University of Minnesota
School of Physics & Astronomy

Physics and Astronomy Calendar

Friday, April 28th 2017
Speaker: Jessica Riskin, Stanford University
Subject: "How the Mouse Lost its Tail, Or, Lamarck's Dangerous Idea"
Refreshments served at 3:25 p.m.

The clockwork cosmos of early modern science was a passive and static thing, its shape imposed by an external designer, its movements originating outside itself. The classical mechanists of the seventeenth century evacuated force and agency from the cosmos, including, for the most part, from its living inhabitants, to the province of a supernatural Clockmaker. They thereby built a kind of supernaturalism into the very structure of modern science. But not everyone concurred in this banishment. From the late seventeenth century onward, a tradition of dissenters embraced the opposite principle, that agency -- a capacity to act, to be self-making and self-transforming -- was essential to nature, especially living nature. A crucial member of this dissenting, active-mechanist tradition was the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, professor of natural history at the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle in Paris. This paper examines his rigorously naturalist approach -- which naturalized rather than outsourced agency -- and its exile from the halls of mainstream science.

Lamarck was the leading author of two major, related ideas: first, the term “biology” and the idea of biology as a distinct science of life, and second, the idea of species-change, what we would now call “evolution,” but I will call it “transformism” to avoid reading aspects of later theories back into these early ideas about species-change. In 1802, Lamarck defined “biology” as one of three parts of “terrestrial physics,” the part comprehending everything to do with living bodies, especially their organization and its “tendency to create special organs.” In other words, the idea that living things composed and transformed themselves was central to this original definition of “biology.”

The paper will examine the political history of these conjoined ideas, transformism and a science devoted to its study, which carried with them an atmosphere of materialism, radicalism and anti-clericalism. This atmosphere became especially troubling toward the end of the nineteenth century to people such as the German Darwinist biologist August Weismann, who offered a definitive new interpretation of Darwinism that eliminated any whiff of Lamarckism. He and other neo-Darwinists were so successful that even today, Lamarck’s name is still in bad odor. His ideas themselves cannot tell us why; only their history can do that.

Co-sponsored with the Consortium for the Study of the Premodern World and the Anselm House.

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