snouts of the elephants were stretched into trunks, those elephants’ children also had long trunks.

A lot of people, noting recent work in epigenetics, are declaring that it is “Lamarckian” inheritance. I would argue that it isn’t. The essence of Lamarckian evolution was that the effects of use and disuse are adaptive, and also are passed on to the offspring. Epigenetics does not, as far as I know, involve mechanisms that tend nonrandomly to make beneficial changes – there are random changes which are then passed on to offspring quasi-permanently. To get any adaptive trend you have to invoke natural selection on these, which is certainly possible.

Note that, as I said in the original post, Lamarck did not invent inheritance of acquired characters. If you had asked people in his era whether Lamarck had discovered that, they would say “La-who? Why everyone knows that acquired characters are inherited!” Lamarck’s innovation was to invoke use and disuse to explain adaptation. The prion example is inheritance of acquired characters, but not use-and-disuse adaptation.

Joe Felsenstein said:

… Looking at the description of Maupertuis’s work in Wikipedia, I don’t think he comes close enough to evolution (he has massive spontaneous generation, though some sort of selection as to which of those survive). As you are aware, evolution was mentioned by thinkers here and there all the way back to the ancient Greeks. But Lamarck is the first biologist who puts together a fairly complete package. As for Erasmus Darwin, I’d say he was the first evolutionary poet.

Wikipedia is insufficient to evaluate him. He had a theory of species transformation, a theory of particulate heredity, and came close to Mendel’s ratio, based on empirical work. Yes, he thought there was spontaneous generation, but then so did almost everyone, including non-evolutionists. If you read some of his work, and a better history (I recommend Mary Terrall’s biography) you will see that what he produced was more like a modern evolutionary theory than anything Lamarck produced.

And Erasmus Darwin may have used poetry, but he also put forward an extensive discussion. A good source for that is King-Hele’s anthology.

Maupertuis was the first transmutationist, to be sure. He was also close to a selective explanation for this as well. Moreover, he is a transmutationist within 7 years of Linnaeus publishing the first edition of the Systema Naturae and making fixism popular.

Darwin, Erasmus. 1968. The essential writings of Erasmus Darwin; chosen and edited with a linking commentary by Desmond King-Hele. London: MacGibbon and Kee.

Terrall, Mary. 2002. The man who flattened the earth: Maupertuis and the sciences in the enlightenment. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Joe Felsenstein said:

… A lot of people, noting recent work in epigenetics, are declaring that it is “Lamarckian” inheritance. I would argue that it isn’t. The essence of Lamarckian evolution was that the effects of use and disuse are adaptive, and also are passed on to the offspring.

I’m being quite the curmudgeon tonight. Use and disuse (which was a common breeders’ folk theory appropriated by Darwin) is very different from soft inheritance (a folk theory appropriated by Lamarck). Darwin thought that inheritance was strengthened or weakened by use and disuse (e.g., cave fishes and their sight), but not that it originated by acquisition from individual experience.

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Joe Felsenstein said -

A lot of people, noting recent work in epigenetics, are declaring that it is “Lamarckian” inheritance. I would argue that it isn’t. The essence of Lamarckian evolution was that the effects of use and disuse are adaptive, and also are passed on to the offspring. Epigenetics does not, as far as I know, involve mechanisms that tend nonrandomly to make beneficial changes – there are random changes which are then passed on to offspring quasi-permanently. To get any adaptive trend you have to invoke natural selection on these, which is certainly possible.

Putting aside debates as to who was “exactly the first” evolutionary biologist and creationist distractions, this is interesting.

I was taught, I can’t recall in exactly which class, to contrast the persistent, teleological, magical thinking idea that organisms somehow have offspring with the traits which we humans would perceive them to “need” or “desire”, possibly through use of a trait impacting on the genome, which does not provide a mechanism, with the mechanism of spontaneous mutation, potentially acted on by natural selection or spread stochastically through a population.

The reason that professors bother to introduce and discard the former, which they inevitably ascribe to Lamarck, is that it is a very common way for students to misunderstand evolution.

This usage tends to make Lamarck a sympathetic figure (in fact, he was a brilliant scientist who advanced science a great deal).

Perhaps because of that, epigenetic phenomenae seem to compel some scientists to describe them as “Lamarckian”, or “neo-Lamarckian”, even though they usually involve mechanisms that Lamarck could not possibly have foreseen.

I have mixed feelings about this, for whatever that’s worth. It’s anachronistic, but Lamarck certainly does deserve to be remembered as more than the doofus side of a Socratic dialogue. (Interestingly, in Francophone areas, Lamarck is just remembered as a straight up great early scientist, with streets named after him and so on.)

john.s.wilkins said:

Joe Felsenstein said:

… Looking at the description of Maupertuis’s work in Wikipedia, I don’t think he comes close enough to evolution (he has massive spontaneous generation, though some sort of selection as to which of those survive). As you are aware, evolution was mentioned by thinkers here and there all the way back to the ancient Greeks. But Lamarck is the first biologist who puts together a fairly complete package. As for Erasmus Darwin, I’d say he was the first evolutionary poet.

Wikipedia is insufficient to evaluate him. He had a theory of species transformation, a theory of particulate heredity, and came close to Mendel’s ratio, based on empirical work. Yes, he thought there was spontaneous generation, but then so did almost everyone, including non-evolutionists. If you read some of his work, and a better history (I recommend Mary Terrall’s biography) you will see that what he produced was more like a modern evolutionary theory than anything Lamarck produced.

There was other precedent for Maupertuis’ thinking along this line. Maupertuis was also the first in physics to come up with principle of least action on theological grounds (“action” is minimized through the “wisdom of God”). Lagrange actually gave a better mathematical foundation to the concept of “action.”

But the teleological roots to these “extremum formulations” of mechanics go way back in history to the “natural tendencies” of Earth, Water, Air, and Fire to occupy their “proper positions” in the universe; and with Quintessence occupying its “natural place” in the realm of God.

This line of thinking fits in with the “giraffe’s neck example” because the anthropomorphic interpretation of “straining toward and object of desire” is consistent with the idea that “heaviness” is the straining of objects containing larger quantities of Earth to be downward where the Earth is. Other materials containing various amounts of the other “elements” thus strained toward their “natural places.”

Thanks to John Wilkins for the information about evolutionary biologists before Lamarck.

As for the issue of what mechanisms of evolution are “Lamarckian”, the major challenge for anyone putting forward a theory is explaining adaptation. Living organisms are far better-adapted than can be accounted for by pure mutation (wiithout natural selection). Lamarck’s solution to this was to invoke use-and-disuse together with inheritance of acquired characters.

But just having the rate of mutation respond to an environmental challenge is not sufficient to explain adaptation. So that is not the mechanism Lamarck was assuming. The epigenetic mechanisms I have heard of do not have a tendency to work in the direction that increases adaptation. So, for my money, they are not “Lamarckian”.

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