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.
The study, published in The Journal of Experimental Zoology, suggests that far from being a fraud Kammerer may have discovered the field of epigenetics, placing him decades ahead of his contemporaries.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.
Vernon Kellogg, whose Darwinism To-Day (1907) Wharton also read, agreed that modern research seemed to discredit Lamarckian theory. However, even though Kellogg wrote as an apologist for Darwinian evolution, he still argued that it was "justified" to "assume the transmutation of ontogenetic acquirements into phyletic acquirements, even though we are as yet ignorant of the physico-chemical or vital mechanism capable of effecting the carrying over" (382).
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.