A Division of Worms

By Gould, Stephen Jay | Natural History, February 1999 | Go to article overview

A Division of Worms


Gould, Stephen Jay, Natural History


PART ONE: The Spirit of Lamarck's System

I. The Making and Breaking of a Reputation On the twenty-first day of the auspiciously named month of Floreal (flowering), in the spring of the year 8 on the French revolutionary calendar (1800 to the rest of the Western world), the former Chevalier (knight) but now Citoyen (citizen) Lamarck delivered the opening lecture for his annual course on zoology at the Museum d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris-and changed the science of biology forever by presenting the first public account of his theory of evolution. Lamarck then published this short discourse in 1801, as the first part of his treatise on invertebrate animals, Systeme des animaux sans vertebres (System of invertebrate animals).

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) had enjoyed a distinguished career in botany when, just short of his fiftieth birthday, he became a professor of "insects, worms, and microscopic animals" at the Museum d'Histoire Naturelle, newly constituted by the Revolutionary government in 1793. Lamarck would later coin the term invertebrate for his assigned organisms. (In 1802 he also introduced the word biology for the entire discipline.) But his original title followed Linnaeus's designation of all spineless animals as either insects or worms, a Procrustean scheme that Lamarck would soon alter. Lamarck had been an avid shell collector and student of mollusks (then classified within Linnaeus's large and heterogeneous category of Vermes, or worms)-qualifications deemed sufficient for his shift from botany.

Lamarck fully repaid the confidence invested in his general biological abilities by publishing distinguished works in the taxonomy of invertebrates throughout the remainder of his career, culminating in the seven volumes of his comprehensive Histoire naturelle des animaux sans vertebres (Natural history of invertebrate animals), published between 1815 and 1822. At the same time, he constantly refined and expanded his evolutionary views, extending his introductory discourse of 1800 into a full book in 1802 (Recherches sur l'organisation des corps vivants, or "Research on the organization of living beings"); then into his magnum opus and most famous work in 1809, the two-volume Philosophie zoologique (Zoological philosophy); and finally into a statement for the long opening section, published in 1815, of his great treatise on invertebrates.

The outlines of such a career might seem to imply continuing growth of prestige, from an initial flowering to the full bloom of celebrated seniority. But Lamarck's reputation suffered a spectacular collapse, even during his own lifetime, and he died lonely, blind, and impoverished. The complex reasons for his reverses include the usual panoply of changing fashions, powerful enemies, and self-inflicted wounds based on flaws of character (in his case, primarily an overweening self-assurance that could not face, or even recognize, the weaknesses in some of his own arguments or the skills of his adversaries). Most prominently, his favored style of science-the construction of grand and comprehensive theories, following an approach that the French call l'esprit de systeme (the spirit of system building), and not always well supported by testable data-became notoriously unpopular after the rise of a hard-nosed, empiricist ethos in early nineteenth-century geology and natural history.

In one of the great injustices of our conventional history, Lamarck's disfavor has persisted to our times, and most people still know him only as the foil to Charles Darwin's greatness-as the man who proposed a silly theory about giraffes stretching their necks to reach high leaves and then passing the fruits of their efforts to their offspring by "inheritance of acquired characters," otherwise known as the hypothesis of use and disuse, in contrast with Darwin's proper theory of natural selection and survival of the fittest.

Indeed, the usually genial Darwin had few kind words for his French predecessor. …

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