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As the word “Darwinism” does not signify the proper theoretical system of Charles Darwin, so Lamarckism as commonly understood nowadays is a good deal removed from the original views of Jean Baptiste Lamarck. Lamarckism is generally regarded as reducing all organic diversities to differences in the needs of individual life, but Lamarck himself, as must be emphasised from the very beginning, did not at all maintain the opinion that the great characteristics of the types were only due to such accidental factors. He supposed a sort of law of organisation to be at the root of systematics, as developed in history, and the needs of life were only responsible, according to him, for splitting the given types of organisation into their ultimate branches. Thus Lamarck, to a great extent at any rate, belongs to a group of authors that we shall have to study afterwards: authors who regard an unknown law of phylogenetic development as the real basis of transformism. Modern so-called Neo-Lamarckism, on the other hand, has indeed conceded the principle of needs to be the sole principle of transformism. Let us then study Lamarckism in its dogmatic modern form. This, however, may be done very briefly.

All facts of morphological adaptations form the starting-point of this theory, and it must be granted that they form a very solid foundation, for they are facts. The theory only has to enlarge hypothetically the realm of these facts, or rather the realm of the law that governs them. Indeed, it is assumed by Lamarckism that the organism is endowed with the faculty of responding to any change of the environment which may change its function by a morphologically expressed alteration of its functional state and form, which is adapted to the state of conditions imposed from without.

It is important to notice that this faculty would imply vitalistic causality when taken in the wide meaning which Lamarckism allows to it: indeed, the power of active adaptation to indefinite changes would imply a sort of causal connection that is nowhere known except in the organism. Lamarck himself is not very clear about this point—he seems to be afraid of certain types of uncritical vitalism in vogue in his days; but modern writers have most clearly seen what the logical assumptions of pure Lamarckism are. Next to Cope, August Pauly1 may be said to be the most conscious representative of a sort of so-called psychological vitalism, which indeed Lamarckism as a general and all-embracing theory must have as its basis.

This point will come out more fully if now we turn to study another assumption, upon which dogmatic Lamarckism rests. Accidental variations of form are supposed to occur, and the organism is said to possess the faculty of keeping and storing these variations and of handing them down to the next generation, if they happen to satisfy any of its needs.

But these “needs” are not of the actual type, brought forth by a change of the functional state of the individual, as in the case of adaptations: they are of a somewhat mysterious nature.

In fact, Pauly does not hesitate to attribute “liking” and “judgment”, along with other psychological elements, to the organisms whilst undergoing their transformation. There has been formed, for instance, by accidental variation some pigment which by its chemical nature brings the organism into a closer connection with the light of the medium; the individual likes that, keeps the pigment for itself and produces it again in the next generation; and indeed it will safeguard any sort of improvement which chance may effect in this primitive “eye”. Such a view is said to hold well with respect to the origin of every new organ. And this psychological argument is also said to afford the real explanation of adaptation proper. Adaptation also is regarded not as a truly primary faculty of the organism, but as a retention or provoking of metabolic states which occurred by accident originally and were then found to be useful; now they are reproduced either in every single case of individual morphogenesis, without regard to actual requirements, or else only in response to such: in the first case they are “inherited”, in the second they only occur as regulations. Thus the process of judgment, together with all the other elemental factors of psychical life concerned in it, has been made to account for adaptation proper. The whole theory has accordingly become very uniform and simple.

But, is it also a probable and satisfying theory?

The inheritance of acquired adaptations, as we know, is very problematic. This kind of inheritance, however, is not needed, if, with Pauly, we take adaptive characters as contingent mutations, stored and transmitted to the next generation like any other kind of mutation. For mutations, we know, are inheritable.

So far there would be no difficulty, with the exception perhaps that it is rather a strange idea to conceive adaptive characters as mutations.

And yet Lamarckism must break down, and this for the very same reasons which have made Darwinism impossible.

As it is important to understand well the real logical nature of our objections to both of the great transformistic theories, we think it well to interrupt our argument for a moment, in order to consider a certain point which, though very important in itself, seems of only secondary importance to us in our present discussion. Dogmatic Darwinism—I do not say the doctrine of Charles Darwin—is materialistic at bottom, and indeed has been used by many to complete their materialistic view of the universe on its organic side. The word “materialism” must not necessarily be taken here in its metaphysical sense, though most materialists are dogmatic metaphysicians. It also can be understood as forming part of a phenomenological point of view. Materialism as a doctrine of science means simply this: that whether “nature” be reality or phenomenon, in any case there is but one ultimate principle at its base, a principle relating to the movements of particles of matter. It is this point of view which dogmatic Darwinism strengthens: on the theory of natural selection and mutations, due to chance, organisms are merely arrangements of particles of matter, nothing else; and moreover, their kinds of arrangement are understood, at least in principle. Lamarckism, on the other hand, is not materialistic, but most markedly vitalistic—psychistic even.

Now, it is very important, I think, to notice that this difference between the two theories is unable to disguise one main point which is common to both: and it is to this point, and to this point only, that our chief objections against both these theories converge at present.

The contingency of the typical organic form is maintained by Darwinism as well as by Lamarckism: both theories, therefore, break down for almost the same reasons. Darwinism dealt with small mutations occurring at random; the organic form was the result of a fixation of only one kind of such mutations, all others being extinguished by selection. In other terms, the specific organised form, as understood by Darwinism, was a unit only to the extent that all its properties related to one and the same body, but for the rest it was a mere aggregation or summation.

To this sort of contingency, as maintained by Darwinians, criticism has objected, as we know, that it is quite an impossible basis of a theory of descent, since it would explain neither the first origin of an organ, nor any sort of harmony among parts or among whole individuals, nor any sort of restitution processes.

Now, Lamarckism of the dogmatic kind, as will easily be seen, only differs from Darwinism in this respect, that what according to the latter happens to the organism passively by means of selection, is according to the former performed actively by the organism, by means of a “judgment”—by the retention and handing down of chance variations. But the specificity of the form as a whole is contingent also according to Lamarckism. And, indeed, criticism must reject this contingency of being, in exactly the same way as it rejected the contingency of form maintained by Darwinians.

As far as the inheritance of truly adaptive characters comes into account—that is, the inheritance of characters which are due to the active faculty of adaptation possessed by the organism, bearing a vitalistic aspect throughout—hardly anything could be said against Lamarckism, except that inheritance of acquired characters is an hypothesis of small and doubtful value at present. But, that specific organisation proper is due to contingent variations, which accidentally have been found to satisfy some needs of the individual and therefore have been maintained and handed down, this reasoning is quite an impossibility, of exactly the same kind as the argument of Darwinism.

The process of restitution, perfect the very first time it occurs, if it occurs at all, is again the classical instance against this new sort of contingency, which is assumed to be the basis of transformism. Here we see with our eyes that the organism can do more than simply perpetuate mutations that have occurred at random and bear in themselves no relation whatever to any sort of unit or totality. There exists a faculty of a certain higher degree in the organism, and this faculty cannot possibly have originated by the process which Lamarckians assume. But if their principle fails in one instance, it fails as a general theory altogether. And now, on the other hand, as we actually see the individual organism endowed with a morphogenetic power, inexplicable by Lamarckism, but far exceeding the organogenetic faculty assumed by that theory, would it not be most reasonable to conclude from such facts, that there exists a certain organising power at the root of the transformism of species also, a power which we do not understand, which we see only partially manifested in the work of restitutions, but which certainly is not even touched by any of the Lamarckian arguments? There does indeed exist what Gustav Wolff has called primary purposefulness (“primäre Zweckmässigkeit”), at least in restitutions, and this is equally unexplainable by Darwinism and by the dogmatism of the Lamarckians.

The whole anti-Darwinistic criticism, therefore, of Gustav Wolff for instance, may also be applied to Lamarckism, with only a few changes of words. How could the origin of so complete an organ as the eye of vertebrates be due to contingent variations? How could that account for the harmony of the different kinds of cells in this very complicated organ with each other and with parts of the brain? And how is it to be understood, on the assumption of contingency, that there are two eyes of almost equal perfection, and that there are two feet, two ears? Islands and mountains do not show such symmetry in their structures.

We shall not repeat our deduction of the origin of restitutions, of regeneration for instance, on the dogmatic Lamarckian theory. As we have said already, it would lead to absurdities as great as in the case of dogmatic Darwinism, and indeed we already have mentioned that Lamarckians would hardly even attempt to explain these phenomena. It follows that dogmatic Lamarckism fails as a general theory about form.2

There is, finally, one group of facts often brought forward against Lamarckism by Darwinian authors which may be called the logical experimentum cruris of this doctrine, an experimentum destined to prove fatal. You know that among the polymorphic groups of bees, termites, and ants there exists one type of individuals, or even several types, endowed with some very typical features of organisation, but at the same time absolutely excluded from reproduction: how could those morphological types have originated on the plan allowed by the Lamarckians? Of what use would “judgment” about means that are offered by chance, and happen to satisfy needs, be to individuals which die without offspring? Here Lamarckism becomes a simple absurdity, just as Darwinism resulted in absurdities elsewhere.

  • 1.

    Darwinismus und Lamarckismus, München, 1905.

  • 2.

    Compare also the excellent criticism of Lamarckism given by G. Wolff, Die Begründung der Abstammungslehre, München, 1907.