jean-baptiste lamarck was (mostly) wrong when he suggested that evolution happened via a form of “soft inheritance”, i.e. that organisms passed on traits which they had acquired during their lifetimes to their offspring (see: lamarckism). as alfred russel wallace explanied in 1858, evolution happens instead via natural selection (and, of course, other evolutionary forces like genetic drift, etc.) [pg. 60]:

“Neither did the giraffe acquire its long neck by desiring to reach the foliage of the more lofty shrubs, and constantly stretching its neck for the purpose, but because any varieties which occurred among its antitypes with a longer neck than usual *at once secured a fresh range of pasture over the same ground as their shorter-necked companions, and on the first scarcity of food were thereby enabled to outlive them.*”

nowadays everyone giggles at lamarckism, but i always want to come to lamarck’s defense, though, when people talk disparagingly about him and his ideas because 1) no one knew how evolution worked in the eighteenth century, not just lamarck, and he was only trying to come up with a naturalistic explanation for all the variation we see in life on earth for goodness sake, and 2) i happen to know that some other scientists didn’t like his ideas and actively worked to have his ideas suppressed. or ignored, anyway. quite successfully, too, i’m sorry to report. here from “Lamarck, Evolution, and the Politics of Science” [pgs. 291-293, 296 – pdf – link added by me]:

“With the exception of a few brief and scattered comments Lamarck’s evolutionary ideas were publicly received in silence. Attention will be paid here to the posture toward Lamarck’s ideas adopted by the dominant figure of French natural science at the time: Georges Cuvier.

“Georges Cuvier’s magisterial and disapproving presence has long been recognized as a factor in the poor reception of Lamarck’s evolutionary theory by his contemporaries. Cuvier’s reasons for opposing the hypothesis of species mutability have been dealt with a length elsewhere and do not need to be repeated here. Primary concern here will be with the way in which he treated Lamarck’s views.

“It is not likely that Lamarck’s physico-chemical views were neglected for reasons of jealousy, as Lamarck had assumed, and the same can be said of the treatment of his evolutionary views. This does not mean, however, that these views were not *methodically* neglected. Consider the following statement written by Cuvier in 1806, setting forth his view of what scientific bodies had to do to assure for the science of geology the growth of which that science was capable:

“‘[Scientific bodies] must maintain in [geology’s] regard the conduct that they have maintain since their establishment in regard to all the other sciences: To encourage with their eulogies those who report positive facts, and to retain an absolute silence over the systems which succeed to one another.’

“One may well presume that the ‘absolute silence’ recommended for ‘systems’ was the very antidote that had first been applied to Lamarck’s chemical theories and was later applied to his zoological theories. To Cuvier, evidently, Lamarck’s chemical and zoological theories *both* appeared as ‘vast edifices [constructed] on imaginery bases,’ and thus both deserved the same treatment. In his ‘Eloge’ of Lamarck Cuvier wrote:

“‘…whatever interest [Lamarck’s zoological works] may have exicited by their positive parts, no one believed their systematic part dangerous enough to merit being attacked; it was left in the same peace as the chemical theory.’

“One may suppose that Cuvier’s use of the words ‘dangerous enough to merit being attacked’ instead of some equivalent of ‘reasonable enough to merit being considered’ is not without significance. One may also remark that, in the statement that Lamarck’s zoological speculations [!! -h.chick] were ‘left in the same peace as the chemical theory,’ the word ‘peace’ should probably be interpreted strictly as the *public* silence that Cuvier recommended for all ‘systems.’ Certainly the picture that Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire painted of the last years of Lamarck’s life was not one of peaceful neglect. In Geoffroy’s words, ‘attacked on all sides, insulted even by odious jests, submitted to the insult from them with a sorrowful patience….’

“In an unpublished manuscript one finds Cuvier writing about Lamarck: ‘In truth his explanations are sometimes very amusing despite the admiration that some naturalists pretend to show for them.’ In another work, published posthumously, Cuvier’s comment on authors who had favored the idea of species transformation was: ‘From the moment that these authors wished to enter into detail they fell into ridicule.’ Frederic Cuvier said of his brother Georges that he put ideas of species transformation

“‘…in the rank of those frivolous games of the imagination with which the truth has nothing in common; with which one may amuse oneself when they are skillfully and gracefully presented, but which lose all their charm when taken seriously….’

“It is difficult to estimate just how much the posture of Cuvier toward Lamarck’s evolutionary ideas may have influenced contemporaries who might otherwise have been disposed to give Lamarck’s ideas some serious attention. Presumably Cuvier’s influence in this regard was considerable. The combination of public neglect and private ridicule seems to have been devastating for Lamarck’s evolutionary theory.”

cuvier, for various reasons, simply did not like the idea of the “transmutation of species” and, rather than address lamarck’s ideas directly, he opted for ignoring them — and used his position as a leader in the sciences to encourage other scientists to do the same. bad form.

darwin, too, was concerned about how fellow scientists would treat him if and when he published his ideas on evolution. it took him twenty years to publish his theories, and you often hear about how he delayed publication because he didn’t want to offend his religious wife (or maybe it just took twenty years for him to do the research and writing up), but there was definitely a lot of opposition to the idea of the transmutation of species in the sciences in england during darwin’s day and natural theology still held sway. from Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory:

“Darwin conceived his theory in 1838, but he did not publish anything about it for twenty years. Recognizing the depth of opposition among scientists to the transmutation hypothesis, he spent much of this time endeavoring to anticipate and answer in advance objections to his theory. In the process, he perfected his thinking on the gradual divergence of varieties into distinct species through competition, marshaled evidence for evolution from comparative anatomy and embryology, fitted fossils into evolutionary series and distribution patterns, and tried to imagine intermediate stages in the development of the eye and other complex organs….

“The transmutation hypothesis was widely debated but little accepted among European naturalists during the early nineteenth century. It had a revolutionary taint.”

ah. politics. even scientists are only human.

more on the politics of the day in darwin’s time from Evolution: The History of an Idea [pg. 97, pgs. 126-27, pg. 134 – my emphasis]:

“Materialism was an integral aspect of a revolutionary ideology that wanted to sweep all traces of the old social hierarchy aside. Natural theology and idealism were invoked by conservatives who wanted to preserve their position in that hierarchy: the world was designed by a God who intended us all to accept our place in the preordained social scale. The situation was complicated, however, by a growing middle class making fortunes out of the new mechanized industries. They too wanted a social hierarchy that would include them in the ruling class. But they did not want a revolution that might sweep away the ownership of property. The middle class wanted reforms that would eliminate old restrictions on the individual’s right to trade freely and that would allow them access to political power. Many of the scientific theories developed in the nineteenth century can be related to the desires of those engaged in these broad social movements to legitimize their preferred model of society by claiming that it was ‘only natural.’

“Beginning in Britain, the industrial revolution was transforming the social and economic map of Europe. America too was beginning to flex its muscles as a world power. The idea of progress, first articulated by Condorcet and other Englightenment thinkers, now became the dominant model of social change. A parallel idea could also be applied to the natural world. Paleontologists uncovered a fossil sequence from simple to complex animals that even conservatives could not ignore. Liberals and radicals welcomed the idea because progress in the natural world seemd to hint that progress in the social world was inevitable….

“Evolutionism became part of the radical campaign to discredit the old worldview which propped up aristocratic privilege. The claim that God had designed a hierarchical universe in which everyone should keep to their allotted place was used to bolster the position of the upper classes. Both the radicals and the less strident middle-class activists saw a universe which changed through time as evidence that human conventions such as the class system could be changed….

“Darwin’s reluctance to publish his own theory must be understood in the context of the reputation acquired by transmutationism during the era of radical scientists such as R.E. Grant. Endorsement by radical scientists allowed the theory to be branded as dangerous materialism, subversive of the moral as well as the intellectual order.

hmmmm. sound familiar?

the political orthodoxy of today — especially in the sciences — as we all know is political correctness. now, for some strange reason that i have never been able to figure out, the perfectly reasonable idea (which i fully support) that everyone in our society ought to be treated equally has become confused with and all bound up in the completely crazy idea that everyone in our society is actually equal or the same. (i often wonder about the mentality of politically correct people — do they need to believe that all people are the same in order to be able to treat everyone equally? i don’t know, but that would certainly be interesting if it were the case.) so now, not only has it been made difficult if not impossible even to discuss known or possible biological differences between the sexes or ethnic groups or races, sexes and ethnic groups and races no longer exist! (almost.) and as henry harpending has pointed out, the parallel (resultant!) trend in population genetics has been “neutralism” — i.e. that natural selection has not led to any important differences between any human populations. so for nicholas wade to write a book like A Troublesome Inheritance — well, that was just a big no-no. as we all knew it would be.

i’m not a scientist. i don’t even play one on the internet. but i’ve had a lifelong interest in science, i’ve tried to keep up-to-date with the latest in scientific findings (as much as a layperson can do) — especially biology — for many years now, and i actually did take some science classes (including higher-level ones) in college, so i’m not entirely ignorant of how science works. and as far as i can see, speculation is a part of science. it must be. it’s the first step! speculation about the world is the brainstorming part of science — when hypotheses are built — it’s theory-building (theory with a small “t”). but, of course, speculating is just the start of scientific investigation — all the real investigative sciencey stuff has to follow it, of course. but there is definitely a place — a need! — in science for speculation — as darwin said.

and when some scientists try to squash the speculations of others…or even create an atmosphere in which people feel uncomfortable voicing their ideas…well, that’s just scientists behaving badly. not to mention unscientifically.

see also: Letters: ‘A Troublesome Inheritance’ and Geneticists Denounce Nicholas Wade’s “Speculative” Chapters as “Speculation” from steve sailer and At Least Erroneous in Faith from henry harpending and and Darwin on the Need for Speculation in Science from steve sailer

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