Salvaging Lamarck

While many credit Darwin as the father of evolution, there were many before him who began to think about ways in which both the human and non-human physiology may have adapted over time. Probably the first to come up with a working theory for this was French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Although Lamarck had correctly identified an evolutionary connection in species, the mechanism which he proposed seemed to be faulty. According to Lamarck, species underwent adaptations during their lifespans that were then passed onto their progeny. Testing this theory, German biologist August Weismann conducted an experiment where he chopped off the tails of some 1500 rats over 20 generations. Weismann noted that not one rat from the experiment was born without a tail. At the same time, Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection gained traction, and it seemed that Lamarck’s theory was put to rest for good.

Fast forward nearly 150 years and enter the burgeoning science of Epigenetics. Researchers are now finding that instances in which the environment of our forebears does in fact alter our DNA. Scientists are now beginning to believe that environmental effects can indeed change inherited traits, strikingly similar to the theory that Lamarck had advanced.


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