Darwin's Use of Lamarck's "Laws"

The French scientist Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck (1744-1829) is noted for two "laws" which summarize his evolutionary thought:

(1) The Law of Use and Disuse — The parts of an organism's body that are used become more developed; parts that are not used become smaller and may disappear.

(2) The Law of Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics — Changes achieved over an organism's lifetime are passed on to its offspring. (Today this is considered the major flaw in Lamarck's reasoning, since we now know that only changes in an organism's sex cells will affect its offspring.)

Textbooks often present Lamarck as a "foil," contrasting his faulty ideas with the superior evolutionary theory formulated by Charles Darwin (1809-1882). But interestingly, Darwin himself made extensive use of both of Lamarck's "laws" — even assigning them the leading role in certain examples of evolution. This point is well documented by the following quotations (all from Charles Darwin, Origin of Species. 6th edition. New York: Mentor, 1958).

[NoteBold print in these quotations indicates emphasis added.]


Chapter 1

[page 34] Changed habits produce an inherited effect, as in the period of the flowering of plants when transported from one climate to another. With animals the increased use or disuse of parts has had a more marked influence.

[page 57] To sum up on the origin of our domestic races of animals and plants. . . . Some, perhaps a great, effect may be attributed to the increased use or disuse of parts.

Chapter 5

[page 133] [This section is titled Effects of the Increased Use and Disuse of Parts, as Controlled by Natural Selection.] From the facts alluded to in the first chapter, I think there can be no doubt that use in our domestic animals has strengthened and enlarged certain parts, and disuse diminished them; and that such modifications are inherited. Under free nature, we have no standard of comparison, by which to judge of the effects of long-continued use or disuse, for we know not the parent-forms; but many animals possess structures which can be best explained by the effects of disuse. . . . The ostrich . . . is exposed to danger which it cannot escape by flight, but it can defend itself by kicking its enemies, as efficiently as many quadrupeds. We may believe that the progenitor of the ostrich genus had habits like those of the bustard, and that, as the size and weight of its body were increased during successive generations, its legs were used, and its wings less, until they became incapable of flight. . . . The evidence that accidental mutilations can be inherited is at present not decisive; but the remarkable cases observed by Brown-Séquard in guinea-pigs, of the inherited effects of operations, should make us cautious in denying this tendency. [In the succeeding paragraphs, pp. 133-136, Darwin suggests a variety of cases in which structural losses can be attributed to disuse.]

[page 139] On the whole, we may conclude that habit, or use and disuse, have, in some cases, played a considerable part in the modification of the constitution and structure; but that the effects have often been largely combined with, and sometimes overmastered by, the natural selection of innate variations.

Chapter 6

[page 191] For natural selection acts by either now adapting the varying parts of each being to its organic and inorganic conditions of life; or by having adapted them during past periods of time: the adaptations being aided in many cases by the increased use or disuse of parts, being affected by the direct action of the external conditions of life, and subjected in all cases to the several laws of growth and variation.

Chapter 7

[page 200] When discussing special cases, Mr. Mivart passes over the effects of the increased use and disuse of parts, which I have always maintained to be highly important, and have treated in my 'Variation under Domestication' [Origin of Species, chapter 1] at greater length than, as I believe, any other writer.

[pages 201-202] By this process [natural selection] long-continued, which exactly corresponds with what I have called unconscious selection by man, combined no doubt in a most important manner with the inherited effects of the increased use of parts, it seems to me almost certain that an ordinary hoofed quadruped might be converted into a giraffe. . . . In every district some kind of animal will almost certainly be able to browse higher than the others; and it is almost equally certain that this one kind alone could have its neck elongated for this purpose, through natural selection and the effects of increased use.

[page 212] We should keep in mind, as I have before insisted, that the inherited effects of the increased use of parts, and perhaps of their disuse, will be strengthened by natural selection. For all spontaneous variations in the right direction will thus be preserved; as will those individuals which inherit in the highest degree the effects of the increased and beneficial use of any part. How much to attribute in each particular case to the effects of use, and how much to natural selection, it seems impossible to decide. . . . I may give another instance of a structure which apparently owes its origin exclusively to use or habit. The extremity of the tail in some American monkeys has been converted into a wonderfully perfect prehensile organ, and serves as a fifth hand.

[page 222] With the giraffe, the continued preservation of the individuals of some extinct high-reaching ruminant, which had the longest necks, legs, &c., and could browse a little above the average height, and the continued destruction of those which could not browse so high, would have sufficed for the production of this remarkable quadruped; but the prolonged use of all the parts together with inheritance will have aided in an important manner in their co-ordination.

[pages 222-223] With such structures as the above lamellæ of horn or whalebone, habit or use can have done little or nothing, as far as we can judge, towards their development. On the other hand, the transportal of the lower eye of a flat-fish to the upper side of the head, and the formation of a prehensile tail, may be attributed almost wholly to continued use, together with inheritance.

Chapter 8

[page 229] If we suppose any habitual action to become inherited—and it can be shown that this does sometimes happen—then the resemblance between what originally was a habit and an instinct becomes so close as not to be distinguished. . . . But it would be a serious error to suppose that the greater number of instincts have been acquired by habit in one generation, and then transmitted by inheritance to succeeding generations. It can be clearly shown that the most wonderful instincts with which we are acquainted, namely, those of the hive-bee and of many ants, could not possibly have been acquired by habit.

[pages 229-230] As modifications of corporeal structure arise from, and are increased by, use or habit, and are diminished or lost by disuse, so I do not doubt it has been with instincts. But I believe that the effects of habit are in many cases of subordinate importance to the effects of the natural selection of what may be called spontaneous variations of instincts;—that is of variations produced by the same unknown causes which produce slight deviations of bodily structure.

[page 234] But this instinct retained by our chickens has become useless under domestication, for the mother-hen has almost lost by disuse the power of flight.

[page 256] I am surprised that no one has hitherto advanced this demonstrative case of neuter insects, against the well-known doctrine of inherited habit, as advanced by Lamarck.

[page 256] Therefore there is no real difficulty, under changing conditions of life, in natural selection accumulating to any extent slight modifications of instinct which are in any way useful. In many cases habit or use and disuse have probably come into play.

Chapter 14

[page 415] Whatever influence long-continued use or disuse may have had in modifying the limbs or other parts of any species, this will chiefly or solely have affected it when nearly mature, when it was compelled to use its full powers to gain its own living: and the effects thus produced will have been transmitted to the offspring at a corresponding nearly mature age. Thus the young will not be modified, or will be modified only in a slight degree, through the effects of the increased use or disuse of parts.

[page 422] But we learn from the study of our domestic productions that the disuse of parts leads to their reduced size; and that the result is inherited.
     It appears probable that disuse has been the main agent in rendering organs rudimentary. It would at first lead by slow steps to the more and more complete reduction of a part, until at last it became rudimentary,—as in the case of the eyes of animals inhabiting dark caverns, and of the wings of birds inhabiting oceanic islands, which have seldom been forced by beasts of prey to take flight, and have ultimately lost the power of flying. Again, an organ, useful under certain conditions, might become injurious under others, as with the wings of beetles living on small and exposed islands; and in this natural selection will have aided in reducing the organ, until it was rendered harmless and rudimentary.

Chapter 15

[page 437] With both varieties and species, use and disuse seem to have produced a considerable effect; for it is impossible to resist this conclusion when we look, for instance, at the loggerheaded duck, which has wings incapable of flight, in nearly the same condition as in the domestic duck; or when we look at the burrowing tucu-tucu, which is occasionally blind, and then at certain moles, which are habitually blind and have their eyes covered with skin; or when we look at the blind animals inhabiting the dark caves of America and Europe.

[pages 441-442] Disuse, aided sometimes by natural selection, will often have reduced organs when rendered useless under changed habits or conditions of life; and we can understand on this view the meaning of rudimentary organs. But disuse and selection will generally act on each creature, when it has come to maturity and has to play its full part in the struggle for existence, and will thus have little power on an organ during early life; hence the organ will not be reduced or rendered rudimentary at this early age. The calf, for instance, has inherited teeth, which never cut through the gums of the upper jaw, from an early progenitor having well-developed teeth; and we may believe, that the teeth in the mature animal were formerly reduced by disuse, owing to the tongue and palate, or lips, having become excellently fitted through natural selection to browse without their aid; whereas in the calf, the teeth have been left unaffected, and on the principle of inheritance at corresponding ages have been inherited from a remote period to the present day.

[page 442] I have now recapitulated the facts and considerations which have thoroughly convinced me that species have been modified, during a long course of descent. This has been effected chiefly through the natural selection of numerous successive, slight, favourable variations; aided in an important manner by the inherited effects of the use and disuse of parts; and in an unimportant manner, that is in relation to adaptive structures, whether past or present, by the direct action of external conditions, and by variations which seem to us in our ignorance to arise spontaneously.