For Halloween this year, I’m going to be Captain Lamarckism.
Captain Lamarckism is not your typical superhero. You may even call her an atypical superhero. She is a giraffe with the ability to stretch her neck, and then have babies with that neck length!
The idea of Lamarckian inheritance is that adaptive traits developed over a lifetime could be passed on to offspring, slowly leading to ever-more complex organisms over generations. This is sometimes called “soft inheritance”, or inheritance of acquired traits. Soft inheritance is very different from natural selection, in which individuals with adaptive traits survive and reproduce more/better than those without those traits, changing the population over time.
To illustrate soft inheritance, imagine a body builder who has HUGE arm muscles. Every day is arm day at the gym. They have a kid, and the baby is… born with tiny hulk arms. The classic example is a giraffe with a short neck stretching to reach higher branches, slowly lengthening it’s neck, then having offspring with longer necks.
Lamarckian inheritance was named after (you guessed it) Lamarck (1744-1829). I’m not sure who actually proposed the idea; I always thought it was Lamarck, but Wikipedia claims it was not. Darwin learned about Lamarckian inheritance long before his voyage on the Beagle from his grandfather’s (Erasmus Darwin, 1731-1802) discussion of if in his Zoonomia book(s). However, after reading it again later in life, Darwin disparaged his grandfather’s work for having more speculation than evidence (discussed in his autobiography), and was similarly unimpressed with Lamarckian inheritance as cautiously described by Charles Lyell in Principles of Geology while on the Beagle (1832, described in Origin of Species, illustrated edition). Later, Huxley (“Darwin’s Bulldog”, 1825-1895) also criticized Lamarckian inheritance on the grounds that it did not explain the vast majority of evidence, but both Darwin and Huxley respected Lamarck as an intellectual forerunner (in the Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, and the Appendix of the Origin of Species). After all, besides Lamarckian inheritance, at the time the most popular explanation for species diversity was that species were immutable, placed on earth in their current form.
In addition to being the predecessor to natural selection, inheritance of acquired traits is cool because it has spurred the study of epigenetics. Genes themselves are passed on (mostly) as-is, but expression of genes is context-dependent. Genes that have been switched to be “on/off” could be heritable as on or off. An individual’s experiences can affect their traits (phenotype), and to some extent, their genetics, which means some of those traits could be both acquired and heritable – soft inheritance!
In honour of Lamarck’s contribution to science, I’ve designed a costume to amusingly illustrate soft inheritance with the classical giraffe example, re-conceived as a superpower!
My Captain Lamarckism Halloween costume is a giraffe outfit with a head on a hat that I can lift to simulate “stretching”, a short-necked giraffe “baby” plushie (still on the lookout for one with a long neck), and of course, a cape. Because, superhero.
Making the costume was pretty straight forward. I bought a pre-made giraffe onsie (onsies are surprisingly, and awesomely popular at the moment), and pulled the stitches to separate the hood from the suit. The hood had an inner lining, so I had to re-stitch them together. This was by far the hardest part. I am not a good sewer: my stitches look drunken. But however drunken they may look, they are functional! I then attached the hood to a cheap ball-cap with safety pins, and stuffed the “nose” over the bill a bit. I got a cape, added felt “CL” and a few giraffe-spots, added a plushie, and voila, Captain Lamarckism. In case I get too warm, I’ll also be wearing my Lamarckism t-shirt underneath.
By day, Captain Lamarckism is an unremarkable giraffe. By night, her trick is to capture hard to reach treats in high places… and have adorable plush babies. And rock a cape.
Have a safe, happy, and nerdy Halloween!