Gateway to the Classics: Story Lives of Great Scientists by F. J. Rowbotham
Story Lives of Great Scientists by  F. J. Rowbotham

Jean Baptiste Lamarck

J EAN BAPTISTE PIERRE ANTOINE was born on August 1, 1744, at the village of Bazentin, in Picardy. His father is described in the register of birth as Philippe de Monet, Chevalier de Lamarck. The family was of ancient origin, but poor, and Jean was the youngest of eleven children. There appears to have been a good deal of soldiering in the family; the eldest son had met his death at the siege of Bergen, and two other sons were serving in the Army; and Lamarck in his turn was seized with the desire to serve in the field. His father, however, intending him for the priesthood, sent him to the Jesuits' school at Amiens. Here he remained till 1760, when the news of his father's death reaching him, he at once quitted the school and returned to his home. His mind was made up to join the Army, then campaigning in Westphalia, and having procured a horse (a sorry animal, it is told) and a letter of recommendation to the colonel of the regiment of Beaujolais, he set out in company with a lad of the village for the seat of war.

Possibly the colonel was inclined to set small store by the raw youth of seventeen (whose stunted figure, moreover, made him look younger than his years, or possibly he was too busy to pay much attention to the matter. At any rate, Lamarck was sent to his quarters and then forgotten. A battle was impending the next day, and when the colonel rode down the lines he was surprised to find the new recruit in the front rank of a company of grenadiers. He was ordered to the rear, but as he begged hard to be allowed to keep his position his wish was eventually granted.

In the battle which followed the French forces were beaten, and in the confusion of the retreat Lamarck's company was overlooked. All the officers had been killed, and when it was evident that the rest of the French army had left the field the oldest man of the company suggested that they should follow their example. But Lamarck, who had taken upon himself the command, refused to listen to this advice. 'No,' said he, 'we cannot retreat without orders.' Later on, when news was carried to the colonel that the company was still in the field, he dispatched an orderly to them by a protected route with orders to retire.

For his bravery in refusing to quit the post of danger without orders Lamarck was then and there installed in the Army, and a short time afterwards was given a commission. But his soldiering was of brief duration for when at the peace the regiment went into garrison at Monaco a fellow-officer for a joke lifted Lamarck by the head; inflammation of the glands of the neck ensued, and he was compelled to quit the Army and go to Paris to obtain special treatment.

During the four following years of residence in Paris he appears to have supported himself upon a family pension of 400 francs and his earnings as a clerk in a bank. His choice of profession fell upon medicine, but he was as yet too poor to give the necessary time to study. Meanwhile we learn of his spending his leisure hours in the Royal Garden (he appears to have formed some acquaintance with plants while at Monaco), in reading such botanical books as he could get hold of, and in studying the formation of clouds form his garret window. At the end of the four years we find him hesitating whether to adopt music or medicine as a profession, and being urged by his elder brother to stick to his original intention. The brothers at this time were living and studying together in a village near Paris. Here they encountered Rousseau, and Lamarck's taste for botany was strengthened by his being permitted to accompany the philosopher on his botanical rambles. The idea of following medicine seems to have been definitely abandoned at the age of twenty-four in favour of natural science, and Lamarck entered upon a course of botanical study under the celebrated botanist Bernard de Jussieu.

Ten years later (viz. in 1778) Lamarck published his Flora Françoise—a systematic arrangement and description in three volumes of the plants native to his country. The writing of this work occupied, according to Cuvier, six months of unremitting toil, but its composition must be regarded as the fruits of many years' study pursued amidst privations and difficulties of which we know nothing. As a contrast to these hardships one likes to think of the poor student spending sunny hours in the Royal Garden, or wandering in the country in search of new plants and bringing specimens home for dissection and study in his lodging, or studying the formation of clouds from his attic. In 1778 the influence of Rousseau had rendered the study of flowers exceedingly popular amongst the fashionable world of Paris—botany, as Cuvier expressed it, was 'une science à la mode'—and Lamarck's work brought him immediate fame.

In the following year, by the King's preference, Lamarck was elected a member of the Academy of Sciences, though his name was in the second rank of presentations, and shortly after his return to Paris in 1782 he was made keeper of the royal herbarium—a post specially created for him by d'Angiviller, who had succeeded Buffon as Intendant of the Royal Garden, and who was a relative of Lamarck's family. The salary attached to the post was 1,000 francs, and on this meagre sum and the profits of his published works Lamarck had to support himself and his family of five children. From this time onwards 'grinding poverty' was fated to be the lot of the naturalist, who, after basking for a brief period in the sunshine of court favour, was allowed to sink into obscurity and neglect. In 1790, owing to a reduction in the expenses of the Royal Garden, he was actually discharged, but his prompt appeal to the National Assembly had the effect of restoring him to his post with an increased salary of 1,800 francs.

In this appeal Lamarck, in addition to giving a full account of his work and travels, sketched out a plan for reorganizing the Royal Garden and Museum on a scale of increased usefulness and efficiency, such as would serve to place Paris on a level in respect to science with other great Continental cities. The plan, though not adopted by the Government, led to an inquiry into the whole subject of the administration of the Royal Garden. As the result of this inquiry the existing Museum of Natural History was established in 1793.

Lamarck appears to have pursued his labours undisturbed by the events of 'the Terror'—fighting the grim battle of poverty meanwhile as best he could, or enduring with philosophical patience the evils which could not be remedied—until in 1793 we find him embarking upon a new line of research in connection with the newly established Museum of Natural History. It was found impossible to assign to Lamarck a professorship of Botany, and he undertook the charge of that 'which everybody had neglected'—namely, the department of the invertebrate animals, including under that designation more than nine-tenths of the whole animal kingdom. We do well to lay stress upon this point of comparative numbers, for otherwise we should be apt to form but a poor estimate of the extent of the burden thus cast upon the shoulders of a single naturalist. Lamarck had practically to begin at the beginning; and he began by inventing the terms Vertebrates and Invertebrates—the first to include the Mammalia, Birds, Amphibia, and Fishes, comprising the four first classes of Linnæus, and the second to embrace the Insects and Worms, forming the two remaining classes distinguished by Linnæus. These two great divisions thus established by Lamarck have ever since been recognized by science.

The majority of the animals comprised in the second of Lamarck's sub-kingdoms, however, had been left practically untouched by Linnæus. When, therefore, Lamarck entered upon his labours he had to face a vast assemblage of forms representing every variety and degree of structure, from the simplest organism discoverable by the microscope to such comparatively complex organisms as the insects and mollusca. Of these various kinds of animals large collections had been brought together at the Museum, but no agreement had been arrived at amongst the naturalists as to the manner in which they should be classified. It would be more accurate perhaps to say that no naturalist since Linnæus had ever attempted to deal with the question of their classification as a whole, whilst the structure and life-histories of many of the lowlier forms had never been studied. So small was the amount of exact knowledge which was possessed at that time regarding most of the subdivisions of the Invertebrates, that Lamarck had to break new ground at almost every turn. The difficulties attending the subject, which had repelled others from the task, were surmounted by the infinite patience and pains which Lamarck brought to bear upon them. By slow degrees he solved each knotty problem, and defined the degrees of difference and relationship between the various groups, with the result that out of uncertainty and chaos he evolved order and precision.

In 1801 Lamarck published his Système des Animaux sans Vertèbres, containing the results of his labours in the department assigned to him eight years before. In this work he distinguishes ten classes of Invertebrates, ranging them in the following order: Mollusca, Cirripedia (Barnacles), Annelida, Crustacea, Arachnida (Spiders), Insecta, Vermes, Radiata (Starfish), Polyps (Sponges), Infusoria (microscopic animals). An enlarged edition of this work, in seven volumes, was published in the years 1815 and 1822. This is his great work, on which his reputation as a naturalist rests.

In the course of his labours amongst the groups of lower animals Lamarck had been struck with the difficulty of determining between 'species' and 'varieties', owing to the complete gradation which was observable between many of the forms thus classified by older naturalists. Confronted by these facts, he was led to the conclusion that species were not separate creations, but had descended from pre-existing species. Many naturalists before Lamarck had entertained similar views, and had even expressed these views in their published writings; but none had propounded an hypothesis or theory to explain the process by which this descent of species had been accomplished. To Lamarck, therefore, belongs the honour of being the first to propound a genuine theory of the progression of life, and of demonstrating that this progress has been the result of continuous laws.

What was the nature of the reception accorded to these views? Strange to relate, whilst the Animaux sans Vertèbres  was welcomed with approbation, and adjudged to be worthy of ranking beside the work of Cuvier on the Vertebrate animals, the theory of the origin of species, where it was not passed over in silence, was referred to in terms of derision—'far-fetched,' 'absurd,' 'fantastic,' being amongst the milder forms of criticism that were levelled against the new doctrine. The strangeness of this reception is not lessened, but it is partly explained perhaps, by the weakness of construction of the theory; by the preponderance which it exhibits of speculation as compared with statement of fact; and lastly by the wording of many of the passages—e.g. that dealing with the elongation of the neck of the giraffe—which lent itself only too easily to ridicule. Lamarck may or may not have been conscious of these drawbacks; on the other hand, he may have been content to rest his claims with regard to the truth of his theory upon the judgement of posterity: we cannot tell. All we know is that he devoted the years of his life after 1801 to elaborating and perfecting his views, and that, as we have already stated, he repeated and enforced those views in his old age. But so far as the opinion of his contemporaries was concerned his labours were of no avail, and it was an added bitterness to the trials which attended his closing years that he had to bear with the condemnation and ridicule of those whom he had hoped to convert.

Six years before the date of the first publication of his theory—viz. in 1795—Lamarck had seized the chance which then offered itself of bettering his worldly position by applying for a share of the 300,000 livres voted by the National Assembly as an indemnity to be paid to those citizens who had achieved eminence in literature and art. That his petition did not err on the side of undue modesty, will be apparent from the following extracts:—

'During the twenty-six years that he has lived in Paris, the citizen Lamarck has unceasingly devoted himself to the study of natural history, and particularly to botany. He has done it successfully, for it is fifteen years since he published, under the title of Flore Français, the history and description of the plants of France, with the mention of their properties and of their usefulness in the arts—a work printed at the expense of the government, will received by the public, and now much sought after and very rare.' He next proceeds to describe the second of his great botanical undertakings—the Illustration des Genres, with nine hundred plates—which occupied several volumes of the Encyclopédie Méthodique  begun by Diderot and D'Alembert. He states that for ten years past he has kept busy 'a great number of Parisian artists, and three printing presses for different works', besides delivering a course of lectures.

The petition was granted, and though we are not told the amount which Lamarck received, we may be sure that the aid was timely, for a pension of 3,000 francs which had been paid to him by the Academy of Sciences had lately ceased, and he was married for the second, if not the third, time. In renewing his application for assistance from the national fund in the following year, Lamarck draws a picture of his distressful state. As regards his work, the second edition of 'that useful work' his French botany, which he design as 'a new present to his country', is stayed for lack of fund. But he has another and a far greater project on hand, for which money is needed. 'For a long time,' he says, 'I have had in view a very important work—perhaps better adapted for education in France than those I have already composed or undertaken—work, in short, which the National Convention should without doubt order, and of which no part could be written so advantageously as in Paris, where are to be found abundant means for carrying it to completion.' It is to be a 'Système de la Nature'—'a work analogous to the Systema Natura  of Linnæus, but written in French, and presenting the picture complete, concise, and methodical, of all the natural productions observed up to this day.' He states that Linnæus's work, though indispensable to young Frenchmen devoting themselves to the study of natural history, 'is the object [? subject] of speculation by foreign authors, and has already passed through thirteen different editions. Moreover, their works, which, to our shame, we have to use, because we have none written expressly for us, are filled with gross mistakes.'

He estimates that, 'written with the greatest possible conciseness,' the work could not be comprised in less than eight volumes of octavo size, allotted as follows: Quadrupeds and Birds, one volume; Reptiles and Fishes, one volume; Insects, two volumes; Worms (comprising the molluscs, madrepores, lithphytes, and naked worms), one volume; Plants, two volumes; Minerals, one volume.

For a work of this character national assistance is indispensable, and he proposes that the nation shall pay him 20,000 francs in one payment, for which sum he will undertake the entire responsibility, and will agree, if he live, to complete the work in seven years.

The proposal was not entertained; and indeed it is difficult to see how so vast a work could have been accomplished by one man, and in so short a space of time as that named by the proposer. Yet Lamarck says that he only adopted the one-man plan 'after much thought'. That he should have believed himself capable of such an undertaking seems to argue a degree of self-confidence that is astonishing, unless we admit that he idea may have gained force from the pressure of his circumstance. That those circumstances were at the time very straightened is certain. He appears to have gone to some lengths to raise money, and also to have been extremely improvident in disposing of such money when raised. Thus we learn of his selling his thirty-years' collection of shells to the Government for 5,000 francs, and of his laying out this sum in the purchase (or part purchase) of a small 'national estate' at Héricourt-Saint-Samson, about 50 miles from Paris. Here, in a 'modest farm-house', he sought rest and seclusion in the summer from his official work; he was married no less than four times.

In his last years Lamarck became quite blind—partly, no doubt, as the result of his long-continued use of magnifying glasses and the microscope. The progress of the disease, or whatever it was, was gradual, but complete blindness seems to have prevailed during the last ten years. Very little is known as to the manner in which Lamarck spent the thirty years preceding his death; but probably they were passed in seclusion and in the unbroken routine of lecturing and museum work. It is said that he was fond of novels, which his daughters read to him. We learn of his regular attendances at the board of professors of the museum; of his presence at the meeting on July 15, 1818, when he laid before the assembly the sixth volume of his work.

The self-sacrificing devotion of his eldest daughter, Cornélie, alone enabled Lamarck's greatest work to see the light. Thus, the whole of the seventh, and last, volume of the Animaux sans Vertèbres  was dictated to this daughter, on whom Lamarck leant entirely during the period of his decline. It was she who accompanied him on his walks, and who attended him constantly indoors when in later days he was confined to the house. Cuvier has testified to this devotion by his statement that 'at her first walk out of doors after the end came she was nearly overcome by the fresh air, to which she become so unaccustomed. She, indeed, practically sacrificed her life to her father'. At her father's death the museum authorities, in view of the unfortunate position of the family, gave this brave daughter employment in the botanical laboratory with a salary of 1,000 francs.

Lamarck died December 28, 1829, aged 85 years. He was buried in the cemetery of Montparnasse, December 30, and eulogies were pronounced at the graveside by M. Latreille, in the name of the Academy of Sciences, and Geoffroy St. Hilaire, on behalf of his colleagues at the Museum of Natural History.

In recent years a movement has taken place on the Continent and in America in favour of a revival (or a part-revival) of Lamarck's theory of evolution, under the name of 'Neo-Lamarckism'. The views of the 'Neo-Lamarckians' are opposed by those of a second body styling themselves 'Neo-Darwinians', and claiming to represent the modern phase of evolutionary thought based upon the views of Darwin. Into the merits of this controversy we cannot enter; but whatever differences of opinion may exist with respect to Lamarck as an exponent of evolution, there can be no question about his right to be regarded as the founder of modern Invertebrate Zoology—and this, apart from anything else, is the great debt which science owes to his memory.

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