The Lives of the Scientists: Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Evolutionist.

Jean-Baptiste-Pierre-Antoine de Monet de Lamarck was born on Aug 1, 1744 in Picardy, France. He was the youngest of 11 children in a noble family known for being devoted to France’s military. Although several of his brothers were sent into the army, his father decided that he would have a career in the Church. When his father died in 1760, he left his religious education and joined his brothers in the French Army.

France was near the end of the Seven Years War with Germany. He arrived at the front just before the battle of Fissingshausen. The French were compelled to retreat, and all of the officers were killed, after which Lamarck was forced to assume command. After the end of the war, he became a lieutenant. He spent five more years in the army during peacetime, garrisoned in Toulon and Monaco. While in Monaco, however, at the age of 22, he sustained a serious neck injury while play-fighting with another soldier who had lifted him by his head, causing severe inflammation of the lymphatic glands. This required that he left his post in the military and travel to Paris, where he underwent surgery that left him with deep scars.

He attempted to begin a new career by taking courses in medicine. During his time at school, he developed a growing interest in botany which he shared with his new friend, the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, with whom he would go on botanical excursions. He decided to adjust his career choice and he began a 10 year course in botany, after which he published a botanical treatise entitled Flore Francaise. This book brought him immediate fame around France, as it was published in the heyday of the French Enlightenment, when philosophy and natural history were common topics of discussion among the educated class. In 1779, he was inducted to the Academy of Sciences.

After several years of holding lowly positions at the Jardin du Roi (later called the Jardin des Plantes) with little or no salary, he was appointed two one of two chairs of zoology in 1793 at the newly created Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle, with a focus on invertebrates. The other, focused on the better known vertebrates, was awarded to Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, who was only 22. Lamarck, then 49, was given the position largely because there were no other candidates that were suitable. After receiving his post, he virtually abandoned botany and dedicated himself fully to the study of invertebrate biology, which were at that time virtually unstudied in any systematic way (sometimes referred to as les inconnus, or the unknowns).

During his career, he published several books on various scientific topics, including presentations of his theory of evolution and others on meteorology and chemistry, none of which were received well by his scientific colleagues. His views were particularly ignored after Cuvier became the most famous biologist of his time, since Cuvier believed in the fixity of species. François Arago tells in his memoirs of a sad encounter in which Lamarck, in his old age, presented Napoleon with a copy of his Philosophie Zoologique and Napoleon responded “What is this? Is it your absurd Météorologie with which you are disgracing your old age? Write on natural history, and I will accept your work with pleasure. This volume I only accept out of consideration for your gray hair. Here!” and he handed it off to one of his aides. Lamarck tried to explain that is was a work of natural history, but before he could finish, he burst into tears.

He died at the in 1829, at the age of 85, and was buried in an unmarked mass grave.

[Source: the Introduction by Hugh Elliot]


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