Jessica Riskin

A view of the Jardin du Roi, 1794 by Jean-Baptiste Hilair. 1.	Bibliothèque nationale de France (

L'homme, par son égoïsme trop peu clairvoyant pour ses propres intérêts, par son penchant à jouir de tout ce qui est à sa disposition, en un mot, par son insouciance pour l'avenir et pour ses semblables, semble travailler à l'anéantissement de ses moyens de conservation et à la destruction même de sa propre espèce. En détruisant partout les grands végétaux qui protégeaient le sol, pour des objets qui satisfont son avidité du moment, il amène rapidement à la stérilité ce sol qu'il habite, donne lieu au tarissement des sources, en écarte les animaux qui y trouvaient leur subsistance, et fait que de grandes parties du globe, autrefois très-fertiles et très-peuplées à tous égards, sont maintenant nues, stériles, inhabitables et désertes. Négligeant toujours les conseils de l'expérience, pour s'abandonner à ses passions, il est perpétuellement en guerre avec ses semblables, et les détruit de toutes parts et sous tous prétextes en sorte qu'on voit des populations, autrefois considérables, s'appauvrir de plus en plus. On dirait que l'homme est destiné à s'exterminer lui-même après avoir rendu le globe inhabitable. Many thanks to Pietro Corsi for pointing this passage out to me.

Man, belying his own interests by his shortsighted selfishness, and by his inclination to enjoy all that is at his disposal, in a word, by his carelessness for the future and for his fellows, seems to work toward the annihilation of his own means of conservation and the very destruction of his own species. By destroying everywhere the large plants which protect the soil to satisfy his impetuous greed, he quickly renders sterile the soil on which he subsists, causes the springs to dry up, repels the animals who found their subsistence there, and causes large portions of the globe, once very fertile and highly populated, to become bare, barren, uninhabitable, and deserted.  Impervious to the counsel of experience, abandoning himself to his passions, he is perpetually at war with his fellows, destroying them on all sides and under all pretexts, so that we see populations that were formerly considerable becoming increasingly impoverished. It seems that man is destined to exterminate himself after making the globe uninhabitable.                                  

  • Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Système analytique des connaissances de l'homme, 1820

These words sent a shiver down my spine when I first read them in a book written in 1820. Lamarck, Système analytique, pp. 154-55. The book's author was the person who coined the term "biology" and developed the first theory of evolution: the French Revolution- and Romantic-era naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck.  His view of the natural world was both deeply influential and yet also despised and rejected by the most powerful and influential figures, beginning with Napoleon and his circle of close scientific advisors, and continuing through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first.  Lamarck's science remained an object of ridicule for generations, during which he was a passing joke in introductory biology classes: the foolish Frenchman who thought giraffes had gotten their long necks from generations of stretching and craning to reach high branches.  Now, two centuries later, his ideas are slowly returning to transform the field he founded, and not least among them, the idea that living things create the world itself, so that to be careless of their livelihood is ultimately to destroy the world.

Lamarck arrived at the idea of biology partly thanks to his efforts to remain employed through a decade of political upheaval.  On June 10th 1793, he found himself at a curious pass.  Going to bed the night before, he had been a botanist at the Jardin du Roi in Paris, engaged in the study and classification of plants.  But that day, the Revolutionary committee in charge of reorganizing the Jardin du Roi, by a stroke of its pen, turned him, not into a frog exactly, but into a zoologist.  Following a power struggle among the garden's botanists, the committee removed Lamarck from botany altogether.  What had been the Jardin du Roi became the republican Jardin des plantes, under the auspices of a new Muséum national d'histoire naturelle, created by the Revolutionary government as a modern headquarters for research on the natural world; and Lamarck received the lowliest of the Museum's three positions in zoology. Guillaume, ed., Procès-verbaux, Vol. 1: pp. 480-486; Landrieu, Lamarck, p. 52; Landrieu traces the first idea of appointing Lamarck to the professorship of insects and worms to a pamphlet written in the context of the naturalists' petitions to the National Assembly by André Thouin in September 1790; this is also recorded in Hamy, Les derniers jours, p. 128.  

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, ca. 1802, by Charles Thévenin. Wikimedia Commons.Maximilien Robespierre was maneuvering into position at the helm of the Committee of Public Safety.  As the Committee accelerated the use of the guillotine , Lamarck, the eleventh child of a declining family in the military nobility, had no choice: he kept his head but, at the age of fifty, he had to remake himself overnight, leaving botany to take up the Professorship in Insects and Worms.

It seemed an inglorious position, but Lamarck would use it to revolutionize science by inventing a wholly new science of living things.  Later, he would confess to his students that he was initially dejected at being sentenced to spend the rest of his life studying bugs and slugs.  If he must become a zoologist, he wondered in frustration, why couldn't he at least investigate grand and exciting creatures, like lions?  "What interest, I said to myself, can be inspired by the sight of a mite that lives in cheese" – or by the weevils in the grain bin, the larvae eating holes in the furniture, the slugs destroying the garden?    But he said he had been heartened by two thoughts.  First, he'd realized that his constituency must really be important since it comprised nine tenths of the known animal kingdom.  And second, he'd come to hope that these simplest of animals might reveal to him the basis of animal life – the essence of what it meant to be a living creature. Lamarck, "Discours d'ouverture pour le cours de 1816," BMHN Ms 742, elements 78-88 and in Lamarck, Inédits, p. 27.   

Contemplating his insects and his worms by the light of this gleam of hope, Lamarck went to work re-ordering, re-thinking, re-naming, moving the puzzle pieces about and re-fitting them together to create a new taxonomy: The old taxonomic schemes had been linear, hierarchical, and static, each divinely created being in its assigned place along a spectrum of increasing complexity and perfection, with humans at the top, and every place in the natural order filled by a specially designed living thing.  But when Lamarck looked at his newly assigned creatures, and at how they'd been shoehorned into just two categories, "insects" and "worms," he didn't see a rational order but instead a "chaos" that he found absolutely "monstrous": a great profusion of forms that just didn't fit into the neat old categories.  These living forms didn't seem static and compartmentalized but fluid and ever-changing; in Lamarck's hands, life began to move and flow into a complex, dynamic, branching and growing tree. 

Lamarck manuscript, BMNHN, Ms. 742.He continued working on his burgeoning tree of life through the Revolutionary years – through the fall of Robespierre in 1794, through the arrival of Napoleon in 1799 – until, with the help of the unassuming yet extraordinary creatures for whom he coined another new term, "invertebrates," Lamarck launched his own revolution.Lamarck, "Discours d'ouverture … l'an 8," p. 7. At work in his Garden study, Lamarck wrote down for the first time in bold, declarative letters across the top of a page of notepaper: "Biologie."  Under it he added, in a smaller and more pensive script, "Considerations on the nature, faculties, development, and origins of living bodies."Lamarck, "Biologie ou Considérations sur la nature, les facultés, les développemens et l'origine des corps vivans," BMHN Ms 742, elements 150-151.  This was to be a brand-new science: a science of life

Such a thing had never before existed.  There had been natural history, which studied everything in nature whether animal, vegetable, or mineral.  There had also been anatomy, a science of animal bodies; and botany, a science of plants.  But there was not a science of life: of all and only living things.  Lamarck now forged one, carrying over ideas he had begun developing as a botanist into his study of invertebrate zoology.  The organizing principle for his new science was a radical idea: that living beings were not the passive objects of a divine creator.  Instead, they were themselves the cosmos's creative power, eternally making and remaking themselves and the world around them.  Indeed, the defining feature of life, which set all living beings apart from everything else and made them worthy of a science of their own, was their ability to create.  To live was to create, and to create was to live. 

Boldly, brazenly, Lamarck ascribed to mortal beings an outright monopoly on creation: all – and only – living things could compose primitive elements into a complex world.  Life itself originated, not in a divine Creation, but in tiny, rudimentary beings that were spontaneously generated when forces such as electricity and heat acted upon the elements of inanimate matter.  Lamarck wrote that he had nothing against religious belief and acknowledged that faith could be "a consolation for the good man who persuades himself of it."Lamarck, Mémoires, p. 255..  But faith was of no use for Lamarck's science.  Souls were not physically knowable, whereas the dynamic, creative action of living beings was everywhere apparent. 


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