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Lamarck, Jean-Baptiste

Category: Genius


Jean-Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, Chevalier de Lamarck (1 August 1744 – 18 December 1829), often known simply as Lamarck was a French naturalist.

His meticulous and painstaking documentation and classification of species, all by careful observation, has earned him a deserved place in the ranks of the most esteemed botanists and biologists. 

The International Plant Names Index gives 116 records of plant species named after Lamarck.  The honeybee subspecies Apis mellifera lamarckii is named after Lamarck, for example, as well as the Bluefire jellyfish (Cyaneia lamarckii). A number of plants have also been named after him, including Amelanchier lamarckii (Juneberry), Digitalis lamarckii and Aconitum lamarckii, as well as the grass genus Lamarckia.

This detailed and exhaustive study of species led him to form a theory which has since become known as the Lamarckian theory of evolution, a fascinating theory, as it combines both functional [spirit] and physical form based theories.  Simply put, evolution and change in species is driven by both functional and form based principles.  If we use an analogy, as the software changes it results in the need for changes to the hardware, but improvements in the hardware enable more interesting and powerful software functionality.

Rather intriguingly, the theory of inheritance involving the functions and attributes of species is today called ‘soft inheritance’.  Lamarck's contribution to evolutionary theory consisted of the first truly cohesive theory of evolution and still remains one of the only theories to pull together form and function – hardware and software.

Lamarck’s other achievements included involvement in improvements to the Jardin des Plantes, his  appointment to the Chair of Botany in 1788, and his appointment as Professor of Zoology at the  Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle in 1793.  In an 1802 publication, he became one of the first to use the term biology in its modern sense.

His career

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck was born in Bazentin, Picardy, northern France, as the eleventh child in an impoverished aristocratic family. He received a Jesuit education. 


Male members of the Lamarck family had traditionally served in the French army. Lamarck's eldest brother was killed in combat at the Siege of Bergen op Zoom, and two other brothers were still in service when Lamarck was in his teenage years. After his father died in 1760, Lamarck, fired up by a need to try to emulate his brothers and in the ‘impetuosity of youth’ bought himself a horse, and rode across the country to join the French army, which was in Germany at the time. Lamarck showed either ‘great physical courage’ on the battlefield in the Pomeranian War with Prussia, or complete foolishness depending on how you view war, however at 17, he was not likely to know any better.

 Lamarck's company was left exposed to the direct artillery fire of their enemies, and was quickly reduced to just fourteen men – with no officers. One of his more sensible men suggested that the puny, seventeen-year-old volunteer should assume command and order a withdrawal from the field; Lamarck accepted command, but insisted they remain where they had been posted until relieved.

When their colonel reached the remains [sic] of their company, this display impressed him so much that Lamarck was promoted to officer on the spot”.   At which point, one of his comrades “playfully lifted him by the head”,[sic] and he sustained an inflammation in the lymphatic glands of the neck, and had to be sent to Paris to receive treatment.  At which point, no doubt, all those he had put in danger, presumably breathed a sigh of relief.  Thankfully he put the excesses of his youth behind him and marched on to better things.


Having come to his senses, and inspired by a book called Traité des plantes usuelles, a botany book by James Francis Chomel, Lamarck resolved to pursue a profession. He first attempted to study medicine, and supported himself by working in a bank office. Lamarck studied medicine for four years, but “gave it up under his elder brother's persuasion”.

Eventually he became a student of Bernard de Jussieu, a notable French naturalist, and spent ten years studying French flora.  He was 34 before he published anything.   Thus we can see the amount of painstaking observation that was made before Lamarck published any of his work.  It was only in 1778, that he published his observations and results in a three-volume work, entitled Flore Françoise.

Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, one of the top French scientists of the day, mentored Lamarck, and helped him gain membership to the French Academy of Sciences in 1779 and a commission as a Royal Botanist in 1781, in which he travelled to foreign botanical gardens and museums.  In his two years of travel, Lamarck collected rare plants that were not available in the Royal Garden, and also other objects of natural history, such as minerals and ores that were not found in French museums.


In 1788, Buffon's successor at the position of Intendant of the Royal Garden, Charles-Claude Flahaut de la Billaderie, comte d'Angiviller, created a position for Lamarck, with a yearly salary of 1,000 francs, as the keeper of the herbarium of the Royal Garden.  In 1790, at the height of the French Revolution, Lamarck changed the name of the Royal Garden from Jardin du Roi to Jardin des Plantes, a name that did not imply such a close association with King Louis XVI.

Lamarck worked as the keeper of the herbarium for five years before he was appointed curator and professor of invertebrate zoology at the Muséum national d'histoire naturelle in 1793.  With the official title of "Professeur d'Histoire naturelle des Insectes et des Vers", Lamarck received a salary of nearly 2,500 francs per year.

Private life

Lamarck’s private life was filled with tragedy.  As we have seen, he lost brothers to war and his father died in 1760, when he was only sixteen. 

On August 8, 1778, when around 34, Lamarck married Marie Anne Rosalie Delaporte.  Lamarck's first son, André, was born on April 22, 1781.  On January 7, 1786, his second son, Antoine, was born. On April 21 of the following year, Charles René, Lamarck's third son, was born.  During his time at the herbarium, Lamarck's wife gave birth to three more children, before dying on September 27, 1792.

With six children to look after, Lamarck married Charlotte Reverdy, who was thirty years his junior, on October 9, 1793.  In 1797, Charlotte died.

In 1798, he married Julie Mallet; she died in 1819.

As a consequence of this intense period of tragedy and in his first six years as professor, Lamarck published only one paper, in 1798, on the influence of the moon on the Earth's atmosphere.

photo Faye Cossar

But somehow grief and tragedy seemed to fuel Lamarck’s resolve.  As is often the case, from hell men find heaven, by searching themselves and their inner spirit for inspiration. 

Lamarck began by believing species were unchanging; however, after working on the molluscs of the Paris Basin and using all the observations he had made over the years, he grew convinced that transmutation or change in the nature of a species occurred over time.  He set out to develop an explanation, and on 11 May 1800 he presented a lecture at the Muséum national d'histoire naturelle in which he first outlined his newly developing ideas about evolution. 

Thus it is to that powerful combination of reasoned meticulous observation, but spiritual input driven by high emotion that we owe Lamarckian theory.  Through death, Lamarck perceived the existence of another realm – that of spirit – beyond the physical.

Lamarckian theory

Lamarck through grief and tragedy had found ‘spirit’, and so he turned to classical theory on how spirit is organised.  Classical theory says that all the functions of physical organisms are to be found layered at various vibrational levels.  In essence the ‘programs’ or functions that animate actual physical things are stored in the Fire, Air, and Water levels, Earth being the physical level [discounting hell and the underworld]


We can think of it almost like a set of shelves with the various programs found at different levels on each shelf.  It is worth adding that there was never much agreement on which functions are stored at each level, Lewis Carroll even envisioned them moving around on the shelves confusing the idea of a flow of control with storage [the sheep in the shop in Through the Looking Glass] but the emotions are often accorded a higher level – Air – and the more fundamental practical ‘animating’ functions like walk, talk, sneeze, poo, wee and so on are found lower down at the Water level.

Lamarckian principles

Lamarck then stressed two main principles in his biological work.

  • The first principle - was based on the effect the physical environment has on both the functional and the physical.  The fact that a mole, for example, lives its whole life underground, means it no longer has any need to see [function] as a consequence its form becomes adapted so that the aggregate supporting that function [the eye] is no longer needed and the mole becomes blind.  A bird whose main food is seeds, no longer has the need for the functions ‘to bite’ and ‘to chew’ as seeds can be ‘swallowed’.  Thus the form [beak] adapts to suit the new function and any old form no longer needed [the teeth], gradually disappear.  There is no need in this theory to talk about who or what does this evolution and redesign, the theory can stand on its own, but anyone who says ‘Nature’ does it, is avoiding the issue [what is Nature then] and anyone who says the bird does it all by themselves is clearly not very observant. 


First Law: In every animal which has not passed the limit of its development, a more frequent and continuous use of any organ gradually strengthens, develops and enlarges that organ, and gives it a power proportional to the length of time it has been so used; while the permanent disuse of any organ imperceptibly weakens and deteriorates it, and progressively diminishes its functional capacity, until it finally disappears".


  • The second principle – is based on the idea that the functions of the universe are ordered and interdependent.  That there is a functional or if you prefer the analogy a software system in place.

    Lamarck did not have a suitable analogy to use, and everyone who became involved in the debates raging around this area at the time had difficulty envisioning what was being described.  But if we imagine the body as an aggregate, formed of other aggregates, each aggregate has its own functions, but these functions are inter-dependent, thus any triggering of one will cause a flow of control to occur to another.  In effect, systems are preserved independently of the body.  There is analogously a master package of software that is stored and enhanced through the feedback from the use of the system by physical creatures.  The master package is then used to create copies of the functions needed each time a new individual is born.  If we put it another way we are all co-creators in this system, whatever we all come up with functionally gets to join the master package and any new borns get the new functions.


Second Law: All the acquisitions or losses wrought by nature on individuals, through the influence of the environment in which their race has long been placed, and hence through the influence of the predominant use or permanent disuse of any organ; all these are preserved by reproduction to the new individuals which arise, provided that the acquired modifications are common to both sexes, or at least to the individuals which produce the young.

It is worth noting that this is still not understood by scientists, though any good mystic thinks of it as old news.  It is this lack of understanding of the body as a system within the scientific community, that has dogged us to this present day, with naïve and dangerous solutions to illness being offered which tackle one area of the body with no understanding of the knock-on effect throughout the rest of the body.  There is a cascade of control that occurs and Lamarck appears to have recognised this happens but did not have the vocabulary we have nowadays to describe it.

The drivers of evolution


Rather neatly avoiding the need to talk about who or what was doing all this design work, Lamarck then went on to discuss the way evolution progressed.

There is a ‘force’ of aggregation and a force of dissolution – creation and destruction.  We might think of it better as a strategy [the wheel of change] which is then achieved via two main activities aggregation of dissolution.  Again who or what does the aggregation and dissolution is not mentioned.  In the explanations provided in later text books, we sometimes see odd sentences such as the following:

a force driving animals from simple to complex forms, and a force adapting animals to their local environments and differentiating them from each other. He believed that these forces favored a materialistic attitude toward biology.

Except that he didn’t.  The only time animals have any say in the formation of aggregates is when they form loose temporary aggregates such as herds or crowds.  Otherwise the formation of physical aggregates such as organs is well outside the capability of any animal.  How many antelopes have you seen knitting their own heart?  Not many I suspect.

Mystics refer to this design work as the Great Work.  Lamarck didn’t, but he did refer to it as  Le pouvoir de la vie (the power of life) or la force qui tend sans cesse à composer l'organisation (The force that perpetually tends to make order).

This comes from Wikipedia, something of a surprise :

He argued that organisms thus moved from simple to complex in a steady, predictable way based on the fundamental principles of alchemy.

Lamarck seems to have believed in a strategy for the evolution of the universe – the Great Work – in  objectives and in subsidiary goals:

He is sometimes regarded as believing in a teleological (goal-oriented) process where organisms became more perfect as they evolved… According to the paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn, Lamarck denied, absolutely, the existence of any "perfecting tendency" in nature, and regarded evolution as the final necessary effect of surrounding conditions on life.


The prevailing religious view of the time was that creation happened once in seven days.  The literalisation of the symbolic. 

Thus Lamarck was flying in the face of established religious dogma.  Perhaps even more brave was that he saw creation and evolution as an ongoing process– or if you prefer a vast software project – in which feedback from the implemented system – the physical world and its invisible animating functions – is used to improve the design in increments or configurations.

This was quite revolutionary thinking by any standards and was bound to cause him a great deal of trouble.  Apart from anything else it implied that ‘God’ – the Ultimate Intelligence and all the Intelligence hierarchy - was a learning evolving God.

In his book Philosophie Zoologique, Lamarck referred to God as the "sublime author of nature". But his theory seems to imply much more.  As philosopher of biology Michael Ruse has said "Lamark believed in God as an unmoved mover, creator of the world and its laws, who refused to intervene miraculously in his creation." But his/her co-creators can, as can all the Intelligences.

The final years


Lamarck gradually turned blind and died in Paris on December 18, 1829.

When he died, his family was so poor they had to apply to the Academie for financial assistance. Lamarck's books and the contents of his home were sold at auction, and his body was buried in a temporary lime-pit.

He was cruelly treated on his death, as Stephen Jay Gould said in 1993:

 [Cuvier's] éloge of Lamarck is one of the most deprecatory and chillingly partisan biographies I have ever read – though he was supposedly writing respectful comments in the old tradition of de mortuis nil nisi bonum.

Lamarck constructed one of the first theoretical frameworks of organic evolution. It is quite stunning in its scope and breadth.  It was inevitable that his theory would be rejected during his lifetime, what is tragic is that it appears to be totally misunderstood today and continues to be rejected.  Scientists, biologists and epigeneticists are still discussing DNA as the key to life. 
DNA is the hardware. 
Now we need  to move on to the software.  Furthermore we need to stop tinkering with the hardware in case it has hard coded software.  We are dicing with death.  Lamarck would have known it, it appears that we have no one of the genius of Lamarck to help us today.


Lamarck was not one to use short titles for his books and all his major works have titles that are almost essays in their own right.  They include:

  • Flore françoise, ou, Description succincte de toutes les plantes qui croissent naturellement en France  - Lamarck developed a particular interest in botany, and after he published the three-volume work Flore française in 1778, he gained membership of the French Academy of Sciences in 1779.
  • Système des animaux sans vertèbres, ou tableau général des classes, des ordres et des genres de ces animaux; présentant leurs caractères essentiels et leur distribution, d'après la considération de leurs..., Paris, 1801 - This is a major work on the classification of invertebrates, in which Lamarck introduced definitions of natural groups among invertebrates. He categorized echinoderms, arachnids, crustaceans and annelids, which he separated from the old taxon for worms known as Vermes. Lamarck was the first to separate arachnids from insects in classification, and he moved crustaceans into a separate class from insects.
  • Hydrogéologie - was published in 1802 - and became one of the first to use the term biology in its modern sense. In Hydrogéologie, Lamarck advocated a steady-state geology based on a strict uniformitarianism. He argued that global currents tended to flow from east to west, and continents eroded on their eastern borders, with the material carried across to be deposited on the western borders. Thus, the Earth's continents marched steadily westward around the globe.
  • Recherches sur l'Organisation des Corps Vivants, - grew out his theory on evolution. He believed that all life was organized in a vertical chain, with gradation between the lowest forms and the highest forms of life, thus demonstrating a path to progressive developments in nature.
  • Philosophie zoologique, ou Exposition des considérations relatives à l'histoire naturelle des animaux...1809, Paris.
  • Histoire naturelle des animaux sans vertèbres, présentant les caractères généraux et particuliers de ces animaux..., A seven volume set of books written over the period 1815 to 1822