Lamarck and the Missing Lnc

Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories tell tales not so much of evolution, but of the magic and wonder of the animal world. He describes the wizard who gave the camel a hump for its laziness, and the alligator who snapped and stretched the nose of a naïve young elephant to its current lengthy proportion. Those delightful fables, published some 70 years after Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s death, provide entertaining explanations for such evolved traits, and were clearly inspired by Lamarck’s description of adaptive change, not Charles Darwin’s. In his 1809 publication Philosophie Zoologique, Lamarck wrote of the giraffe, from whose habit of reaching for the green leaves of tall trees “it has resulted . . . that the animal’s forelegs have become longer than its hind legs, and that its neck is lengthened to such a degree that the giraffe, without rearing up on its hind legs . . . attains a height of six meters.”

Although biologists have generally considered Lamarck’s ideas to contain as much truth as Kipling’s fables, the burgeoning field of epigenetics has made some of us reconsider our ridicule. While no biologist believes that organisms can willfully change their physiology in response to their environment and pass those changes on to their offspring, some evidence suggests that the environment can make lasting changes to the genome via epigenetic mechanisms—changes that may be passed on to future generations.

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