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Lamarck, Jean (Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet)

ideas evolution views botanist

(1744–1829) French naturalist: proposed early ideas on variation and on evolution.

Lamarck’s fame is peculiar. Part of his work, on classification and on variation, was widely approved in his own time and later; but some of his ideas on evolution were strongly attacked then and since, and partly so through misunderstanding of his emphasis and meaning.

The 11th and youngest child of poor aristocrats, he joined the army at 16, served in the Seven Years’ War, and then (for health reasons) gave up the army and, after working in a bank, began to study medicine. His interest first focused on botany, and his writing on this (especially his introduction of an easy key for classification) impressed the famous naturalist ; he became botanist to the king in 1781 and, after the Revolution, a professor of zoology in Paris in 1793. After that he worked mainly in zoology, especially on the invertebrates (a term he introduced; he was also a very early user of the word ‘biology’). After 1800 he put forward general ideas on plant and animal species, which he began to believe are not ‘fixed’. One reason for his view is that domesticated animals vary greatly from their wild originals. He proposed that in Nature it is the environment which produces change; his most quoted example is the giraffe’s neck which he thought was a result, over generations, of the animal reaching up for food. A facet of his views was that such a change could be inherited; this attracted ridicule and was largely abandoned after the work of . Somewhat unfairly, ‘Lamarckism’ is linked with the idea of inheritance of a characteristic acquired in life. In this form Lamarck has few supporters (the Soviet botanist T D Lysenko (1898–1976) was one), although recent claims have been made that acquired immunological tolerance in mice can be inherited. More broadly, Lamarck and Buffon can now be seen as having views on common descent, a ‘chain of being’ for living things, which formed a precursor to the theory of evolution offered by Darwin .

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