Lamarckian Rhetoric – by Loren Petrich

It is possible to use creationist rhetorical techniques to advocate other pseudosciences, and I will explain here how it could be done for the hypothesis of Lamarckian inheritance, the inheritance of acquired characteristics.

In centuries past, it was widely believed that such characteristics could be inherited; this hypothesis is commonly known as Lamarckism after the early-nineteenth-century biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, with his famous illustration of a giraffe stretching its neck. But he himself considered it a minor mode of evolution; his preferred major mechanism was a form of orthogenesis, evolution driven by internal forces. Orthogenesis itself used to be a popular hypothesis in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but there is no clear evidence of such forces, and orthogenetic effects can result from the cumulative effects of other processes, like genetic drift.

In 1672, Sir Thomas Browne wrote a debunking book, Pseudodoxia Epidemica (“Popular False Beliefs”), in which he noted a widespread (and still-present!) misconception that men have one less rib than women, on account of the creation of Eve from one of Adam’s ribs. He noted that not only is that not the case, but that mutilations do not get inherited.

And in the Bible, Jacob performs Lamarckian genetic engineering on Laban’s livestock, making Laban’s solid-color livestock give birth to spottead and streaked livestock by showing them striped sticks (Genesis 30:25-43).

More recently, George Bernard Shaw, in a preface to Back to Methuselah (1922), passionately defended Lamarckism by finding fault with Darwinism, calling it a great “chapter of accidents”. He wrote:

It seems simple, because you do not at first realize all that it involves. But when its whole significance dawns on you, hour heart sinks into a heap of sand within you. There is a hideous fatalism about it, a ghastly and damnable reduction of beauty and intelligence, of strength and purpose, of honor and aspiration.

In his book The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins explained how this rhetoric delayed his appreciation for Darwinism for at least a year when he was in his teens.

Some biologists also delivered passionate rhetorical defenses of Lamarckism, notably the last reputable Lamarckian, Paul Kammerer. In his book The Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics, he stated

If acquired characteristics cannot be passed on, as most of our contemporaneous naturalists contend, then no true organic progress is possible. Man lives and suffers in vain. Whatever he might have acquired in the course of a lifetime dies with him. His children and his children’s children must ever and again start from the bottom… If acquired characteristics are occasionally inherited, then it becomes evident that we are not exclusively slaves of the past — slaves helplessly endeavoring to free ourselves of our shackles — but also captains of our future, who in the course of time will be able to rid ourselves, to a certain extent, of our heavy burdens and to ascend into higher and even higher strata of development. Education and civilization, hygiene and social endeavors are achievements which are not alone benefiting the single individual, for every action, every word, aye, even every thought may possibly leave an imprint on the generation.

In 1925, a year after he wrote this passionate statement, some biologists got a long-awaited look at his lab and discovered that some of his examples of Lamarckism — the toe pads of some midwife toads — had been faked.

Kammerer blamed a lab assistant, willed his books to Moscow University, and committed suicide. In the Soviet Union at that time, a plant breeder and quack geneticist, Trofim Lysenko, was gaining official support by claiming that he could breed improved crop plants with much greater efficiency than those Mendelist Weismannist Morganist bourgeois idealists who like to crossbreed fruit flies. Mainstream biologists struggled against the Lysenkoites for some decades more, some of them getting imprisoned or executed for various Stalinist bogus crimes, and in 1948, Lysenkoism was declared official dogma. Stalin himself was on Lysenko’s side. The Lysenkoites believed that genes do not exist, and that all parts of an organism contribute to its heredity, an old theory of heredity called “pangenesis”. This would explain how Lysenko’s treatments supposedly worked. But visiting biologists found Lysenko to be a scientifc illiterate, someone who considered statistical testing a waste of time.

It is clear that rejection of Darwin’s mechanism of evolution does not mean rejection of evolution itself, there are other other mechanisms that various biologists have proposed. Given how creationists have called for “equal time” for their theories, one can make similar calls for “equal time” for “Lamarck science” in addition to “Darwin science” in discussions of genetics.

So, in every textbook that discusses Darwinian evolution and Mendelian heredity, “Darwin-Mendel science”, there will be a section of equal size on Lamarckian evolution and Lysenkoite heredity, “Lamarck-Lysenko science”. The former would feature evolution by natural selection and heredity controlled by nucleic-acid molecules, whose variations, due to miscopying and damage, are uncorrelated with what would lead to better adaptations — only “good” ones would survive. The latter would feature evolution by the inheritance of acquired characteristics, and heredity being contributed by all parts of an organism, not just the nucleic-acid molecules in the reproductive cells. In the public-school versions of such textbooks, the Marxist ideology in Lysenko’s theorizing would be downplayed or carefully concealed in neutral-sounding terms, so as to seem “neutral” and free from partisan politics.

Those textbooks would contain rhetoric like that mentioned above to make Lamarckism seem morally superior to Darwinism — Lamarckism would be a lot less “wasteful,” a lot less destructive of “weaklings,” and a lot more compassionate. Darwinism would be associated with robber-baron capitalism and exploitation and “might makes right” and racism, while Lamarckism would be associated with love and goodness and real progress. They would point out how much more logical Lamarckism is than Darwinism — how intuitively clear it is, and how cumbersome Darwinism is by comparison; they would explain that speculation about Darwinian mechanisms can cause too much mental wear and tear. They would discuss great scientists who had believed in Lamarckism — Lamarck himself, Erasmus Darwin, Paul Kammerer, Trofim Lysenko, and none other than Charles Darwin himself. Yes, he had believed that “the effects of use and disuse” could be inherited. They would even discuss how the Soviet Union had used Lysenko’s theories and methods to improve its crops. Only the sections on “Darwin-Mendel science” would discuss Kammerer’s fakery, Lysenko’s extremely shoddy research practices, and Soviet officialdom’s persecution of mainstream genetics.

One need not stop at Lamarck vs. Darwin; one can demand equal time for astrology in astronomy classes, alchemy in chemistry classes, vitalism in molecular biology classes, etc. and use similar sorts of rhetoric there also.

Sources:

  1. * George Bernard Shaw quote: Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker
  2. * Paul Kammerer quote: Martin Gardner, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science
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