Jean‐Baptiste Lamarck


More quoted than read, hailed as a prophet or vilified as a confused mind, Lamarck remains an enigmatic figure in the history of evolution theories. A reading of his entire corpus reveals a naturalist who considered himself as a physicist and a natural philosopher, rivalling the great materialistic synthesis of the Enlightenment. Properties of an eternal matter and eternally active physical laws could explain the indefinite cycles of the Earth as well as the working of the nervous fluids, capable of producing all our emotional and intellectual life. Even religious ideas resulted from the operations of our brain. His reference to the giraffe stretching its neck to reach leaves occurs only three times in thousands of pages. What he was really concerned with was the explanation of the taxonomic tree in terms of non‐linear modifications gradually brought forth by extremely slow changes in the geo‐climatic environment. To him, Nature was a blind, patient and constantly active set of laws deprived of all intention or goal.

Keywords: Lamarck; Cuvier; Geoffroy Saint‐Hilaire; evolution; materialism; geology; meteorology; zoology

Figure 1. Lamarck, 1821, Lithograph, by Louis Léopold Boilly (1761–1845).
Figure 2. Portrait of Lamarck, 1824, engraved by Ambroise Tardieu (1788–1841).


Burkhardt R (1977) The Spirit of System: Lamarck and Evolutionary Biology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press paperback ed. 1995.

Corsi P (1988) The Age of Lamarck: Evolutionary Theories in France, 1790–1830 . Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Corsi P (2011) The revolutions of evolution: Geoffroy and Lamarck, 1825–1840. Bulletin du Musée d'Anthropologie préhistorique de Monaco 51: 97–122.

For the works by Lamarck quoted above, see Corsi P (ed.)

For a list of the 978 pupils attending Lamarck lectures from 1795 through 1819,

Jordanova LJ (1984) Lamarck. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lamarck JB (1984) Zoological Philosophy: An Exposition with Regard to the Natural History of Animals, translated by H Elliot. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Corsi, Pietro(Jun 2015) Jean‐Baptiste Lamarck. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0002468.pub2]