"Man, by his selfishness, which is too short-sighted for his own interests, by his inclination to enjoy all that is at his disposal, in a word by his carelessness for the future and for his fellow men, seems to be working towards the annihilation of his means of conservation and the very destruction of his own species."
Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck
Tomorrow's world is already today's world. A world where collaboration takes precedence over competition.
On 18 December 1829, Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck died in Paris at the age of 85. This brilliant naturalist had just spent some difficult years. As he was already the laughing stock of his colleagues, he had to face the contempt of Darwin and the vexations of Napoleon I. In fact, although he had a comfortable income and accommodation at the Museum due to a recognised scientific career and a colossal working life, he was abandoned by all. However, in addition to having founded biology, Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck was the first naturalist to propose a theory of evolution, as early as the beginning of the 19th century. He gave it a name: transformism. In contrast to the Darwinian theory, which describes a world where struggle - and adaptation through natural selection (1) - is the primary function of survival, Lamarck describes a world where the key to the survival of species is collaboration.
For Lamarck, the living world and its survival are based on dynamic and symbiotic collaboration.
To put the matter in its historical context, the two men are pursuing two different objectives - two different scientific projects: Lamarck is looking for a physical explanation of the living being. He wants to understand how living beings differ from inanimate elements, which are the objects of study in the physical sciences. As a rationalist scientist, Lamarck, although he studied with the Jesuits, considers that God - here taken in the religious sense of the term - is not the power that created the world as we see it today.
Lamarck's materialist theory describes on the one hand the necessity of evolution in living beings (it is necessary to explain the presence of complex and diverse living beings) and on the other hand defines evolution as a process of cooperation between organisms and their environment. For Lamarck, the living world and its survival are based on a dynamic and symbiotic collaboration: evolution is a contributory solution to restore harmony and balance so that organisms remain in tune with their environment.
Evolution is a contributory solution to restore harmony and balance so that organisms remain in tune with their environment.
As a visionary, he believes in the transmission of acquired traits (2), that is, in response to the challenges of its environment, an organism acquires characteristics during its life that it transmits to its descendants, thereby helping the survival of the species.
For Darwin, the evolution of species is due to random mutations in the genetic heritage and natural selection is due to chance.
Darwin, for his part, is not concerned with knowing what a living being is but pursues a very precise objective: to refute the creationism that he was taught at Cambridge during his studies, the divine intervention in the production of species.
Unlike Lamarck, whose work emphasizes the links and collaboration between living beings, he takes up the idea that the living being is like a machine and replaces divine intention with the non-intentional and non-personal mechanism of natural selection.
His work will mark the beginning of the so-called "evolutionist" current still in force today, in part because of the importance it gives to genetic chance. For Darwin, in fact, mutations in a species are due to chance -. It should be noted that even today, the theoretical necessity of evolution put forward by Lamarck is still unknown to the majority of evolutionists and that Lamarck's vision is contrary to the evolutionary synthesis still accepted today - known as "neo-Darwinian" -.
A theory in vogue until the 2000s, neo-Darwinism, a synthesis generally adopted by the scientific community since the 1930s and 1940s, integrates various theories, including that of Darwin and those of the botanist monk Gregor Mendel on the mechanisms of heredity, whose work dates back to the 19th century. In short, it postulates that the evolution of species is due to random mutations in the genetic heritage and that natural selection is due to chance.
The first contributory stone of both theories (Lamarck's transformism, the true theory of evolution, and Darwin's evolutionism, the adaptive transformation of species) is the fact of having brought irremediable counter-arguments to fixism, which defined both the universe and species - animal and plant - as "fixed" and without transformation.
The two men also have in common that they have carried out a titanic and methodical work of species observation and transcription.
Over time, Darwin's active and intelligent communication, taken up by the whole scientific community against the creationist wave which had been very much in vogue in the United States since the beginning of the 20th century (3), definitively discarded Lamarckian theories. Scientists then made "The Origin of Species" their new Gospel.
But one fact remained unsolved: neither of the two theories had really been proven by experience, except, for the evolutionist theory, a draft, called "proof by accumulation of facts" or "puzzle effect".
Discoveries in the field of epigenetics show that if Lamarck had not exactly described evolution as it was taking shape, his perspective is ultimately radically closer to that of Darwin.
By a curious coincidence that life has in store for us, the first serious rehabilitation of Lamarck in the 1970s, based on research conducted since the 1940s, came from Cambridge (the site of Darwin's studies).
Conrad Waddington, a British biologist, paleontologist and geneticist described at that time the concept of genetic assimilation, i.e. the assimilation of a response to environmental stress directly into the genome. He thus shows that Lamarck's hypothesis on the principle of heredity of acquired traits can intervene in developmental biology. He then uses the term "epigenetics" (literally "above the gene" (4)) to highlight the fact that this influence, this environmental stress, seems to occur outside the gene itself while impacting the development of the living being whose response (evolution) becomes part of its inheritance: the changes, the acquired characteristics are assimilated by the following generations of the species.
The discoveries in the field of epigenetics in the following decades will show that if Lamarck had not exactly described evolution as it was taking shape, his perspective is in the end radically closer than that of Darwin.
What if Darwin was wrong?
If, at the time, Waddington had to suffer the wrath of many of his colleagues (who accused him of being "neo-Lamarckian" - a supreme insult), we know that epigenetics has since undergone a meteoric development in terms of knowledge and discoveries. These epigenetic means of adapting a species to its environment even constitute, according to the French scientist Joël de Rosnay in 2011, "the great revolution in biology of the last 5 years (5)" because it shows that in some cases, our behaviour acts on the expression of our genes.
But it is Professor Didier Raoult, a researcher in microbiology, director of the research unit in emerging infectious and tropical diseases at the Marseille Faculty of Medicine and discoverer of giant viruses, who in 2011 is throwing a paving stone into the pond by suggesting "what if Darwin had been wrong? "in his seminal book, Surpassing Darwin.
For him, Darwinian dogma is simply shattering.
On the one hand, the latest discoveries - in 2010 - show that humans are descended not only from Homosapiens but also from Neanderthal man (from whom 1 to 4% of our genes come), so the family tree of the human species, the famous "Darwinian tree", is no longer valid. For Professor Raoult, "the idea of a common trunk with species that diverge like branches" is even "nonsense" (6).
Then, while for Darwin each new species appears through the adaptation of existing species, it turns out that nature continues to invent species. This aspect has also been demonstrated by two Princeton scientists, Rosemary and Peter Grant, in a study conducted over a period of 40 years which leads to the conclusion that we can follow the emergence of new species in nature. It is mainly the dogma of evolutionism that is being pointed at here.
The idea here is obviously not to discredit Darwin's work but to question the fact that it may have been established as an immutable dogma, which is moreover completely contrary to the primary spirit of science, (...) in perpetual movement of knowledge sweeping each other away. The advances in epigenetics show today that it was Lamarck, and not Darwin, who had the right vision on at least one point: the development of a living being depends on its links and exchanges with the outside world (the environment) and not exclusively on its genetic code.
One could imagine that the fact that Lamarck became blind at the end of his life could be a metaphor for the blindness of his contemporaries to his discoveries more than the result of a life spent with his eye glued to a microscope.
(1) The evolution and complexification of living beings is the product of chance, variation and natural selection and has no theoretical necessity.
(2) Darwin refers to the transmission of acquired characteristics in "The Variation of Animals and Plants under the Effect of Domestication", published in 1868, without pronouncing on its reality.
(3) Numerous famous trials opposing evolutionists and creationists have taken place throughout the 20th century in the United States. The antagonism remains very strong at the beginning of the 21st century.
(4) The term "epigenesis" - from epi-, "above", and genesis, "generation" - is due to Aristotle, the absolute precursor, around 350 BC.
(5) Issue "A heredity of acquired characters? "On the shoulders of Darwin, radio France inter, September 13, 2014.
(6) Interview in the French weekly magazine Le Point, 12/12/2011.
Point zero, in that perspective: where scientific discoveries meet ancestral knowledge.