Isabel Gabel, NRSA Post-Doc Fellow, ME- Medical Ethics
The Living Past: Neo-Lamarckism in French History
In the late-nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries, French biologists were committed to a set of theories that have been loosely grouped under the labels of transformism and neo-Lamarckism. Their work was characterized by the rejection of Darwinism and Mendelian genetics, the embrace of a theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics, and an understanding of evolutionary time informed by Bergsonian philosophy. By the middle of the twentieth century, experimental failures were putting French biologists in an epistemological bind: the fact of evolution was largely accepted, but the mechanism seemed, if anything, harder to grasp. In response to this discrepancy between theory and evidence, biologists developed a number of interpretive frameworks to explain the evolutionary past, from arguments based on thermodynamics to claims that natural laws themselves might be unstable. These interpretative tools were in turn of interest to French philosophers, who were grappling with their own set of epistemic crises brought on by the political and social upheavals of the World Wars. I argue that French evolutionary theory was an essential conceptual resource for philosophers as they began to rethink the shape of human history.