Saints and Demons

There is an unfortunate habit amongst those who subscribe to a Whig interpretation of the history of science, which sadly seems to include most working scientists and especially those of a gnu atheist persuasion, of dividing historical figures into two categories, saints and demons. Saints are those figures who first produced the theories on which the modern scientific disciplines are founded and the demons are those poor benighted figures whose ignorant unscientific misconceptions those theories replaced. In this travesty of the history of science it is always best if the saints and demons can be presented in pairs reminiscent of a religious scenario in which good triumphs over evil.

So we have Copernicus sanctified for having delivered the heliocentric hypothesis whilst Ptolemaeus is demonised for having conned the world for 1400 hundred years with his ridiculous geocentrism. It has even become common practice, in recent times, for gnu atheists to deny any form of rational basis for a geocentric world-view claiming that it was only sustained by ignorance, superstition or religious dogma. A point of view that is grotesque and perverse as well as being both scientifically and historically wrong.

In the history of chemistry we have Lavoisier sanctified as the ‘father of modern chemistry’ whilst Priestley, who actually provided a lot of the evidence on which Lavoisier constructed his theories, is demonised for continuing to support the phlogiston theory. (Coincidentally Priestly discovered oxygen on August 1st 1774). In numerous Internet debates the phlogiston theory is held up as example of ignorant unscientific thinking the detractors equating it with astrology and intelligent design. In reality it was an interesting scientific research programme within which its supporters developed a substantial part of early modern chemistry.

In the life sciences the over mega-saint is of course Charles Darwin who provided the catechism of the gnu atheists, the biological theory of the evolution of species driven by the mechanism of natural selection. Strangely, here it is not Aristotle or some other historical figure, who believed in the fixity of species that gets demonised but one of Darwin’s almost contemporaries Jean-Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, Chevalier de la Marck, who was born on 1st August 1744. What is most bizarre about this particular unwarranted demonization is that Lamarck also propagated a theory of evolution. However because the mechanism of Lamarck’s theory of evolution was adaption and not natural selections he gets derided and abused by the historically ignorant champions of Saint Charles.

Lamarck was in fact an important and significant natural historian who made major contributions to our understanding of nature and whose work was well known to respected by Darwin. I don’t intend here to produced a complete biography of the Chevalier but I will outline his life and work in the hope that one or other of my readers, who has not done so up to now in his or her life, will go away and inform themselves of his contributions to science and the next time they meet someone who wishes to demonise him will take up arms on his behalf.

Lamarck was the eleventh child of an impoverished minor aristocratic family from Picardy. Originally destined for the church he was sent by his parents to a Jesuit academy at the age of eleven. However when his father died in 1759 he left school and joined the army fighting in the Seven Years War where he was honoured for bravery. In 1768 he retired from the army on health grounds and whilst working as a bank clerk to subsidise his meagre pension he studied medicine in Paris from 1770 to 1774 but did not graduate. Lamarck had become interested in botany during his military service and during this period he became acquainted with the leading French botanists and zoologist of the times including Buffon who became his scientific patron.

Lamarck wrote a three-volume work on French flora that with Buffon’s assistance was published in 1779, establishing him as a leading naturalist. Buffon also helped him to become a member of the French Scientific Academy. He could only obtain minor badly paid positions so he subsidised his income writing botanical encyclopaedias. One of his positions was keeper of the herbarium in the Royal Gardens. During the revolution he was clever enough to drop the name royal from his work place. Following the revolution he was appointed professor for invertebrate zoology at The National Museum of Natural History and it was here that he made his greatest mark as a naturalist completely reorganising the classification of the invertebrates and establishing himself as one of the great taxonomists.

Lamarck also wrote extensively on physics, chemistry, geology and meteorology although in these fields his work was largely very heterodox and oft reactionary. For example he totally rejected the new chemistry of Lavoisier.

I’m not even going to attempt to describe his thoughts on the fixity or better lack thereof of species or his ideas on evolution[1] but one should be aware that it is historically totally wrong to see Lamarck’s and Darwin’s theories as in some sort of competition with each other. Lamarck was not the first modern naturalist to propose a theory of evolution, that honour seems to go to the mathematician and physicist Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis, but his work very much paved the way for Darwin, who in an essay added to third edition of The Origins of Species entitled An Historical Sketch of the Progress of Opinion on the Origin of Species had this to say of Lamarck:

Lamarck was the first man whose conclusions [concerning the origin of species] excited much attention. This justly-celebrated naturalist first published his views in 1801, and he much enlarged them in 1809 in his “Philosophie Zoologique,” and subsequently, in 1815, in his Introduction to his “Hist. Nat. des Animaux sans Vertébres.” In these works he upholds the doctrine that species, including man, are descended from other species. He first did the eminent service of arousing attention to the probability of all change in the organic, as well as in the inorganic world, being the result of law, and not of miraculous interposition. Lamarck seems to have been chiefly led to his conclusion on the gradual change of species, by the difficulty of distinguishing species and varieties, by the almost perfect gradation of forms in certain organic groups, and by the analogy of domestic productions. With respect to the means of modification, he attributed something to the direct action of the physical conditions of life, something to the crossing of already existing forms, and much to use and disuse, that is, to the effects of habit. To this latter agency he seemed to attribute all the beautiful adaptations in nature; — such as the long neck of the giraffe for browsing on the branches of trees. But he likewise believed in a law of progressive development; and as all the forms of life thus tend to progress, in order to account for the existence at the present day of very simple productions, he maintains that such forms were now spontaneously generated.

Darwin is not a saint and Lamarck is not a demon. Both of them made major contributions to natural history and both of them contributed to the development of the biological theory of evolution. Simplistic views of the history of science that try to create dualities of good science contra bad science are largely misplaced and those that propagate them should first learn some real history of science before uttering their misconceived views in public.

[1] As always when considering the history of the species concept the reader is referred to John S. Wilkins’ excellent tome Species: A History of an Idea, University of California Press, 2009  (now, I’m informed, available in paperback) where they can inform themselves of Monsieur Lamarck’s thought on the subject.


Filed under History of science, Myths of Science

21 responses to “Saints and Demons

  1. Pingback: Saints and Demons | Whewell's Ghost

  2. Michal Meyer

    Great post! I was at a conference talk recently that focused on how certain myths in astronomy became prevalent in astronomy textbooks. The one that has become increasingly popular since the 1850s was the belief that the Copernican heliocentric approach demoted the earth and humanity from its special place. The presenter suspects, but can’t yet prove, that it’s a version of your demon and saints.

  3. As I understand Lamarck’s views on evolution, he put more emphasis on what was later called orthogenesis—an inbuilt tendency for organisms to become more complex and advanced from generation to generation— than on what we now call Lamarckism–the inheritance of acquired traits—as an explanation of evolution. He did believe, however, that effort led to adaptation as in the familiar bit about the giraffe’s neck. What’s interesting to me is the way that his ideas on this topic are reinterpreted nowadays in a way that he simply couldn’t have understood them. Weismann’s famous experiments on rats, for example, certainly didn’t disprove his hypothesis. Weismann cut the tails off rats, bred them, and cut off the tails of their offspring for several generations without producing rats with shorter tails. So far as I can see, Lamarck would have predicted the same result. His version of the inheritance of acquired traits had a behavioral/affective component, but Weismann’s rats didn’t want their tails shortened.

    The funny thing is, a lot of modern evolutionary theorists tell stories that Lamarck would probably have found, well, Lamarckian. It certainly seems that the activities of the phenotypes don’t directly affect the germ plasm—a concept utterly foreign to Lamarck, of course—but they do set the stage for natural selection, which eventually does. To return, reluctantly, to the damn giraffes, if the protogiraffes hadn’t tried to browse on trees, the taller-necked giraffes wouldn’t have been selected for. Or, to pick a more plausible tale, if earlier hominids hadn’t developed tools and language, the adaptive value of smarter offspring would surely have been less. If we value intelligence in generation n and communicate that value to our offspring in generation n + 1 so that our sons and daughters opt for brighter mates, generation n + 2 is going to get smarter.

    You do have to try. Nothing mystical about it.

  4. 1) Stephen Jay Gould once wrote an excellent essay explaining how Lamarck was not a Lamarckian.

    2) Personally, I’ve always had an undeclared (until now) respect for Priestley’s phlogiston theory: it was wrong, but it was sort-of doubly wrong, and two wrongs can sometimes almost make a right. In my confused mind, phlogiston was (sort-of) to oxygen what entropy is to energy. If that makes sense. Which it doesn’t.

    3) Wilkins’s book is out in paperback? Gaa! I *knew* I should have waited!

  5. Bob O'H

    Coincidentally Priestly discovered oxygen on August 1st 1774
    How appropriate that a famous Batley lad should be born on Yorkshire Day.

    The more I’ve read about the history of science the more irritated I become with whig history. Poor Jean-Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, Chevalier de la Marck(*). I wonder if he’s demonised because the whig narartive demands a villain, and he’s the best they could do.

    (* isn’t cut & paste wonderful?)

  6. Zed

    I still think you’re overstating the Whiggishness of classes of people you don’t like. Any scientist or rationalist worth his salt respects Ptolomy, Priestley and Lamark. People not worth their salt are not worth your time.

  7. Michael Fugate

    The problem with history is we don’t know all the hypotheses that were out there and why some were rejected. We have fragments of ideas about geocentrism and heliocentrism from thousands of years ago, but it is unclear exactly why geocentrism became the standard. We can try to reconstruct thought through the data we know or presume was available at the time, but it is no more than a guess. To claim that heliocentrism was rejected primarily on scientific grounds is at best speculation – it could have easily been a combination of factors (e.g. aesthetic, religious and political).

    It has only been very recently that religion and science have become separate fields of study; religious beliefs were often the foundation of scientific hypotheses (geocentrism, young earth, species fixity, flood geology). That these were proposed as true and put to the test by religious scientists shows how strong the evidence is against them. Perhaps it made science all the more rigorous as there would be many reasons for wanting to retain them. Hypotheses can come from anywhere, it is how they are treated that counts.

    It seems to me that Lamarck’s case is more of a political than a religious one – it is not like he was a Puritan – the contrast is more socialism with capitalism. Like creationism though, we need to see what the evidence is for these failed hypotheses and contrast them to the evidence for current hypotheses. The one thing that is clear is religion has less and less to say about how the world works and given how gloriously wrong it has been, it does (should?) make one pause when religion claims it knows something.

  8. The other problem with Whig histories, of course, is that they also belittle the achievements of the ‘saints’ as well as the ‘demons, by making them sound almost inevitable.

  9. Ant

    “In numerous Internet debates the phlogiston theory is held up as example of ignorant unscientific thinking the detractors equating it with astrology and intelligent design.”

    Seriously, how many? I think what you’re presenting is a straw man. Yes, there will be some people who might say that, but is it really a prevelant view among “most working scientists and especially those of a gnu atheist persuasion”?


  10. Whig history was how history used to be, scientists generally haven’t kept up to date with the field. I’ve added Wilkin’s book to my list! I’ve been meaning to find a biography of Priestley too…

    I’m not sure about the gnu atheists 😉

  11. Michael Fugate

    Here is a thought experiment I would like to throw out. What do historians think might have been the effect if 1) the consensus coming out of ancient Greece had been heliocentrism, or 2) if a god really spoke to the authors of the Bible and had told them the earth went around the sun, when scholastic efforts arose in Europe? The way it did happen, the geocentrism of Greece meshed with the Bible, but what if it hadn’t?

    I won’t mind if you tell me it is a silly question.

    • Hans Tjelle

      Well, the bible quite clearly tell us the Earth is flat, yet you’d be hard pressed to find any educated people in medieval Europe claiming it was anything but round.

    • Hans Tjelle

      My point is, that’s a clear example of greek knowledge not meshing with the bible, and the philosophers of the time being ok with it.

  12. buermann

    I was under the impression the demonization of Lamarck was an artifact of cold war politicization in biology, with Lysenko being to Lamarck what Stalin was to Marx.

  13. Pingback: The Giant’s Shoulders: The Fiftieth Anniversary Edition | From the Hands of Quacks

  14. Pingback: On Whigs and Whig History | Darin Hayton

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