1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Lamarck, Jean Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, Chevalier de
LAMARCK, JEAN BAPTISTE PIERRE ANTOINE DE MONET, Chevalier de (1744–1829), French naturalist, was born on the 1st of August 1744, at Bazantin, a village of Picardy. He was an eleventh child; and his father, lord of the manor and of old family, but of limited means, having placed three sons in the army, destined this one for the church, and sent him to the Jesuits at Amiens, where he continued till his father’s death. After this he would remain with the Jesuits no longer, and, not yet seventeen years of age, started for the seat of war at Bergen-op-Zoom, before which place one of his brothers had already been killed. Mounted on an old horse, with a boy from the village as attendant, and furnished by a lady with a letter of introduction to a colonel, he reached his destination on the evening before a battle. Next morning the colonel found that the new and very diminutive volunteer had posted himself in the front rank of a body of grenadiers, and could not be induced to quit the position. In the battle, the company which he had joined became exposed to the fire of the enemy’s artillery, and in the confusion of retreat was forgotten. All the officers and subalterns were killed, and not more than fourteen men were left, when the oldest grenadiers seeing there were no more French in sight proposed to the young volunteer so soon become commandant to withdraw his men. This he refused to do without orders. These at last arrived; and for his bravery he was made an officer on the spot, and soon after was named to a lieutenancy.
After the peace, the regiment was sent to Monaco. There one of his comrades playfully lifted him by the head, and to this it was imputed that he was seized with disease of the glands of the neck, so severe as to put a stop to his military career. He went to Paris and began the study of medicine, supporting himself by working in a banker’s office. He early became interested in meteorology and in physical and chemical speculations of a chimerical kind, but happily threw his main strength into botany, and in 1778 published his Flore française, a work in which by a dichotomous system of contrasting characters he enabled the student with facility to determine species. This work, which went through several editions and long kept the field, gained for its author immediate popularity as well as admission to the Academy of Sciences.
In 1781 and 1782, under the title of botanist to the king, an appointment obtained for him by Buffon, whose son accompanied him, he travelled through various countries of Europe, extending his knowledge of natural history; and on his return he began those elaborate contributions to botany on which his reputation in that science principally rests, namely, the Dictionnaire de Botanique and the Illustrations de Genres, voluminous works contributed to the Encyclopédie Méthodique (1785). In 1793, in consequence of changes in the organization of the natural history department at the Jardin du Roi, where he had held a botanical appointment since 1788, Lamarck was presented to a zoological chair, and called on to lecture on the Insecta and Vermes of Linnaeus, the animals for which he introduced the term Invertebrata. Thus driven, comparatively late in life, to devote his principal attention to zoology instead of botany, he had the misfortune soon after to suffer from impaired vision; and the malady resulted subsequently in total blindness. Yet his greatest zoological work, the Histoire naturelle des animaux sans vertèbres, was published from 1815 to 1822, with the assistance, in the last two volumes, of his eldest daughter and of P. A. Latreille (1762–1833). A volume of plates of the fossil shells of the neighbourhood of Paris was collected in 1823 from his memoirs in the Annales des Muséums. He died on the 18th of December 1829.
The character of Lamarck as a naturalist is remarkable alike for its excellences and its defects. His excellences were width of scope, fertility of ideas and a pre-eminent faculty of precise description, arising not only from a singularly terse style, but from a clear insight into both the distinctive features and the resemblances of forms. That part of his zoological work which constitutes his solid claim to the highest honour as a zoologist is to be found in his extensive and detailed labours in the departments of living and fossil Invertebrata. His endeavours at classification of the great groups were necessarily defective on account of the imperfect knowledge possessed in his time in regard to many of them, e.g. echinoderms, ascidians and intestinal worms; yet they are not without interest, particularly on account of the comprehensive attempt to unite in one great division as Articulata all those groups that appeared to present a segmented construction. Moreover, Lamarck was the first to distinguish vertebrate from invertebrate animals by the presence of a vertebral column, and among the Invertebrata to found the groups Crustacea, Arachnida and Annelida. In 1785 (Hist. del’ Acad.) he evinced his appreciation of the necessity of natural orders in botany by an attempt at the classification of plants, interesting, though crude and falling immeasurably short of the system which grew in the hands of his intimate friend A. L. de Jussieu. The problem of taxonomy has never been put more philosophically than he subsequently put it in his Animaux sans vertèbres: “What arrangement must be given to the general distribution of animals to make it conformable to the order of nature in the production of these beings?”
The most prominent defect in Lamarck must be admitted to have been want of control in speculation. Doubtless the speculative tendency furnished a powerful incentive to work, but it outran the legitimate deductions from observation, and led him into the production of volumes of worthless chemistry without experimental basis, as well as into spending much time on fruitless meteorological predictions. His Annuaires Météorologiques were published yearly from 1800 to 1810, and were not discontinued until after an unnecessarily public and brutal tirade from Napoleon, administered on the occasion of being presented with one of his works on natural history.
To the general reader the name of Lamarck is chiefly interesting on account of his theory of the origin of life and of the diversities of animal forms. The idea, which appears to have been favoured by Buffon before him, that species were not through all time unalterable, and that the more complex might have been developed from pre-existent simpler forms, became with Lamarck a belief or, as he imagined, a demonstration. Spontaneous generation, he considered, might be easily conceived as resulting from such agencies as heat and electricity causing in small gelatinous bodies an utricular structure, and inducing a “singular tension,” a kind of “éréthisme” or “orgasme”; and, having thus accounted for the first appearance of life, he explained the whole organization of animals and formation of different organs by four laws (introduction to his Histoire naturelle des animaux sans vertèbres, 1815):—
1. “Life by its proper forces tends continually to increase the volume of every body possessing it, and to enlarge its parts, up to a limit which it brings about.
2. “The production of a new organ in an animal body results from the supervention of a new want (besoin) continuing to make itself felt, and a new movement which this want gives birth to and encourages.
3. “The development of organs and their force of action are constantly in ratio to the employment of these organs.
4. “All which has been acquired, laid down, or changed in the organization of individuals in the course of their life is conserved by generation and transmitted to the new individuals which proceed from those which have undergone those changes.”
The second law is often referred to as Lamarck’s hypothesis of the evolution of organs in animals by appetence or longing, although he does not teach that the animal’s desires affect its conformation directly, but that altered wants lead to altered habits, which result in the formation of new organs as well as in modification, growth or dwindling of those previously existing. Thus, he suggests that, ruminants being pursued by carnivora, their legs have grown slender; and, their legs being only fit for support, while their jaws are weak, they have made attack with the crown of the head, and the determination of fluids thither has led to the growth of horns. So also the stretching of the giraffe’s neck to reach the foliage he supposes to have led to its elongation; and the kangaroo, sitting upright to support the young in its pouch, he imagines to have had its fore-limbs dwarfed by disuse, and its hind legs and tail exaggerated by using them in leaping. The fourth law expresses the inheritance of acquired characters, which is denied by August Weismann and his followers. For a more detailed account of Lamarck’s place in the history of the doctrine of evolution, see Evolution.