Darwin Rejected His Own Theory in Favor of Lamarckian Evolution. Epigenetics now Suggests He Was Partly Right.

It generally surprises people when they learn that Darwin disavowed his own theory of evolution in favor of a Lamarckian view of inheritance (a belief that acquired, rather than genetic, characteristics, can be passed on). Today, Lamarckian inheritance is making a comeback in the field of epigenetics.

With few exceptions,1 Darwin pulled no punches in his Origin of Species (published 1859), claiming that all current species descend from common ancestors and that natural selection acting on morphological diversity is the driving agent of change. This is what most people think of when they think about Darwin’s ideas of evolution.

Nearly a decade after Origin was published, Darwin produced Variations of Plants and Animals Under Domestication (1868).2 In this book, he first suggests a model of inheritance he called “pangenesis”. While trying to explain the mode of inheritance and the source of variation, Darwin imagined “corpuscles” being produced by the various body parts in response to environmental stresses. These corpuscles would travel to the gonads to be passed to the next generation. This idea of pangenesis is Lamarckian to the core. In The Descent of Man (1871),3 he attempts to lay out his reasoning and evidences (with more of a focus on the former) for his idea that man and apes have a common ancestor. But in so doing, he also answers several objections people had to his thesis in Origin. While addressing the critiques of his contemporaries, some of whom claimed that his ideas in Origin were overly dogmatic, he backed off the idea that natural selection was the only engine of evolution. In its place, he says that a combination of natural selection, operating on variation caused by the hypothetical and Lamarckian process of pangenesis, and sexual selection are the driving forces. He also alludes to group selection and kin selection (two “modern” theories that have been debated for decades). Sexual selection theory has been controversial since its inception and has taken huge setbacks recently,4 and his pangenesis idea is demonstrably false. One is left wondering what, exactly, people mean when they say “Darwinian evolution”!….

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