How do living organisms transmit their characteristics to the next generation?
The textbook answer is: by passing on their DNA, which encodes all heritable traits. In recent years, however, biologists have discovered that this is not the whole story. Evidence is accumulating that environmental influences during the lifetime of an individual, such as nutrition or stress, can influence the phenotype of their progeny across several generations. This phenomenon reminds us of the concept of ‘inheritance of acquired characters’, already formulated in 1809 by the French naturalist Jean Baptiste de Lamarck in his Philosophie Zoologique. Lamarck’s ideas have often met with skepticism, but recent developments in molecular genetics, such as epi-genetics, have inspired a re-evaluation of his legacy. Indeed, we seem to witness a renaissance of Lamarckian thought.
In this project, we aim explore the Lamarckian nature of recent discoveries in the transmission of inherited traits, and the evolution of biological complexity. In this way, we aim to evaluate what modern biology can, or cannot, learn from the original ideas of Lamarck, and whether or not the works of Lamarck offer lessons that change the way we think about evolution. This project will contribute to that debate by bringing together the disciplines of evolutionary biology, and the history of science and philosophy.
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