The evolutionary theory of the late Eighteenth Century, the Lamarckian theory
, which was the first organized transformist theory of evolution, was built out of a curious historical background that has been described by Lovejoy in The Great Chain of Being.
Aa Paul Kammerer, a leading proponent of the Lamarckian theory
of evolution, achieved global prominence in the 1920AAEs by arguing that acquired traits could be passed down through generations.
The Lamarckian theory of evolution helps to explain Wharton's perspective more clearly than a study of Darwin's influence alone.
Lamarckian theory provided Wharton with something crucial: a link between science and her most cherished belief, which she described as "continuity, that 'sense of the past' which enriches the present and binds us up with the world's great stabilising traditions of art and poetry and knowledge" (Wharton, French 97).
In The House of Mirth (1905), Lamarckian theory dramatically alters a common reading of Lily's final meditation, in which she perceives that she has never had "any real relation to life" (248).
Natural selection assumes that the environment drives evolution--for example, by eliminating the weak or maladaptive, while Lamarckian theory gives more weight to the organism's responses to its environment: habit and transmission.
Each of these men, however, adapted Lamarckian theory into widely-disseminated beliefs about heredity.
Vernon Kellogg, whose Darwinism To-Day (1907) Wharton also read, agreed that modern research seemed to discredit Lamarckian theory.
In Lamarckian theory, the environment affects an organism mostly in the sense that the organism voluntarily develops certain habits within it.
Historians of nineteenth century natural science, particularly French ones, have often treated the failure of Lamarckian theory
to unite a clear consensus of contemporary opinion as a particularly bewildering chapter in the progress of scientific knowledge.