1. Cuvier (1769–1832)

The great Cuvier reached the top of his kind despite being a Protestant in a Catholic land. Like so many other scientists in Napoleon’s France, he was raised to high political office, even to membership in the Council of State (1814); he kept that place under the restored Bourbons, and was made president of the Council, and a peer of France, in 1830. When he died (1832) he was honored throughout Europe as the man who had founded paleontology and comparative anatomy, and had prepared biology to transform the mind of Europe.

His father was an officer in a Swiss regiment, who earned an Order of Merit and at fifty married a young wife. She watched with loving discipline over the physical and mental development of her son Georges-Léopold-Chrétien; she checked his work as a student, and had him read to her the classics of literature and history; Cuvier learned to be eloquent about molluscs and worms. He had the good fortune to be admitted to the Academy that Charles Eugene, duke of Württemberg, had founded at Stuttgart, where eighty masters taught four hundred select students. There he was enamored for a time by the works of Linnaeus, but permanently by the Histoire naturelle of Buffon.

Having graduated with an armful of prizes, but lacking any patrimony to finance further schooling, he took a post as tutor in a family living near Fécamp on the English Channel. Some fossils locally exhumed stirred his interest in geological strata as literal lithographs of prehistoric plant and animal life; and some shellfish gathered from the sea so fascinated him with their diversity of internal organs and external forms that he proposed a new classification of organisms according to their structural character and variations. From these beginnings he developed, by a curiosity and industry that never tired, a knowledge of fossil and living forms never equaled before him, and perhaps never since.

News of his learning and application reached Paris, won useful commendations from his future rivals Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and Lamarck, and brought him, aged twenty-seven (1796), the professorship of comparative anatomy at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle. At thirty-one he published one of the classics of French science, Leçons d’anatomie comparée; at thirty-three he was head professor at the Jardin des Plantes; at thirty-four he was made “perpetual secretary” (executive director) of the department of physical and natural sciences in the Institut National. Meanwhile (1802) he had traveled widely as a commissioner of the Institute in the reorganization of secondary education.

Despite his duties as teacher and administrator, he pursued his researches as if resolved, with some collaborators, to study and classify every species of plant or animal preserved in the strata or living on the earth or in the sea. His Histoire naturelle des poissons(1828–31) described five thousand species of fish. His Recherches sur les ossements fossiles des quadrupèdes (1812–25) almost created mammalian paleontology. It contained Cuvier’s description of the woolly elephant—named by him the mammoth—whose remains had been found (1802) buried in a mass of permanently frozen earth in Siberia, and so well preserved that dogs ate its thawing flesh.11 In one of these volumes Cuvier explained his principle of the “correlation of parts,” by which he thought to reconstruct an extinct species from the study of a single surviving bone:

Every organized individual forms an entire system of its own, all the parts of which naturally correspond, and concur to produce a certain definite purpose, by reciprocal reaction or by combining toward the same end. Hence none of these separate parts can change their forms without a corresponding change in the other parts of the same animal; and consequently each of these parts, taken separately, indicates all the other parts to which it has belonged. Thus … if the viscera of an animal are so organized as to be fitted only to digest fresh flesh, it is requisite that the jaws should be so constructed as to fit them for devouring prey; the teeth, for cutting and devouring its flesh; the entire system of the limbs, or organs of motion, for pursuing and overtaking it; and the organs of sense, for discovering it at a distance…. In the same manner a claw, a shoulder blade, a condyle, a leg or arm bone, or any other bone separately considered, enables us to discover the description of teeth to which they have belonged; and so also reciprocally we may determine the forms of the other bones from the teeth. Thus, commencing our investigations by a careful survey of any one bone by itself, a person who is sufficiently master of the laws of organic structure may, as it were, reconstruct the whole animal to which that bone belonged.12

In 1817, in another mammoth work, Le Règne animal distribué d’après son organisation, Cuvier summed up his classification of animals into vertebrates, molluscs, articulates, and radiates, and proposed to explain the successive strata of fossils as due to the sudden extinction of hundreds of species by catastrophic convulsions of the earth. As to the origin of species, he accepted the then orthodox view that each species had been specifically created by God; that its variations had been produced by the divine guidance of each organism in its adaptation to its environment; and that these variations never produced a new species. On these and other points Cuvier engaged, two years before his death, in a famous debate which seemed to Goethe the most important event in the history of Europe in 1830. His living opponent in that contest was Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, who built his case for the mutability and natural origin and evolution of species around the work of a still greater biologist, who had died a year before.

2. Lamarck (1744–1829)

It is easy to like Lamarck, for he struggled against poverty in youth, against the universally acclaimed Cuvier in maturity, and against blindness and poverty in old age; moreover, he left behind him a theory of the causes and methods of evolution much more agreeable to an amiable disposition than the merciless natural selection offered by the kindly Darwin.

Like most Frenchmen, he carried a heavy armament of names: Jean-Baptiste-Pierre-Antoine de Monet, Chevalier de Lamarck. He was the eleventh child of a martial father, who found military posts for all his sons except the last; him he sent to a Jesuit college at Amiens, with instructions to prepare himself for the priesthood. But Jean-Baptiste… envied his brothers their weapons and steeds; he left college, spent his allowance on an old horse, and rode off to war in Germany. He fought valiantly, but his heroic career was ended by a neck injury ignominiously received in barrack games. He went to work as a bank clerk, studied medicine, met Rousseau, was deflected into botany, pursued plants for nine years, and published in 1778 Flore française. Then, nearing the end of his economic resources, he accepted employment as tutor to the sons of Buffon, if only for the opportunity to meet that aging sage. When Buffon died (1788) Lamarck took the humble post of keeper of the herbarium in the Jardin du Roi—the royal botanical gardens in Paris. Soon the designation “of the King” fell from fashion, and at Lamarck’s suggestion the garden was renamed Jardin des Plantes. Since it contained also a zoological collection, Lamarck gave to the study of all living forms the name biologie.

As his interest overflowed from plants to animals, Lamarck, leaving the vertebrates to Cuvier, took as his province the lowly backboneless animals, for which he coined the word invertébrés (invertebrates). By 1809 he had reached some original views, which he then expounded in Système des animaux sans vertèbres and in Philosophie zoologique. Despite failing eyesight, he continued his studies and his writing, helped by his eldest daughter and by Pierre-André Latreille. In 1815–22 he issued his final classifications and conclusions in a voluminous Histoire naturelle des animaux sans vertèbres. Thereafter he became totally blind, and almost destitute. His life was a tribute to his courage, and his old age was a disgrace to his government.

His “philosophy,” or reasoned summary, of zoology began with contemplation of the endless and mysteriously originating variety in the forms of life. Every individual differs from all others, and within any species we can find so minute a gradation of differences as makes it difficult, perhaps unjust, to divide a species from its most similar and kindred neighbors in form and operation. Species, Lamarck concluded (unwittingly resuming the “conceptualism” of Abélard), is a concept, an abstract idea; in reality there are only individual beings or things; and the classes, kinds, or species into which we group them are merely (though invaluably) intellectual tools for thinking of similar objects which are, however, incorrigibly unique.

How did these different groups or species of plant or animal life arise? Lamarck replied with two “laws”:

First Law: In every animal which has not exceeded the term of its development, the more frequent and sustained use of any organ gradually strengthens that organ, develops and enlarges it, and gives it a strength proportioned to the length of time of such use; while the constant lack of use of such an organ perceptibly weakens it, causing it to become reduced, progressively diminishes its faculties, and ends in its disappearance.

Second Law: Everything which nature has caused individuals to acquire or lose by the influence of the circumstances to which their race may be for a long time exposed, and consequently by the influence of the predominant use of such an organ, or by that of the constant lack of use of such part, it preserves by heredity and passes on to the new individuals which descend from it, provided that the changes thus acquired are common to both sexes, or to those which have given origin to these new individuals.13

The first law was obvious: the blacksmith’s arm grows larger and stronger by use; the neck of the giraffe is elongated by efforts to reach higher levels of nutritive leaves; the mole is blind because its underground life makes eyes useless. In later works Lamarck divides his first law into two complementary elements: the environmental condition or challenge, and the organism’s need and desire stimulating effort toward an adaptive response, as by the flow of blood or sap to the organ used. Here Lamarck tried to meet the difficult question, How do variations arise? Cuvier replied, Through the direct action of God. Darwin was to reply, Through “fortuitous variations” whose cause is unknown. Lamarck replied, Variations arise through the organism’s need, desire, and persistent effort to meet an environmental condition. This explanation fell in well with the insistence of contemporary psychologists who stressed the originative action of the will.

But Lamarck’s second law met with a thousand demurrers. Some thought to refute it by pointing out the lack of hereditary effect in the circumcision of Semitic foreskins and the compression of Chinese feet; such cavils, of course, failed to consider that these operations were external mutilations, not at all involving internal need and effort. Some other objections failed to allow for the “long time” admittedly required for an environmental condition to produce a change in the “race.” With these provisos Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer accepted, as a factor in evolution, the possible inheritance of “acquired characters”—i.e., of habits or organic changes developed after birth. Marx and Engels assumed such heritability, and relied upon a better environment to produce a natively better man; and the Soviet Union for a long time made the Lamarckian system a part of its defined creed. About 1885 August Weismann struck a blow at the theory by claiming that the “germ plasm” (cells carrying the hereditary characters) is immune to changes in the enveloping body, or somaplasm, and therefore cannot be affected by postnatal experiences; but this claim was invalidated when chromosomes (carriers of heredity) were found in the somatic as well as the germ cells. Experiments have returned a generally unfavorable report on the Lamarckian view,14 but latterly some evidence has been produced of Lamarckian transmission in Paramecium and other protozoa.15 Perhaps other positive instances would be found if experiments could be continued upon a longer succession of generations. Our laboratories suffer from an insufficiency of time; nature does not.

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