Happy birthday, Jean-Baptiste

Yesterday, the 1st of August was the 275th anniversary of the birth of Jean-Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, Chevalier de Lamarck. Although often mistakenly regarded as a pseudoscientist, Lamarck was actually a great pioneer of invertebrate biology (he coined both the terms “invertebrate” and “biology”) and he was the first major evolutionary biologist. Admittedly, his theory accounting for adaptation was wrong. But that does not detract from his being the first major scientist to put forward a mechanism for evolving adaptations, and being one of the first to suggest common ancestry of many forms of life.

I have been accustomed to doing an annual post honoring Lamarck, so I will not try to summarize his life and works. But let me add a few biographical details that are lesser-known.

You may not know that …

  1. Lamarck was brave. He was born into a family of impoverished minor nobility (being a Chevalier without the accompanying money). He studied for the priesthood, but when he was 16 his father died and he set off to join the French army. It was fighting in Germany, and he was a volunteer at the Battle of Fissinghausen in 1761, which occurred somewhere between the towns of Hamm and Lipstadt in North Rhine-Westphalia, east of Dortmund. The battle was a disaster for the French. Lamarck’s artillery company was decimated, and there were no officers left. The other soldiers suggested that Lamarck take command. He refused to retreat and kept the soldiers at their posts. When finally relieved, he was immediately given a battlefield promotion to Lieutenant.

  2. His army career ended ignominiously. Not in battle, but some years later, in peacetime wrestling with another soldier in the barracks. He was lifted by his head, which stretched his neck and led to neck problems. He was invalided from the army and ended up in Paris.

  3. He was married 3 (or 4) times and had 6 (or 7) children. But he had his limitations as a parent. One of his sons, a successful engineer, Auguste de Lamarck, wrote in 1865 that

His conduct in this respect was not without reproach. Without doubt it is beautiful to devote oneself to science without any view of ambition or fortune, but it is on the condition that the interests of the family will not suffer.

Apparently Lamarck’s family lived in great poverty.

Of course what is left out in all this is his scientific achievements, which were extraordinarily important.