Neo-Lamarckism and the Evolution Controversy in France, 1870-1920

Author: Persell, Stuart
This historical monograph details for the first time the work of several prominent French biologists who were involved in the controversy over the implications of Darwin's theory of natural selection. The book addresses the need for a discussion of their non-selectionist theories of evolution, primarily their adaptation of Jean-Baptiste Lamarcke's early 19th-century theory of the inheritance of acquired characters. That revival of Lamarck has been regarded by present-day historians as a curiosity and dismissed as an impediment to the triumph of the modern neo-Darwinian theory. This study challenges this as an overly simplistic view. It argues that the Lamarckian and Darwinian concepts were all part of a series of overlapping ideas as they emerged during the late 19th century. A discussion of alternate theories of evolution necessarily alters a presentist version of how any scientific theory emerges, especially the modern theory of evolution. The eventual confrontation of these two views demonstrates how a new scientific theory can result in a broad cultural crisis. The controversy in France demonstrates how science turned easily into polemics when the pseudo-science of Neo-Lamarckism was founded in the service of political ideology.


"Persell focuses on the development of neo-Lamarckism in France after 1870, and why France--deeply wounded by its resounding defeat in the Franco-Prussian war--welcomed the move away from Darwinian evolution. The author separates the ideas of French neo-Lamarckians from the theories of Jean Baptiste Lamarck and American neo-Lamarckians, who accepted divine purpose as a part of their evolutionary scheme. The French school regarded Lamarck as the founder of evolution, retaining belief in the inheritance of acquired characteristics; however, they incorporated natural selection into their materialist and progressivist scheme, encouraged by Darwin's gradual acceptance of some environmentalist ideas in successive editions of the Origin. Persell strikes a balance between those modern biologists whose interpretation of post-Darwinian evolution has been called "whiggish" and those who claim the popularity of Darwinian evolution declined precipitously after Darwin's death and had little influence for the rest of the 19th century; e.g., he maintains that August Weismann's work played a critical role in shaping biology. The book promises to be useful for upper-division undergraduate and graduate students through research scholars in the biological sciences as well as those investigating the development of scientific ideas." - CHOICE

"The manuscript is clear, carefully documented, and quite persuasive. I am in awe of your expertise in historical biology and the History of Science as well as your ability to negotiate the twists and turns of neo-Lamarckism as both science and socio-political ideology in modern France." – William A. Hoisington, Jr.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents:

Figures, Foreword, Preface

1.Introduction: The School of Neo-Lamarckism – Empirical Problems in Theory Formation; Historical Approaches; The Influence of August Wiesmann; Chronology

2.Alfred Giard: Lamarckian and Neo-Lamarckian Science; The Reconstruction of Jean Baptiste Lamarck; More than One Neo- Lamarckism ; First Reactions to Hard Inheritance; Continued Reactions to Hard Inheritance

3.Yves Delage: General Change and Outside Influences; The Giard-Delages Controversy; Ontogenesis and Preformation; Weismann and Natural Selection; Progressive Force; Yves Delage and the Neo- Lamarckian Response to the Rise of Classical Genetics

4.Félix Le Dantec: Lamarck the Precursor and the Impact of Foreign Models; Le Dantec's Theory of Functional Assimilation; A Materialist Definition of Species and the Challenge of August Weismann; Lucien Cuénot and Mutation Theory; Lucien Cuénot Contre Félix Le Dantec

5.Jean De Lanessan: The Historical Phase – The Revival of Buffon; Mechanism, Materialism and the Early Acceptance of Darwin; Heredity and the Challenge of Neo-Darwinism – Pan-genesis, Isolating Divergence, and Common Descent; The Problem of Mutations

6.Neo-Lamarckism and Republican Reform Ideology: Neo-Lamarckian Evolution – The Theoretical Basis of Republican Morality; The Law of Association, Historical Evolution and Formation of the Solidarist Credo; Abrogating the Concordat; Educating Women and the Modern Citizen; Crime, Biology and Ideology in the Third Republic

Conclusion, References, Bibliography, Index