Address to Melbourne Writers’ Festival

Melbourne Writers’ Festival – ACQUIRED CHARACTERISTICS forum in October 2008

Ross Honeywill (author of Lamarck’s Evolution: two centuries of genius and jealousy)

Good evening. It’s an honour to be on stage with such scientific luminaries discussing my new book. Even more humbling given that I am no scientist. I am just a story teller.

So…to the story:

The scientific community broadly agrees that genes determine who we are, what we look like, how we function, how tall we grow, what diseases we’re likely to endure and, barring unforeseen misfortune, when we’ll die. These genes are with us from the moment of conception. And when we in turn conceive a child, they’re passed on from both mother and father unaltered by the experiences of a lifetime. It’s irrelevant that during our own life we may have developed new abilities or powerful immunities to disease. Genes learn nothing from a life lived, despite the potential for evolutionary benefit.

Or do they?

In 1809 Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck proposed that beneficial characteristics acquired during a lifetime could indeed be passed on to the next generation. He contended that environmental stimuli can trigger these changes and we then transmit them on to our sons and daughters…to be born already hardwired with the instincts, physiological improvements or immunities that helped us survive and thrive.

However, fifty years later Darwin would sow the seeds of change when he published his theory of evolution and then, after yet another fifty years, with the discovery of genes, the dogmatic era of neo-Darwinism arrived and Lamarck’s theory of evolution was under siege.

So it was that the twentieth-century scientific establishment embraced neo-Darwinism, and precluded the Lamarckian transfer of acquired characteristics into the gene pool. For neo-Darwinists, hereditary information comes only from DNA in our sex cells: our germline. Our body cells, the building blocks of our entire being, have no say in the matter. It’s a one-way street with a brick wall at one end. This is known as the Weismann Barrier, named after the nineteenth-century biologist August Weismann, who proposed that DNA in those very few sex cells—sperm and eggs—remains unchanged as a repository of the instructions that determine the next generation.

This approach precludes genes being influenced or changed by events going on in the body, with the benefit of experience being lost at every final closing of the eyes. Neo-Darwinists believe that our lives have no influence on evolution and are the result of a random past rather than the cause of a better future.

Charles Darwin achieved an elevated place, a seemingly unassailable pinnacle of science. Debate on whether a piece of research was Darwinian, neo-Darwinian or anti-Darwinian became the biological equivalent of the patriotism test.

And by the twenty-first century, it no longer mattered whether Darwin was right or wrong. The primary concern was that Darwinism was protected because Darwin had assumed a place in science equivalent to the role occupied by God in the world of the creationists. For both scientists and creationists, the absence of their deity was too horrible to contemplate. The scientific establishment had made Darwinism its religion and constantly revised and refreshed his theories. It was a decidedly evolutionary process with natural selection favouring only those elements of Darwin’s theories that were fit for survival: for selection, modification and adaptation. Neo-Darwinism was ecclesiastical but not ecumenical.

This approach rendered the survival of Lamarck unlikely. He was, in the view of the scientific establishment, not fit to be perpetuated, not part of their religion of neo-Darwinism. This was no longer a scientific paradigm, it was beyond dogma. Indeed, it was no longer even secular. Lamarck threatened the doctrine, the neo-Darwinian canon that had become the foundation for so much of modern science, and he could not be tolerated.

However, any establishment—whether it be social, political or scientific—is always under siege by radicals and outsiders who refuse to be part of the system.

For a century, neo-Darwinism ruled and Lamarck languished. That is, until a young Australian scientist named Ted Steele, in a moment that changed his life, discovered Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck. And Steele’s work helped alter the course of scientific history.

Sitting on a flight between Canada and Europe about thirty years ago, Ted Steele was reading a book by the philosopher and science writer, Arthur Koestler. And it was then that he discovered a name that he’d never heard before…and that name was Lamarck.

Like Lamarck, the young molecular immunologist Ted Steele proposed that genetic changes are not only subject to random chance. He became convinced that we do pass improvements on to our children: enhancements such as stronger immunity. But, in the tradition of Lamarckian scientists throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, while Steele believed passionately in the logic of Lamarckian evolution, for many years he had no proof, no hard scientific evidence.

Then in 1978, Steele and Canadian cell biologist Dr Reg Gorczynski had a breakthrough. They produced evidence that acquired immunity can alter genes for transmission to future generations. They crossed the so-called Weismann Barrier and in doing so traversed the scientific fault-line.

Ted Steele believed he had changed the basis for all evolutionary thought; that he had proved Lamarck correct. But his evidence was soon discredited. He was attacked, vilified, sacked and derided. But still Ted Steele pushed on, decade after decade, with a determination that many thought madness.

Finally, in 2006, riding the wave of new evidence coming from across the globe, respected Italian geneticist Dr Corrado Spadafora and San Francisco-based molecular biologist Dr Patrick Fogarty separately and unequivocally produced evidence that the Weismann Barrier was an illusion. They delivered scientific proof that characteristics acquired during a lifetime can be passed on to sons and daughters.

Fogarty and his team injected a gene into an animal and found that the introduced gene was not just getting into the liver, or the testes, or the brain, but it was getting into every cell type, into every tissue type. This in itself was a tribute to their technology, but what about the inherited change? (The critical test for Lamarckian inheritance) They tested it functionally by simply mating those animals and looked at the next generation. And there it was…the actual gene that had been introduced into parents was clearly visible in the progeny.

This was not just a personal vindication for the mercurial Steele. It was the final chapter in an epic story spanning two centuries that started with Lamarck. Lamarck, who had named and shaped the science of biology, coined the term ‘invertebrate’, established invertebrate zoology as a scientific discipline, and developed the first comprehensive theory of evolution. Ted Steele gambled his professional life and intellectual freedom to prove what was to him patently obvious: that the experiences occurring during a lifetime shape evolution. Now, after having lost so many battles, Ted Steele was winning the war against entrenched scientific obstinacy, deep professional envy and the influence of too few with too much power and too much to lose.

And today the world stands on the edge of a new scientific era. Ted Steele has created a kind of meta-Lamarckism that combines the best of both Darwin and Lamarck. In Steele’s revolution, our future genetic legacy is being dictated by what is going on in our bodies right now: the ways we develop, what we interact with, the chemicals in our food, the gases we breathe, the diseases we’re confronted with. They could all impact our germline and then alter the genetic inheritance we transfer to our children. And it’s faster than science ever believed. Darwinian evolution is slow, gradual, over millions of generations and tens of thousands of years. This meta-Lamarckism happens over generations.

Next year the world celebrates the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin and the 200th anniversary of the publication of Lamarck’s first comprehensive theory of evolution.

Both Lamarck and Darwin changed our view of the world around us—from a place that was considered static to a universe filled with change. We now know that the continents beneath our feet are moving, that the universe itself is expanding, that life is changing, that we’re evolving, that we’re descended from ancestors with apes as cousins. For all this we are grateful to them both for making evolution a scientific fact.

And the neo-Darwinists? They are today described by eminent scientists and scientific historians as ‘hopelessly out of date’. Evolution has entered a new era of scientific agnosticism, freed from prejudice, bigotry and the idolatry of dogma. Lamarck has emerged intact from two centuries of doubt, adulation, criticism and hope. As you’ll see, if you read Lamarck’s Evolution, the journey was a bumpy ride.

Lamarck’s story starts at the end of a scientific dark age and concludes at the dawn of a new enlightenment. The evolutionary journey of his grand idea over these two hundred years is a tale of mavericks, knaves and heroes, of brilliant men and ultimately, the triumph of truth.

Lamarck’s Evolution: two centuries of genius and jealousy is published by Murdoch Books’ Pier 9 imprint