Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Is history always written by the victors?

I had planned to write a blogg post on my recent activities with a friend who was visiting us from Sweden. After a wonderful few weeks cavorting around Australia’s east coast including whale watching, snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef, exploring the rainforests of Daintree (where we found a Hercules moth, see picture) and Springbrook national park (see pic of common tree snake eating what looks like a gecko), camping on the beach at Stradbroke Island and an ill-advised skydive onto a beach north of Brisbane (for pictures of some of these activities see this site) I felt I had enough to write about, even if it broke the recent run of excellent true scientific posts.

But my head was turned by a correspondence letter in this week’s nature about a retrospective book review of Lamarck’s Philosophie Zoologique (Zoological Philosophy) from 1809. Ignoring the small errors pointed out by the correspondence, the book review opened my eyes a little to the misrepresentative way Lamarck is viewed within main stream science (or at least by the english). I have been as guilty as many for lambasting the work of Lamarck (mainly as a way of mocking Fabrice and the French in general), based purely on summaries of his work I have read in undergraduate textbooks. So have we chosen to over look Lamarck’s main contributions to our field? Having only read what is mentioned in the articles above it would be wrong of me to draw any conclusions and opinions from this……but of course I will and I say yes.

So how does science remember those who have gone before? We are dealing with philosophy of history when we look back over the works of those who have preceded us. Even though much of the work is in print, and therefore assumed to be infallible, misreading and misquoting work is something we are all guilty of to some extent. Sometimes it is easier to cite a piece of work based on the general consensus of what was said rather than reading it yourself. So a lesson for us all, if you're fortunate enough for your work to be remembered, just hope that you're lucky enough that it is remembered favourably and that you're not French (just a joke for Fabrice)!


  1. Tom!

    A truly excellent bloggpost, and I agree with much of what you have said. Lamarck was a great biologist, who deserve a better reputation than simply being the guy who was wrong and believed in the stupid idéa of aquired inheritance. As pointed out in the book review, even our hero Charles Darwin was a "lamarckist" in the sense that he did not understand genetics and believed in some form of aquired inheritance.

    History is indeed written by the victors. This is also evident in the Modern Synthesis, where Ernst Mayr, who often had quite dogmatic views on issues such as the reality of species, the Biological Species Concept (as if other species concepts were NON-biological) and the plausibility of sympatric speciation. Mayr outlived the other architects of the Modern Synthesis by several decades, and so he was a victor and someone who could write his own (very biased) history.

    Even so, and even knowing Mayr's dogmatism in some areas, he admitted that the "lamarckians" DID actually partly influence the modern synthesis, although it has not often been admitted. The lamarckians in the 20'ties and 30'ties were actually quite good naturalists and ecologists (some of them at least) and they clearly understood the important role of the environment in influencing phenotypes (and not only heredity).

    Although the lamarckians got the hereditary mechanism wrong, they were at least more aware of the role of ecology, compared to some of the hard-core "Mendelians" in Great Britain (e. g. Bateson) who were quite dogmatic and rejected ecology and even Darwin's principle of natural selection (!). Bateson, for instance, believed that mutations was the main factor in the evolutionary process, and that natural selection could only "sort out" the freaks and misfits, but he did not believe in any creative and driving role for natural selection. He, and other Mendelians, were correct on the genetics, but they underestimated the importance of the environment.

  2. Hi Guys!! I agree with Tom and Erik both. One added point: part of Darwin's brilliance was getting so much right. This is, it was not just Natural Selection, but a long list of things (common descent, gradualism, extinction, biogeography, even, I would say, the nature of the species category itself, though Mayr never thought so). Ya, Darwin got inheritance wrong, and a few other things, but the amount he actually got right blows my mind. Consider Lamarck in comparison to Darwin. Well, first, let me say that Lamarck is deserving of "science hero" status, and would be if Darwin hadn't come along (if Evolutionary theory had been assembled more piecemeal). Lamarck opened the door to evolutionary thought - no small feat! And his ideas did guide many of the naturalists and biometricians during and before the evolutionary synthesis. But, to be clear, Lamarck did get a lot wrong, too, and not just the details of inheritance (it is unfair that that is what he is remembered for). He did not believe in extinction. He did not believe in common descent (life in his view was essentially non-branching). He advocated the repeated spontaneous creation of life. Older lineages were the most complex species we see today; worms, on the other hand, were relatively recent creations. He did not think of natural selection. Etc. I think the correct approach is to honor Lamarcks accomplishments (Evolution of life!!), not to use him as the guy who got inheritance and the mechanism of evolutionary change wrong. (Edit in proofs: Mary Jane West-Eberhard would contend, I think, that Lamarck was less wrong then people think, if her ideas on genetic accommodation and whatnot are correct).

    As far as Mayr goes, I agree with Tom and Fabrice entirely.... he was a great man, and one of the all-time great biologists, but his incredible longevity gave him the last word on everything, and resulted in a sort of over-influence. Which is why we all need to eat good food and get lots of exercise - because if we can outlive our enemies, we can bag on them after they die and win!!! [insert evil, maniacal laugh here]

  3. One of the things I found most interesting about Gould's Structure of Evolutionary Theory is that he really tries to do justice to the "losers" in scientific history. We can probably assume that most historically well-known scientists weren't stupid, and that they had what they thought were good reasons for supporting a theory that turned out to be incorrect in the long run. I was really struck when I read Gould's book by how well thought-out some of these old theories (like saltationism) actually were. Since it's such a gigantic book I know most people are afraid to tackle it, but the parts about the history of evolutionary theory are definitely worth reading.

  4. Some great responses from you all, glad to hear you all agree (although it makes for better reading if there is some contention).

    Shawn; My intention was not to take anything away from Darwin, if evolutionary biology was a dinner table he would be firmly at the head of the table and have first dibs on everything. Rather to reflect on how others are remembered, which stemmed from my own ignorance at Lamarck’s contribution to science. Other scientists have been just as wrong, but are still mainly remembered for their other contributions, such as Erik’s example of Bateson. You may be onto something in perhaps it is the shadow of Darwin that has left Lamarck so firmly in the shade, the same way Alfie Wallace will forever be the “also ran”. Lamarck’s problem was he preceded the greatest biologist/scientist of all time. A few generations separating them could have done wonders for his reputation.
    As Jessica points out, if your science is famous enough to be remembered then you must have been of above average intelligence however wrong you ended up being. Although I am not sure where “Dr” Kent Hovind will fit in (joke!).

    So another lesson, not only do you have to survive all your peers to ensure that you can slag them off and make yourself sound great, but you must also hope that you are not present when one man changes the face of biology/science forever.

  5. Tom;

    It is good that you did bring up also Alfred Wallace here, he has also been somewhat badly treated by history, as he is sometimes portrayed as the guy who opposed Darwin's sexual selection theory, believed in spiritualism (yes he did, but that doesn't take away that he was correct on other things) and was a dogmatic proponent of natural selection as an explanation of everything ("more Darwinian than Darwin"). His got more of the biogeography correct than Darwin, I think it is important to point out.

  6. Yes it was a nice bloggpost Tom...
    i would just like to add a small comment to these interesting posts... of course Lamarck was remembered to some extent, but I think one of the reasons why he was neglected is that, first he was French and thus wrote his theory in French, which was at the time beginning to lose its influence over English, and second that he was wrong in some aspects of his theory, and this leads me to another example (or maybe counter-example): Galileo wrote his work in Latin, which was like English nowadays when it come to language importance, and he was more or less entirely right about his theory... Therefore, even if he had to fight like crazy against the church and the society's opinion, in the end we all know his name and his work...

    the moral of the (Hi)story would be that if you are on to something important, be rigorous and scientifically sound to some extent, and of course publish your work in English, and then you will be remembered...