Happy 265th Birthday

By Joe Felsenstein, http://www.gs.washington.edu/faculty/felsenstein.htm

265 years ago today was the birth of the first major evolutionary biologist. On 1 August 1744, in Bazentin-le-Petit, France, Jean Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet was born into the impoverished minor nobility.—Who?—He is best known by his title, the Chevalier de Lamarck.

He was the first major biologist to argue that organisms had evolved, the first to suggest a mechanism for the evolution of adaptations, and the first to draw an evolutionary tree that branched. He is also unfairly criticized by many biologists.

Two misconceptions:

  • He was not a pseudoscientist or a quack, but was the great figure of invertebrate biology (he coined the word “invertebrate” and the word “biology”).
  • He was not the originator or major advocate of inheritance of acquired characters (miscalled “Lamarckian inheritance”). He accepted it and used it in his mechanism, but he had nothing to do with its wide acceptance.

His mechanism for evolution turned out not to be right, but he does deserve the designation on his statue in the Jardin des Plantes; “Fondateur de la doctrine de l’Évolution”.