It has been customary for me to write a post every 1st of August celebrating the anniversary of the scientist who was, as far as I can see, the first evolutionary biologist. No, not Charles Darwin, but Jean-Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, the Chevalier de Lamarck. Born in 1744 to an impoverished branch of the French nobility, he wrote books on botany, coming to the attention of the Comte de Buffon, who employed him in the royal botanical garden in Paris. After Buffon’s death and the French Revolution, he was appointed to the least important curatorship in the new Museum of Natural History, as curator of “worms”, i.e., invertebrates.
Although originally a botanist, he became fascinated by the structure of invertebrates, and from 1801 on he argued that they had evolved in a treelike genealogy. His theory was propounded in his 1809 book “Philosophie zoologique”. Although it never convinced most zoologists, it influenced many thinkers in the early 1800s, including Charles Darwin.
Lamarck was not a crackpot but an important pioneer of invertebrate biology (he coined the words “invertebrate” and “biology”). He also put forward the first proposal for a mechanism explaining adaptation. No, not natural selection, but use and disuse. This is widely misunderstood, In what follows I want to briefly explain how it is that people who think of themselves as Lamarckians get it wrong.