Friday, March 17, 2006

 

The Imaginary Lamarck (The Textbook Letter)

A Look at Bogus "History" in Schoolbooks

Michael T. Ghiselin

Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck (1744-1829) takes a prominent place in many biology textbooks and life-science textbooks, which depict him as the author of a "theory" of evolution based upon the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Lamarck's views, these books say, should be rejected in favor of the theory of evolution by natural selection, propounded by Charles Darwin (1809-1882), because only Darwin's theory is compatible with the findings of 20th-century genetics.

The Lamarck presented in schoolbooks, however, is a fiction -- an imaginary figure who has been fashioned from hearsay and wrong guesses, and who has been replicated in countless books by successive teams of plagiarists. This figure shares very little, except his name, with the Lamarck of history. Textbook-writers have imbued the fictitious Lamarck with an importance that the real Lamarck never had, and they have credited him with ideas that the real Lamarck did not hold. They also have invented a myth in which those ideas are compared falsely with Darwin's ideas, to produce a bogus dichotomy.

Textbooks typically introduce Lamarck with a flourish, as in this passage from Prentice Hall's Biology: The Study of Life:

One of the first theories of evolution was presented by the French biologist Jean Baptiste de Lamarck in 1809. From his studies of animals, Lamarck became convinced that species were not constant. Instead, he believed that they evolved from preexisting species. . . . According to Lamarck's theory, evolution involved two principles. He called his first principle the law of use and disuse. . . . The second part of Lamarck's theory was the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Lamarck assumed that the characteristics an organism developed through use and disuse could be passed on to its offspring.

Much the same material appears in Holt's Biology Today:

In 1809 a French biologist named Jean Baptiste de Lamarck presented an explanation of the origin of species in his work Zoological Philosophy. Lamarck developed a theory of evolution based on his belief in two biological processes:

1) The use and disuse of organs. According to Lamarck, organisms respond to changes in their environment by developing new organs or changing the structure and function of old organs. . . .

2) Inheritance of acquired traits. Lamarck believed that acquired characteristics were passed on to the organism's offspring....

Such claims give many false or misleading impressions, starting with the implication that Lamarck's views were original.

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