Lamarck or the environmental conscience

When did ecological awareness, the awareness of the impact of our relationship with nature, emerge? At the turn of the 1960s-1970s, as is generally accepted? Was it when the term 'ecology' was coined by the German biologist Ernst Haeckel in 1866? In fact, the subject has been on the minds of the most brilliant minds since the beginning of the 19th century.

Nature was still considered a resource to be exploited when the naturalist Jean-Baptiste Monnet, chevalier de Lamarck, wrote in 1820 in his "Analytical System of Positive Knowledge of Man":

Man, by his egoism, too short-sighted for his own interests [...], seems to be working for the annihilation of his means of life and for the very destruction of his own species. [...] By destroying everywhere the great plants that protected the soil [...], he is rapidly heading towards the sterility of the soil he inhabits, causing the springs to dry up and driving away the animals that used to find their sustenance there [...]. It seems as if man is destined to exterminate himself after having made the planet uninhabitable.

Schutzenberger, « Lamarck », héliogravure noir et blanc, 150x195 mm, PO 2034

© MNHN

Having this kind of foresight in 1820 of man’s deterioration of nature is quite exceptional, even visionary, and this paragraph was just a footnote! Lamarck distanced himself from Buffon, who said that "good" nature was that which was mastered by the hand of Man... Which was not surprising, however, since Lamarck was ahead of his time in many disciplines. He put forward one of the first theories of evolution, transformism, before Darwin - he was 60 years old when Darwin was born.

He also coined the term "Biology", the science of living beings. A progressive, friend of the philosophers of the Enlightenment, in 1793 he participated in the creation of the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, where he became a professor of zoology, responsible for teaching invertebrates.

His work is multifaceted: botanical, zoological, paleontological, meteorological, chemical, geological and philosophical. He is to the history of the life sciences what Galileo is to the physical sciences, with his share of misunderstanding and jealousy from his peers.

His tendency to confine himself to the role of an unrecognised genius gave rise to the legend of the scorned scientist. On the monument dedicated to him in the Jardin des Plantes, his daughter had the words "Posterity will admire you, it will avenge you, my father" engraved.

Statue de Lamarck aveugle avec sa fille, Jardin des Plantes, Paris

© MNHN

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