Barthelemy-Madaule, Madeleine. Lamarck the Mythical Precursor: A Study of the Relations


Barthelemy-Madaule, Madeleine. Lamarck the Mythical Precursor: A Study of the Relations
between Science and Ideology. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1982.

Jean-Baptiste Pierre-Antoine de Monet, chevalier de Lamarck, is a useful symbol in science. He
represents repudiated, archaic, atavistic and discredited science. If one wishes to be kind to
Lamarck, one can say "He was a precursor" to Darwin.

This French scientist rejects both myths of Lamarck: his being a precursor and his being a
symbol of discredited science. She would correct the image by showing that Lamarck has been
given very bad press, first by Cuvier, who represented conservative Catholic science and
discredited the great work of Lamarck because it was "atheistic," and then by Darwin, and others,
who rejected Lamarck partly because they knew him only through Cuvier's horrid obituary and
partly because of their own ideology of biological determinism (she does not use that term). Most
specifically, the Darwinians rejected Lamarck because, they thought, he included "intention" and
teleology in science while they wanted them removed.

The thesis of this book is that Lamarck has his own place in science and it is not as a precursor to
anyone. He was an important part of the developing scientific Weltanschauung which explained
evolution in terms of mechanical materialism. Lamarck was, in the early part of the l9th century,
contending with his own ideological, religious opposition. His battle, then, was in finding a new
ideology and he constructed one with the tools he had available to him. He did a creditable job
for his day. He was a major contributor to evolution and is independent of Darwin.

Perhaps most important, Lamarck did not look at "environment" as the Darwinists did. They
attributed to Lamarck a view of environmentalism which he did not use, and this attribution was,
for them, a functional way of discrediting him. Lamarck is here interpreted as seeing organisms
not merely responding to their environments, but as active agents constantly creating their niches.
Each organism sought a natural balance between itself and its surroundings, but it did so actively
and in a manner which is "life." Life is the phenomenon by means of which harmony with one's
situation is achieved. This is not vitalism and is not the pantheism of the Germans, another
ideology which Lamarck had to avoid. His views of evolution are efforts to materialize the
actions, to explain the actions of organisms in achieving their balance, their harmonies with