Author Topic: The New Lamarckians  (Read 3309 times)

Offline Gareth Southwell

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The New Lamarckians
« on: 05/10/09 @ 23:14 »
Darwin vs Lamarck on Models of Social Evolution

With their droopy faces, long floppy ears, squat little legs, and genial natures, Basset Hounds are a popular household pet. But few realise the centuries of cruelty that lie behind their unique physique. The practice began in medieval France, where heavy weights were attached to the ears of regular hounds, and – most cruel of all – their legs were repeatedly broken to inhibit growth. Their form, it is rumoured, was further exaggerated at the behest of Marie Antoinette, who was annoyed at the dogs’ tendency to jump up on her exquisitely embroidered skirts – “Zheir legs, zhey should be plus petite, non?” Eventually, through the refinement of these traits over generations, there emerged the benign and slightly comical-looking animal that we see today.

Or, at least, that is what you might believe if you were wrong.

Actually, that is what you might have believed if you had been a nineteenth century Lamarckian. Jean Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) was the French rival to Darwin, and is now most famous for his theory of evolution through the transmission of acquired traits. The most common example used to illustrate this is the giraffe. According to Lamarck, the long neck of the giraffe would have come about as individual giraffes stretched higher and higher in order to reach the remotest tree leaves. Over generations, this produced a gradual lengthening of the neck. This still partly accords with modern evolutionary theory, for both would agree that the wealth of natural diversity can be partially accounted for by gradual changes over time. However, the key point at which Lamarckism differs is in regard to what causes these gradual changes. Lamarck thought that an individual’s behaviour and habits would affect the traits that would be passed on to its offspring. So, if I spend my life sharpening my intellect, or sculpting my body, then these are gifts that I will bequeath to my children (the lucky darlings). Darwin, on the other hand, was not actually able to fully account for this variation. So, whilst natural selection explains how creatures with certain traits will win out over others who are less fit for their environment, it does not fully account for how they came to possess those traits in the first place. Obviously, if I have blond hair, you have black hair, and we have children together, then we can see in our blond- or black-haired children the process of inheritance. However, how do we come to be blond- or black-haired in the first place? What is the cause of that original variation? On this, Darwin was silent – and admirably so, for it is not until the advent of modern genetic theory, and our understanding of the role of genetic mutation, that we can fully explain it.

So, history will record, Darwin won and Lamarck lost. This is, in a sense, a great shame, for Lamarckism is a much more exciting and progressive theory. When we look at the wonder and complexity of natural life, it is tempting to think that the theory that accounts for it should be equally wonderful and complex. And yet, the opposite is true: natural selection is a stunningly simple theory, and can be illustrated remarkably simply. Take a sieve, and fill it with a number of small stones of varying size; some will fall through the holes, and some will remain in the sieve – that is natural selection. Add to this that certain blind forces shape the rocks, determining their size and shape, and you have the basics of modern evolutionary theory.

Lamarckism, on the other hand, is much more like ‘the little train that could’. It is a tale of constant striving and adaptation, driven on by some remorseless inner force or will. It is this vitalism which is lacking from Darwinism’s purely mechanistic account, and which at some level still appeals to us (as evidenced by the Bassett Hound story, an urban myth which a friend had happily swallowed and regurgitated to me). It is a world of individual striving for the good of future generations, but also one where we choose our own ideals. It is almost an embodiment of Émile Coué’s positivist mantra: “Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better.” It is interesting to consider what the world would have been like if Lamarckism had been true. So, it would certainly give us a more varied range of human forms, and adaptation would be much speedier (Darwinist evolution is laboriously slow and haphazard). In effect, human evolution would become largely subject to the whim of individual will.

As already suggested by a number of commentators, Lamarckism may also provide a useful model of cultural change. [1]  Richard Dawkins has proposed that we may think of units of cultural exchange – memes, as he calls them – as passed on in a Lamarckian way. [2] Typical examples of memes would be catchphrases, songs, jargon, but also ideas, attitudes, and forms of imitable behaviour. Like genes, memes are self-replicating (they copy and pass themselves on) and are subject to selection – we can’t really term this ‘natural’ selection, since it is not (or not only) nature which is selecting, but rather cultural forces, yet it is a similar process. However, memes are Lamarckian in the sense that they are not merely passively transmitted, but also subject to conscious and purposive control. Of course, not all changes in memes are conscious, and there are a range of ways that memes can alter. For instance, you may hear a piece of information, and pass it on incorrectly – as in the game of ‘Chinese whispers’. The genetic equivalent of this is mutation, where a ‘mistake’ is made during the copying process, so that the genetic code is altered in the act of transmission. When applied to memes, we might therefore think of the Chinese whispers model of information mutation as more traditionally Darwinian (i.e. blind, unconscious and accidental). However, memes might also change via direct intent – you may receive a piece of information, and purposefully change it, thus improving it, distorting it, or altering it for some other designated purpose. This form of intentional mutation is perhaps better understood in Lamarckian terms, in that it is directly or indirectly linked to the intentions and actions of the individual. Of course, this doesn’t mean that it need be conscious – memes can possess significance as an indirect consequence of pursuing some other aim, such as when I publish a love poem that is so bad that it spreads like a virus through the internet for others' amusement. Culture can be cruel too, it seems.

And yet, it may be argued, the picture of individual tinkering and potentially conscious adaptation which makes Lamarckism a useful model of cultural evolution is one that may also be applied to genetic evolution in the light of future technological advancements. In fact, aren’t these already beginning to happen? Genetic engineering will ultimately allow us greater and greater control over our own physical makeup. Given the range of body modification that already exists without the aid of genetics – Japanese foot binding, the neck-stretching rings of the Ndebele people of South Africa, Californian breast augmentation – there is a strange sense in which Lamarckism is closer in spirit to the truth of human evolution: we want to change and adapt to meet our ideal, and we will use whatever means necessary. Genetic engineering is merely perhaps a more effective long-term means of achieving these goals. In this sense, the dissimilarity between memes and genes starts to disappear: if both become subject to individual will (in a sense), then a Lamarckian model is in fact a useful way of understanding aspects of both. Of course, Lamarckism will never be true in the literal sense that Lamarck intended it – breaking the Basset’s legs will never serve any direct evolutionary purpose – but, in the broader sense that an individual’s behaviour and choices can change their genetic inheritance, then those days are already here: are we the new Lamarckians?


[1] ^ For example, Jean Molino.

[2] ^ Richard Dawkins, The Meme Machine - though see also The Selfish Gene, where the idea is first mentioned.

« Last Edit: 14/03/10 @ 12:12 by Gareth Southwell »
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