Article ID: CBB885733380

The Connection between Charles Darwin’s Evolutionary Theory of ‘Heredity of Behaviors’ and the 19th Century Neuroscience: The Influence of Neuroscience on Darwin’s Overcoming of Lamarck’s Theory of Evolution (2019)


The nineteenth century neuroscience studied the instinct of animal to understand the human mind. In particular, it has been found that the inheritance of unconscious behavior like instinct is mediated through ganglion chains, such as the spinal cord or sympathetic nervous system, which control unconscious reflexes. At the same time, the theory of Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics (hereafter ‘IAC’) widely known as Lamarck’s evolutionary theory provided the theoretical frame on the origin of instinct and the heredity of action that the parental generation’s habits were converted into the nature of the offspring generation. Contrary to conventional knowledge, this theory was not originally invented by Lamarck, and Darwin also did not discard this theory even after discovering the theory of natural selection in 1838 and maintained it throughout his intellectual life. Above all, in the field of epigenetics, the theory of ‘IAC’ has gained attention as a reliable scientific theory today. Darwin discovered crucial errors in the late 1830s that the Lamarck version’s theory of ‘IAC’ did not adequately account for the principle of the inheritance of unconscious behavior like instinct. Lamarck’s theory regarded habits as conscious and willful acts and saw that those habits are transmitted through the brain to control conscious actions. Lamarck’s theory could not account for the complex and elaborate instincts of invertebrate animals, such as brainless ants. Contrary to Lamarck’s view, Darwin established the new theory of ‘IAC’ that could be combined with contemporary neurological theory, which explains the heredity of unconscious behavior. Based on the knowledge of neurology, Darwin was able to translate the ‘principle of habit’ into a neurological term called ‘principle of reflex’. This article focuses on how Darwin join the theory of ‘IAC’ with nineteenth century neuroscience and how the neurological knowledge from the nineteenth century contributed to Darwin’s overcoming of Lamarck’s ‘IAC’. The significance of this study is to elucidate Darwin’s notion of ‘IAC’ theory rather than natural selection theory as a principle of heredity of behavior. The theory of ‘IAC’ was able to account for the rapid variation of instincts in a relatively short period of time, unlike natural selection, which operates slowly in geological time spans of tens of millions of years. The nineteenth century neurological theory also provided neurological principles for ‘plasticity of instinct,’ empirically supporting the fact that all nervous systems responsible for reflexes respond sensitively to very fine stimuli. However, researchers of neo-Darwinian tendencies, such as Richard Dawkins and evolutionary psychologists advocating the ‘selfish gene’ hypothesis, which today claim to be Darwin’s descendants, are characterized by human nature embedded in biological information, such as the brain and genes, so that it cannot change at all. This study aims to contribute to reconstructing the evolutionary discourse by illuminating Darwin’s insights into the “plasticity of nature” that instincts can change relatively easily even at the level of invertebrates such as earthworms.

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Authors & Contributors
Hossfeld, Uwe
Jana Funke
Herring, Emily
Portera, Mariagrazia
Mauro Mandrioli
Gillott, David
Journal of the History of Biology
Revue d'Histoire des Sciences
Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences
Science and Education
Perspectives in Biology and Medicine
Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization
Verlag für Wissenschaft und Bildung
Pickering & Chatto
Columbia University Press
Natural selection
Science and society
Darwin, Charles Robert
Lamarck, Jean Baptiste Antoine Pierre de Monet de
Lysenko, Trofim Denisovich
Vandel, Albert
Grassé, Pierre-Paul
Uexküll, Jakob Johann von
Time Periods
19th century
20th century
20th century, early
21st century
18th century
Early modern
Catalonia (Spain)
Latin America
Jesuits (Society of Jesus)

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