Happy birthday to Jean-Baptiste

[Lamarck at age 35]
Lamarck at age 35. From Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.


Once again, our yearly birthday tribute to Jean-Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, born on the first day of August. Who? (“You mean the wonderful impressionist painter?” No, that’s Claude Monet. “You mean the father of the European Union?” No, that’s Jean Monnet.) I mean the Chevalier de Lamarck, for my money the first real evolutionary biologist. Some of his accomplishments:

  • Clarified systematics of invertebrates greatly (he also coined the term “invertebrate”)
  • Drew the first evolutionary tree, of animals
  • Proposed two mechanisms for evolutionary change:
    1. A generalized complexifying force, and
    2. An adaptive force, by use and disuse, combined with inheritance of these changes
  • Suggested the chimpanzee as humanity’s nearest relative

He would be 279 years old today (he died in 1829).

Something he didn’t do:

  • Invent inheritance of acquired characters (everyone already believed it).

He always gets credit for things he didn’t do, such as that. And his name gets invoked for things like epigenetic molecular modifications, which don’t work like his use-and-disuse mechanisms. And his “complexifying force” has been conveniently forgotten for at least the last 125 years. You can pretty much guarantee that if a biological process is called “Lamarckian”, it really isn’t.

His mechanism for adaptation does not work, but he really was the first to propose one. Not a crank, but a great biologist. Happy birthday!