Monday, February 23, 2009

Nietzsche and Lamarck

So one nice thing about living in Chicago is that I'm now just a train (or taxi) ride away from the Central Division meetings of the American Philosophical Association. I was thus able to attend an unusually substantive session of the North American Nietzsche Society with presentations by Richard Schacht (emeritus, Illinois) and Maudemarie Clark (UC Riverside). Schacht argued forcefully that we need to acknowledge the influence of Lamarck's view that acquired characteristics are heritable on many aspects of Nietzsche's thought, while Clark presented a careful challenge to Schacht's reading of particular bits of textual evidence for his thesis. I expect (though this isn't certain) that the papers will appear in a forthcoming issue of International Studies in Philosophy.

My own view, which I offered in discussion, is something of a middle ground between Schacht and Clark (though perhaps closer to Schacht's view of the matter). Schacht is right to emphasize that it really would be astonishing if Nietzsche--self-educated, as he was, in matters scientific--dissented from the familiar Lamarckian orthodoxy of the era. So we should expect to find some passages in his corpus that just presuppose, as uncontroversial, Lamarckian assumptions.

On the other hand, it did seem to me that Schacht swept far too many passages, including large parts of the Genealogy, into the Lamarckian framework, without adequate evidence. As Clark pointed out, many passages Schacht invoked seemed equally compatible with the idea of cultural (rather than biological) transmission of acquired characteristics. Some of the passages (BGE 264 most strikingly) were ambiguous as between the claim that personality traits are heritable (which we know now to be true: cf. discussion in Knobe & Leiter [2007]) and the distinctively Lamarckian claim that acquired characteristics can be inherited. (There is, to be sure, no reason to think Nietzsche was sensitive to this distinction [between heritability and inheritance], but here at least there's a way to interpret what Nietzsche says in a way that does not make it dependent on a manifestly false view, i.e., the Lamarckian one.) Finally, many of the phenomenona in question--such as the acquisition of bad conscience--seem clearly explicable on the assumption not that acquired characteristics were inherited, but rather that certain kinds of recurrent social stimuli reproduce the same kind of effect across generations. So, e.g., if bad conscience represents the internalization of cruelty in response to the constraints that civilization place on human beings, then we should expect bad consicence to be a recurrent attribute of creatures like us brought up within those contraints. The only 'biological' assumption here is that humans all have some degree of instrinctive cruelty; but insofar as other aspects of their biology drive them towards civilized forms of social intercourse with their fellows, we should expect 'bad conscience' to arise across generations.


Rob Sica said...

Do you recall if Twilight, "Raids", section 47 ("Beauty no accident") was adduced; and if so, by whom? There, doesn't he seem to be providing an account of how culturally-instilled characteristics become heritable? Or is it rather an account of how a recurrent environment of social stimuli is established to endure across generations?

Justin Marquis said...

I was at this session, and while I do not recall with certainty, I do not believe that Gay Science section 99 was cited by either Schacht or Clark. There Nietzsche casts Schopenhauer's rejection of "Lamarck's idea" in an unfavorable light. While this is not irrefutable evidence, it does lend credence to Leiter's suggestion that it would be astonishing if Nietzsche dissented from the Lamarckian orthodoxy of the era. I agree with Leiter that a middle ground between Schacht and Clark's position is the most charitable and reasonable way to interpret Nietzsche on the question of his acceptance of Lamarckianism.

Narziss said...

I haven't read the original discussions but from what I extract from your post, I'm finding myself inclining toward Schacht's position.

First of all, to what degree is Lamarckism discredited today? Currently, progress in epigenetics reveals that many traits acquired within a lifetime can have an impact on offspring through epigenetic modifiers.

"This young man grows prematurely pale and listless. His friends say: such and such an illness is to blame. I say: the fact that he fell ill, the fact that he could not withstand the illness, was already the consequence of an impoverished life, of hereditary exhaustion" (TI "The Four Great Errors" 2).

You wrote, "many of the phenomena in question--such as the acquisition of bad conscience--seem clearly explicable on the assumption not that acquired characteristics were inherited, but rather that certain kinds of recurrent social stimuli reproduce the same kind of effect across generations."

Maybe in their most articulate form, acquired characteristics are not inherited, but particular propensities can be inherited. One example that I saw on PBS discussed how some farmers in Sweden kept meticulous records of their crop production. Scientists were able to correlate inherited effects on following generations based on how prosperous crops were in particular years.

In that example the acquisition of traits (traits that were later to be inherited) occurred during development of gametes in the individual, which occurs too early for the individual in the womb to be impacted, but it impacts their offspring. For example, grandmothers (when they are pregnant) are able to impact their grandchildren by transferring certain modifiers to their daughter's developing ovum because their daughters are in the process of growing their gamete cells while in the womb.

In other words, because women are born with all their eggs, grandmothers can directly modify their grandchild when they are pregnant with a daughter because development of the grandchild egg occurs while their daughter is in their womb and that is when their daughter is producing the egg that will develop in their grandchild.

Men, however, can have a varying impact on offspring that are inseminated at different ponits in their life because their state (e.g. stress level) can impact the sperm production that occurs throughout their lifetime.