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Chapter 15


I take the following memoir of Lamarck entirely from the biographical sketch prefixed by M. Martins to his excellent edition of the 'Philosophie Zoologique.'[184] From this sketch I find that "Lamarck was born August 1, 1744, at Barenton, in Picardy, being the eleventh child of Pierre de Monet, squire of the place, a man of old family, but poor. His father intended him for the Church, the ordinary resource of younger sons at that time, and accordingly placed him under the care of the Jesuits at Amiens. But this was not his vocation: the annals of his family spoke all to him of military glory; his eldest brother had died in the breaches at the siege of Bergen-op-Zoom; two others were still serving in the army, and France was exhausting her energies in an unequal struggle. His father would not yield to his wishes, but on his death, in 1760, Lamarck was left free to take his own line, and made his way at once--upon a very bad horse--to the army of Germany, then encamped at Lippstadt in Westphalia.

"He was the bearer of a letter written by Madame de Lameth, one of his neighbours in the country, and recommending him to M. de Lastic, colonel of the regiment of Beaujolais. This gentleman, on seeing before him a lad of seventeen, whose somewhat stunted growth made him look still younger than he really was, sent the youth immediately to his own quarters. The next day a battle was immediately impending, and M. de Lastic, on passing his regiment in review, saw his protégé in the first rank of a company of grenadiers. The French army was under the orders of the Marshal de Broglie and of the Prince de Soubise; the allied troops were commanded by Ferdinand of Brunswick. The two French generals were beaten owing to their divided counsels, and Lamarck's company, almost annihilated by the enemy's fire, was forgotten in the confusion of the retreat. All the officers, commissioned and non-commissioned, were killed, and only fourteen men out of the whole company remained alive: the eldest proposed to retreat, but Lamarck, improvising himself as commander, declared that they ought not to retire without orders. Presently the colonel seeing that this company did not rally sent an orderly officer who made his way up to it by protected paths. Next day Lamarck was made an officer, and shortly afterwards lieutenant.

"Fortunately for science," continues M. Martins, "this brilliant début was not to decide his career. After peace had been signed he was sent into garrison at Toulon and Monaco, where an inflammation of the lymphatic ganglions of the neck necessitated an operation which left him deeply scarred for life.

"The vegetation in the neighbourhood of Toulon and Monaco now arrested the young officer's attention. He had already derived some little knowledge of botany from the 'Traité des Plantes usuelles' of Chomel. Having retired from the service, and having nothing beyond his modest pension of four hundred francs a year, he took a situation at Paris with a banker; but drawn irresistibly to the study of nature, he used to study from his attic window the forms and movements of clouds, and made himself familiar with the plants in the Jardin du Roi or in the public gardens. He began to feel that he was on his right path, and understood, as Voltaire said of Condorcet, that discoveries of permanent value could make him no less illustrious than military glory.

"Dissatisfied with the botanical systems of his time, in six months he wrote his 'Flore française,' preceded by the 'Clé dichotomique,' with the help of which it is easy even for a beginner to arrive with certainty at the name of the plant before him." Of this work, M. Martins tells us in a note, that the second edition, published by Candolle in 1815, is still the standard work on French plants.

"In 1778 Rousseau had brought botany into vogue. Women and men of fashion took to it. Buffon had the three volumes of 'Flore française' printed at the royal press, and in the following year Lamarck entered the Academy of Sciences. Buffon being anxious that his son should travel, gave him Lamarck for his companion and tutor. He thus made a trip through Holland, Germany, and Hungary, and became acquainted with Gleditsch at Berlin, with Jacquin at Vienna, and with Murray at Gottingen.

"The 'Encyclopédie méthodique,' begun by Diderot and D'Alembert, was not yet completed. For this work Lamarck wrote four volumes, describing all the then known plants whose names began with the letters from A to P. This great work was completed by Poiret, and comprises twelve volumes, which appeared between the years 1783 and 1817. A still more important work, also part of the Encyclopedia, and continually quoted by botanists, is the 'Illustration des Genres.' In this work Lamarck describes two thousand genera, and illustrates them, according to the title-page, with nine hundred engravings. Only a botanist can form any idea of the research in collections, gardens, and books, which such a work must have involved. But Lamarck's activity was inexhaustible. Sonnerat returned from India in 1781 with a very large number of dried plants; no one except Lamarck thought it worth while to inspect them, and Sonnerat, charmed with his enthusiasm, gave him the whole magnificent collection.

"In spite, however, of his incessant toil, Lamarck's position continued to be most precarious. He lived by his pen, as a publisher's hack, and it was with difficulty that he obtained even the poorly paid post of keeper of the king's cabinet of dried plants. Like most other naturalists he had thus to contend with incessant difficulties during a period of fifteen years.

"At length fortune bettered his condition while changing the direction of his labours. France was now under the Convention; what Carnot had done for the army Lakanal undertook to do for the natural sciences. At his suggestion a museum of natural history was established. Professors had been found for all the chairs save that of Zoology; but in that time of enthusiasm, so different from the present, France could find men of war and men of science wherever and whenever she had need of them. Étienne Geoffroy St. Hilaire was twenty-one years old, and was engaged in the study of mineralogy under Haüy. Daubenton said to him, 'I will undertake the responsibility for your inexperience. I have a father's authority over you. Take this professorship, and let us one day say that you have made zoology a French science.' Geoffroy accepted, and undertook the higher animals. Lakanal knew that a single professor could not suffice for the task of arranging the collections of the entire animal kingdom, and as Geoffroy was to class the vertebrate animals only, there remained the invertebrata--that is to say, insects, molluscs, worms, zoophytes--in a word, what was then the chaos of the unknown. 'Lamarck,' says M. Michelet, 'accepted the unknown.' He had devoted some attention to the study of shells with Bruguières, but he had still everything to learn, or I should perhaps say rather, everything to create in that unexplored territory into which Linnæus had declined to enter, and into which he had thus introduced none of the order he had so well known how to establish among the higher animals.

"Lamarck began his course of lectures at the museum in 1794, after a year's preparation, and at once established that great division of animals into vertebrate and invertebrate, which science has ever since recognized.

"Dividing the vertebrate animals--as Linnæus had already divided them--into mammals, birds, reptiles, and fishes, he divided the invertebrates into molluscs, insects, worms, echinoderms, and polyps. In 1799 he separated the crustacea from the insects, with which they had been classed hitherto; in 1800 he established the arachnids as a class distinct from the insects; in 1802 that of the annelids, a subdivision of the worms, and that of the radiata as distinct from the polyps. Time has approved the wisdom of these divisions, founded all of them upon the organic type of the creatures themselves--that is to say, upon the rational method introduced into zoology by Cuvier, Lamarck, and Geoffroy St. Hilaire.

"This introduction being devoted only to Lamarck's labours as a naturalist, we will pass over certain works in which he treats of physics and chemistry. These attempts--errors of a powerful mind which thought itself able by the help of pure reason to establish truths which rest only upon experience--attempts, moreover, which were some of them but resuscitations of exploded theories, such as that of 'phlogistic'--had not even the honour of being refuted: they did not deserve to be so, and should be a warning to all those who would write upon a subject without the necessary practical knowledge.

"At the beginning of this century there was not yet any such science as geology. People observed but little, and in lieu of observation made theories to embrace the entire globe. Lamarck made his in 1802, and twenty-three years later the judicious Cuvier still yielded to the prevailing custom in publishing his 'Discoveries on the Earth's Revolutions.'

"Lamarck's merit was to have discovered that there had been no catastrophes, but that the gradual action of forces during thousands of ages accounted for the changes observable upon the face of the earth, better than any sudden and violent perturbations. 'Nature,' he writes, 'has no difficulty on the score of time; she has it always at command; it is with her a boundless space in which she has room for the greatest as for the smallest operations.'"

Here we must not forget Buffon's fine passage, "Nature's great workman is Time," &c. See page 103.

"Lamarck," continues M. Martins, "was the first to distinguish littoral from ocean fossils, but no one accepts his theory that oceans make their beds deeper owing to the action of the tides, and distribute themselves differently over the earth's surface without any change of level of the different parts of that surface.

"Settling down to a single branch of science, in consequence of his professorship, Lamarck now devoted himself to the twofold labour of lecturing and classifying the collections at the museum. In 1802 he published his 'Considerations on the Organization of Living Bodies'; in 1809 his 'Philosophie Zoologique,' a development of the 'Considerations'; and from 1816 to 1822 his Natural History of the invertebrate animals, in seven volumes. This is his great work, and, being entirely a work of description and classification, was received with the unanimous approbation of the scientific world. His 'Fossil Shells of the Neighbourhood of Paris'--a work in which his profound knowledge of existing shells enabled him to class with certainty the remains of forms that had disappeared thousands of ages ago--met also with a favourable reception.

"Lamarck was fifty years old before he began to study zoology; and prolonged microscopic examinations first fatigued and at length enfeebled his eyesight. The clouds which obscured it gradually thickened, and he became quite blind. Married four times, the father of seven children, he saw his small patrimony and even his earlier savings swallowed up by one of those hazardous investments with which promoters impose on the credulity of the public. His small endowment as professor alone protected him from destitution. Men of science whom his reputation as a botanist and zoologist had attracted near him, wondered at the manner in which he was neglected.

"He passed the last ten years of his laborious life in darkness, tended only by the affectionate care of his two daughters. The eldest wrote from his dictation part of the sixth and seventh volumes of his work on the invertebrate animals. From the time her father became confined to his room his daughter never left the house; and when first she did so after his death, she was distressed by the fresh air to which she had been so long a stranger.

"Lamarck died December 18, 1829, at the age of eighty-five. Latreille and Blainville were his successors at the museum. The incredible activity of the first professor had so greatly increased the number of the known invertebrata that it was found necessary to endow two professors, where one had originally been sufficient.

"His two daughters were left penniless. In the year 1832 I myself saw Mlle. Cornélie de Lamarck earning a scanty pittance by fastening dried plants on to paper, in the museum of which her father had been a professor. Many a species named and described by him must have passed under her eyes and increased the bitterness of her regret."[185]


[184] Paris, 1873.

[185] Introduction Biographique to M. Martins' edition of the 'Phil. Zool.,' pp. ix-xx.

Samuel Butler

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