A History of Science
Henry Smith Williams 
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 4, chapter VI
Theories of organic evolution
Lamarck versus Cuvier
And even Goethe and Darwin had scarcely passed beyond that tentative stage of conviction in which they held the thought of transmutation of species as an ancillary belief not ready for full exposition. There was one of their contemporaries, however, who, holding the same conception, was moved to give it full explication. This was the friend and disciple of Buffon, Jean Baptiste de Lamarck. Possessed of the spirit of a poet and philosopher, this great Frenchman had also the widest range of technical knowledge, covering the entire field of animate nature. The first half of his long life was devoted chiefly to botany, in which he attained high distinction. Then, just at the beginning of the nineteenth century, he turned to zoology, in particular to the lower forms of animal life. Studying these lowly organisms, existing and fossil, he was more and more impressed with the gradations of form everywhere to be seen; the linking of diverse families through intermediate ones; and in particular with the predominance of low types of life in the earlier geological strata. Called upon constantly to classify the various forms of life in the course of his systematic writings, he found it more and more difficult to draw sharp lines of demarcation, and at last the suspicion long harbored grew into a settled conviction that there is really no such thing as a species of organism in nature; that "species" is a figment of the human imagination, whereas in nature there are only individuals.

That certain sets of individuals are more like one another than like other sets is of course patent, but this only means, said Lamarck, that these similar groups have had comparatively recent common ancestors, while dissimilar sets of beings are more remotely related in consanguinity. But trace back the lines of descent far enough, and all will culminate in one original stock. All forms of life whatsoever are modified descendants of an original organism. From lowest to highest, then, there is but one race, one species, just as all the multitudinous branches and twigs from one root are but one tree. For purposes of convenience of description, we may divide organisms into orders, families, genera, species, just as we divide a tree into root, trunk, branches, twigs, leaves; but in the one case, as in the other, the division is arbitrary and artificial.

In Philosophie Zoologique (1809), Lamarck first explicitly formulated his ideas as to the transmutation of species, though he had outlined them as early as 1801. In this memorable publication not only did he state his belief more explicitly and in fuller detail than the idea had been expressed by any predecessor, but he took another long forward step, carrying him far beyond all his forerunners except Darwin, in that he made an attempt to explain the way in which the transmutation of species had been brought about. The changes have been wrought, he said, through the unceasing efforts of each organism to meet the needs imposed upon it by its environment. Constant striving means the constant use of certain organs. Thus a bird running by the seashore is constantly tempted to wade deeper and deeper in pursuit of food; its incessant efforts tend to develop its legs, in accordance with the observed principle that the use of any organ tends to strengthen and develop it. But such slightly increased development of the legs is transmitted to the off spring of the bird, which in turn develops its already improved legs by its individual efforts, and transmits the improved tendency. Generation after generation this is repeated, until the sum of the infinitesimal variations, all in the same direction, results in the production of the long-legged wading-bird. In a similar way, through individual effort and transmitted tendency, all the diversified organs of all creatures have been developed - the fin of the fish, the wing of the bird, the hand of man; nay, more, the fish itself, the bird, the man, even. Collectively the organs make up the entire organism; and what is true of the individual organs must be true also of their ensemble, the living being.

Whatever might be thought of Lamarck's explanation of the cause of transmutation - which really was that already suggested by Erasmus Darwin - the idea of the evolution for which he contended was but the logical extension of the conception that American animals are the modified and degenerated descendants of European animals. But people as a rule are little prone to follow ideas to their logical conclusions, and in this case the conclusions were so utterly opposed to the proximal bearings of the idea that the whole thinking world repudiated them with acclaim. The very persons who had most eagerly accepted the idea of transmutation of European species into American species, and similar limited variations through changed environment, because of the relief thus given the otherwise overcrowded ark, were now foremost in denouncing such an extension of the doctrine of transmutation as Lamarck proposed.

And, for that matter, the leaders of the scientific world were equally antagonistic to the Lamarckian hypothesis. Cuvier in particular, once the pupil of Lamarck, but now his colleague, and in authority more than his peer, stood out against the transmutation doctrine with all his force. He argued for the absolute fixity of species, bringing to bear the resources of a mind which, as a mere repository of facts, perhaps never was excelled. As a final and tangible proof of his position, he brought forward the bodies of ibises that had been embalmed by the ancient Egyptians, and showed by comparison that these do not differ in the slightest particular from the ibises that visit the Nile to-day.

Cuvier's reasoning has such great historical interest - being the argument of the greatest opponent of evolution of that day - that we quote it at some length.

"The following objections," he says, "have already been started against my conclusions. Why may not the presently existing races of mammiferous land quadrupeds be mere modifications or varieties of those ancient races which we now find in the fossil state, which modifications may have been produced by change of climate and other local circumstances, and since raised to the present excessive difference by the operations of similar causes during a long period of ages?

"This objection may appear strong to those who believe in the indefinite possibility of change of form in organized bodies, and think that, during a succession of ages and by alterations of habitudes, all the species may change into one another, or one of them give birth to all the rest. Yet to these persons the following answer may be given from their own system: If the species have changed by degrees, as they assume, we ought to find traces of this gradual modification. Thus, between the palaeotherium and the species of our own day, we should be able to discover some intermediate forms; and yet no such discovery has ever been made. Since the bowels of the earth have not preserved monuments of this strange genealogy, we have no right to conclude that the ancient and now extinct species were as permanent in their forms and characters as those which exist at present; or, at least, that the catastrophe which destroyed them did not leave sufficient time for the productions of the changes that are alleged to have taken place.

"In order to reply to those naturalists who acknowledge that the varieties of animals are restrained by nature within certain limits, it would be necessary to examine how far these limits extend. This is a very curious inquiry, and in itself exceedingly interesting under a variety of relations, but has been hitherto very little attended to. . . . . . . . .

Wild animals which subsist upon herbage feel the influence of climate a little more extensively, because there is added to it the influence of food, both in regard to its abundance and its quality. Thus the elephants of one forest are larger than those of another; their tusks also grow somewhat longer in places where their food may happen to be more favorable for the production of the substance of ivory. The same may take place in regard to the horns of stags and reindeer. But let us examine two elephants, the most dissimilar that can be conceived, we shall not discover the smallest difference in the number and articulations of the bones, the structure of the teeth, etc. . . . . . . . .

"Nature appears also to have guarded against the alterations of species which might proceed from mixture of breeds by influencing the various species of animals with mutual aversion from one another. Hence all the cunning and all the force that man is able to exert is necessary to accomplish such unions, even between species that have the nearest resemblances. And when the mule breeds that are thus produced by these forced conjunctions happen to be fruitful, which is seldom the case, this fecundity never continues beyond a few generations, and would not probably proceed so far without a continuance of the same cares which excited it at first. Thus we never see in a wild state intermediate productions between the hare and the rabbit, between the stag and the doe, or between the marten and the weasel. But the power of man changes this established order, and continues to produce all these intermixtures of which the various species are susceptible, but which they would never produce if left to themselves.

"The degrees of these variations are proportional to the intensity of the causes that produced them - namely, the slavery or subjection under which those animals are to man. They do not proceed far in half-domesticated species. In the cat, for example, a softer or harsher fur, more brilliant or more varied colors, greater or less size - these form the whole extent of variety in the species; the skeleton of the cat of Angora differs in no regular and constant circumstances from the wild-cat of Europe. . . . . . . .

The most remarkable effects of the influence of man are produced upon that animal which he has reduced most completely under subjection. Dogs have been transported by mankind into every part of the world and have submitted their action to his entire direction. Regulated in their unions by the pleasure or caprice of their masters, the almost endless varieties of dogs differ from one another in color, in length, and abundance of hair, which is sometimes entirely wanting; in their natural instincts; in size, which varies in measure as one to five, mounting in some instances to more than a hundredfold in bulk; in the form of their ears, noses, and tails; in the relative length of their legs; in the progressive development of the brain, in several of the domesticated varieties occasioning alterations even in the form of the head, some of them having long, slender muzzles with a flat forehead, others having short muzzles with a forehead convex, etc., insomuch that the apparent difference between a mastiff and a water-spaniel and between a greyhound and a pugdog are even more striking than between almost any of the wild species of a genus. . . . . . . .

It follows from these observations that animals have certain fixed and natural characters which resist the effects of every kind of influence, whether proceeding from natural causes or human interference; and we have not the smallest reason to suspect that time has any more effect on them than climate.

"I am aware that some naturalists lay prodigious stress upon the thousands which they can call into action by a dash of their pens. In such matters, however, our only way of judging as to the effects which may be produced by a long period of time is by multiplying, as it were, such as are produced by a shorter time. With this view I have endeavored to collect all the ancient documents respecting the forms of animals; and there are none equal to those furnished by the Egyptians, both in regard to their antiquity and abundance. They have not only left us representatives of animals, but even their identical bodies embalmed and preserved in the catacombs.

"I have examined, with the greatest attention, the engraved figures of quadrupeds and birds brought from Egypt to ancient Rome, and all these figures, one with another, have a perfect resemblance to their intended objects, such as they still are to-day.

"From all these established facts, there does not seem to be the smallest foundation for supposing that the new genera which I have discovered or established among extraneous fossils, such as the paleoetherium, anoplotherium, megalonyx, mastodon, pterodactylis, etc., have ever been the sources of any of our present animals, which only differ so far as they are influenced by time or climate. Even if it should prove true, which I am far from believing to be the case, that the fossil elephants, rhinoceroses, elks, and bears do not differ further from the existing species of the same genera than the present races of dogs differ among themselves, this would by no means be a sufficient reason to conclude that they were of the same species; since the races or varieties of dogs have been influenced by the trammels of domesticity, which those other animals never did, and indeed never could, experience."[3]

To Cuvier's argument from the fixity of Egyptian mummified birds and animals, as above stated, Lamarck replied that this proved nothing except that the ibis had become perfectly adapted to its Egyptian surroundings in an early day, historically speaking, and that the climatic and other conditions of the Nile Valley had not since then changed. His theory, he alleged, provided for the stability of species under fixed conditions quite as well as for transmutation under varying conditions.

But, needless to say, the popular verdict lay with Cuvier; talent won for the time against genius, and Lamarck was looked upon as an impious visionary. His faith never wavered, however. He believed that he had gained a true insight into the processes of animate nature, and he reiterated his hypotheses over and over, particularly in the introduction to his Histoire Naturelle des Animaux sans Vertebres, in 1815, and in his Systeme des Connaissances Positives de l'Homme, in 1820. He lived on till 1829, respected as a naturalist, but almost unrecognized as a prophet.




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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.