Journal of the History of Biology

, Volume 44, Issue 4, pp 713–744

French Roots of French Neo-Lamarckisms, 1879–1985


DOI: 10.1007/s10739-010-9240-x

Cite this article as:
Loison, L. J Hist Biol (2011) 44: 713. doi:10.1007/s10739-010-9240-x


This essay attempts to describe the neo-Lamarckian atmosphere that was dominant in French biology for more than a century. Firstly, we demonstrate that there were not one but at least two French neo-Lamarckian traditions. This implies, therefore, that it is possible to propose a clear definition of a (neo)Lamarckian conception, and by using it, to distinguish these two traditions. We will see that these two conceptions were not dominant at the same time. The first French neo-Lamarckism (1879–1931) was structured by a very mechanic view of natural processes. The main representatives of this first period were scientists such as Alfred Giard (1846–1908), Gaston Bonnier (1853–1922) and Félix Le Dantec (1869–1917). The second Lamarckism – much more vitalist in its inspiration – started to develop under the supervision of people such as Albert Vandel (1894–1980) and Pierre-Paul Grassé (1895–1985). Secondly, this essay suggests that the philosophical inclinations of these neo-Lamarckisms reactivated a very ancient and strong dichotomy of French thought. One part of this dichotomy is a material, physicalist tradition, which started with René Descartes but developed extensively during the 18th and 19th centuries. The other is a spiritual and vitalist reaction to the first one, which also had a very long history, though it is most closely associated with the work of Henri Bergson. Through Claude Bernard, the first neo-Lamarckians tried to construct a mechanical and determinist form of evolutionary theory which was, in effect, a Cartesian theory. The second wave of neo-Lamarckians wanted to reconsider the autonomy and reactivity of life forms, in contrast to purely physical systems.


neo-LamarckismFrench biologyexperimental transformismmechanismvitalismFrench philosophy

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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of the History of Science (Centre François-Viète), Faculté des Sciences et des TechniquesNantes UniversityNantes Cedex 3France