An eminent naturalist of his day. Lead author of several large, large, large reference and educational works (this was the age of the French "encyclopedist"s) on molluscs (4 volumes), plants (including fungi) (16 vol.), the plants of France (6 vol.), invertebrates (11 volumes), and more modest works in a single volume on hydrogeology, French fossils, and comparative physiology.
In fact, he invented the term "intertebrate". His academic appointment, at the Musée d'Histoire Naturelle, was in worms [Vermes] and insects [Insecta], and he came up with the term so that he could put "Professor of Invertebrates" up on his door, rather than "Professor of Worms and Insects". The fact that these two Linnaean taxa actually did cover all the invertebrates gives you some idea of the crudeness of their treatment in the Linnaean system.
Until recently, he was remembered mostly as a straw man for Darwin: Lamarck had a theory of evolution, but it involved the inheritance of acquired characteristics. The example that always gets made fun of nowadays was the giraffe: he thought that giraffes evolved their long neck by one generation stretching a lot to reach the leaves, lengthening their necks this way, and then passing this on to their children, who then stretched some more. The current understanding is that any proto-giraffe produces offspring with a variety of neck lengths; if the longer-necked ones survive to breeding age more than the shorter-necked ones, you eventually end up with a long-necked population. Darwin himself had an understanding of the matter very close to that of Lamarck: he said that organs that get "used" a lot (like the giraffe's neck) somehow get passed down to the next generation. Or rather, that was one of Darwin's explanations; Darwin realized that he didn't actually have a plausible mechanism for the proliferation of "desirable" traits and did his best to fudge the issue. Mendel's explication of the nature of inheritance settled all of that. In any case, one shouldn't set up Lamarck as the straw man to the enlightened Darwin on this issue, as I've seen several textbooks do; their personal understanding of this issue was about the same.
Around 1990, I remember seeing several popular science articles on the rehabilitation of Lamarck's work, but I don't remember their content. Regardless of its success in its own right, Lamarck can take some credit for the existence of modern Genetics, as Mendel's famous experiments with pea plants were started as an attempt to see whether successive generations of pea plants would inherit acquired characteristics of their parents. As you can guess, they did not.
Image of Amanita virosa from Verne Ovid Graham (1933) Mushrooms of the Chicago region in Program of the Activities of the Chicago Academy of Sciences
One can gather the scope of his intellectual curiosity from the title of his (2 vol.) book Recherches sur les causes des principaux faits physiques : et particulièrement sur celles de la combustion, de l'élévation de l'eau dans l'état de vapeurs ... de l'origine des composés et de tous les minéraux; enfin de l'entretien de la vie des êtres organiques, de leur accroissement, de leur état de vigueur, de leur dépérissement et de leur mort, which I translate as "Researches on the cause of the principal physical facts: in particular, the nature of combustion, of the evaporation of water into vapor ... of the origin and composition of all minerals; finally of the life of organic beings, of their growth, their state of vigor, their decline and death". The first puzzle (combustion) was actually solved by Lamarck's compatriot Lavoisier (who, unlike Lamarck, did not make it through the French Revolution) during Lamarck's own lifetime. The evaporation of water and the composition of minerals had to await the elucidation of atoms, molecules, and elements. And of course, we still don't know exactly how life works. This is someone who knew how to ask the big questions. His place in the French savantocracy was taken by Cuvier, who believed that species never changed.
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