The OTHER Theory of Evolution

23 March 2020

Charles Darwin. Marie Curie. Isaac Newton. 

In science class we only celebrated successes. But for every scientific superstar there’s a generation of equally intelligent scholars who got it wrong. 

If mentioned at all, these scientists’ ideas are mercilessly mocked. The four humours? Ridiculous. The Earth as the centre of the universe? Absurd. Alchemy? A fantasy!

Hindsight makes it easy to scoff at these debunked theories. What’s more difficult is putting yourself in these thinkers’ shoes and appreciating their intellect and dedication.

Take biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. These days, he is best known for Lamarckian evolution, where traits acquired during the organism’s lifetime are passed onto offspring. 

A classic example of Lamarckian evolution: millions of years ago, a giraffe with a short stumpy neck was hungry. But an unlimited supply of fresh juicy leaves—a ruminant’s equivalent to an Instagram-worthy bottomless brunch—were at the top of towering trees. The giraffe was desperate for a gourmet meal, stretching its neck so far to reach the leaves that the structure was permanently altered, passing their longer neck onto their offspring. 

Cringey, right? Lamarck’s example is still contrasted with Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection precisely because it sounds so ridiculous. But given the limited scientific knowledge of the 19th century, was it really such a crazy proposal? I mean, creationism was still a dominant and widely accepted belief.

People criticise Lamarck for having no clue how these acquired traits could be passed on. But Darwin also had no good explanation for the mechanism of natural selection. Neither Darwin, who we laud for his genius, nor Lamarck, who has faded into relative obscurity, knew anything about genetics. 

Gregor Mendel, who pioneered genetics, was Darwin’s contemporary. But because Mendel surrounded himself with pea plants in a tiny church in the Czech Republic, his ideas didn’t exactly spread like wildfire. So, neither Lamarck nor Darwin had any clue how genetics facilitated their theories—but that shouldn’t stop us from celebrating them.

With today’s knowledge you may scoff at Lamarck. But On the Origin of Species references and endorses his ideas, and countless experiments explored the validity of acquired inheritance. Lamarck’s theory wasn’t definitively disproven until the 1930s (and even later in the Soviet Union, where it became part of their official biology).

Despite being wrong, Lamarck was one of the first people to not only acknowledge that species change over time, but also provide a systematic explanation for those changes. He paved the way for modern evolutionary biology, and debunking his ideas taught us a lot about evolution. We should give more credit to the brilliant—but wrong—scientists that make progress possible.

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