I Believe in Isaac

A Fair Response to Lamarckianism (Two Centuries too Late)

Posted in Uncategorized by isaacmcphee on August 8, 2011

I’m no true Lamarckian, but I hold a certain amount of respect for Lamarck.

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and I have very little in common on the surface. He was a nineteenth century Frenchman who strongly believed in the notion of “soft-inheritance” (where certain acquired traits are passed genetically from one generation to the next) as mechanism for evolution, and I am none of these things. It was Lamarck’s understanding that the process of knowledge and behavior learned throughout life has a physical effect on a person’s genes, leading shadows of these effects to be passed on through the natural course of species multiplication (which is a pretentious way of saying that parents pass off things they learn to their kids).

In all of this, Lamarck and I have very little common ground.  I was not alive in the nineteenth century; I have never been to France, and I think science has capably demonstrated the fallacy of soft inheritance.

And yet, all that being said, I don’t think Lamarck’s ideas were so foolish when he first considered them. Therein lies my respect. In addition, I believe that Lamarckian evolution remains useful, even if only as something to consider. In fact, it is a perfectly worthwhile tool–a tool I would like to use in order to examine yet another figure of the 18th century: Charles Willson Peale.

But before I can get to Peale, I must allow for an illustration of my own life so as to frame the debate:

Very few young children are capable of finding any true enjoyment in a church service. There may be truth spoken there, but to a child truth is insufficient in terms of entertainment. A child much prefers a lie to the truth—and who can possibly blame them?

Though there are certainly churches (such as the Baptist church in which I was raised) that endeavor to heighten the quality of their Sunday productions to the point where they might rival (and too often resemble) a Broadway musical, it does not seem that the evolution of church will ever do away entirely with the centerpiece of the service: The Sermon.

Though some sermons are certainly more entertaining than others (and unfortunately, entertainment value need not have any direct correlation to quality of truth—would that it were!), as a very general rule there is something endlessly dull about listening to a man speak. As a child I would be reasonably entertained for the first twenty minutes of every service—a time for singing, announcements, sometimes a dramatic performance, very occasionally a video or slideshow—and then bored to tears by the lengthy latter portion, wherein the pastor would stand up and speak for forty-five minutes. Like watching a film with but one character and no real drama.

My boredom (and the boredom of every child in church) has nothing at all to do with the truth of the sermon and absolutely everything to do with me being seven or eight years old and not wanting to listen to someone talk to me for the better part of an hour. I believe that little more can be reasonably expected from a child.

All of this is to say that I had an hour to kill every week. An hour to keep myself occupied while waiting for church to come to an end; and like many children (and certainly many adults who are far less likely to admit to it), I was forced to rely on my creativity to get me through. I was fortunate that each week upon entering the sanctuary each parishioner (no, we never did call ourselves parishioners—we were just people) would receive a bulletin, upon which was printed every necessary piece of churchgoing information—sermon topic, special announcements, upcoming events, and a blank space upon which to take notes.  This last page was the key to my sanity during those fidgety times on lightly-cushioned pews.

I had several methods of whiling away my time, but often it was very systematic. I would often begin by coloring in the letters throughout the bulletin—every “o”, every “a” and “b” and “q” and “p”.  Every letter with an enclosed loop I would color in.  That would kill about ten minutes. I’d then make my way to the margins of the paper and practice drawing basic geometric shapes and patterns. Most commonly I’d draw a box, then I’d turn it into a three dimensional box.  Then I’d pull a little M.C. Escher (unconsciously, of course) and add some other impossible dimensionality to it—angles and sides would extend outward into some hidden reality; two sides of the same box would somehow meet or pass over one another as if a manifestation of the very curvature of space-time itself… it was all a lot of nonsense that could easily be interpreted as profound (as many of the most nonsensical things far too often are).

This much I could draw—even if my lines weren’t particularly straight and my attempts at shading proved ineffective, I could generally draw a box that looked like a box.  A cylinder that looked like a cylinder. Therein lies the extent of my artistic proficiency.

This would keep me occupied for perhaps another ten minutes.

The sermon would be about halfway over when I moved on to attempt a more “realistic” style of art.  Every week I would draw one of two things. I cannot remember a time when I bothered to venture at all beyond this comfort zone; I refused to make so much as an attempt at any other artistic form. It was always one of these two, without fail.

The first thing was a very specific bit of scenery, very much in the vein of classic Bob Ross (who I consider to have been something of an unconscious artistic mentor). Week after week would see me producing a subtle variation on just one scene:  A few hills drawn off in the distance (these were just curve lines—I could do curved lines with reasonable proficiency), and in between two of these hills there would rise up a mountain. This mountain always bore an uncanny likeness to Mt. Baker in the north Cascades—the mountain I observed more than any other during my childhood. From in between these sloping, interlocking hills I would draw a flowing river—some parallel s-shaped curves growing farther apart the closer they get to the bottom of the scene, so as to create the illusion of depth (a feat which immediately puts me a league ahead of most cave painters). Finally, I would draw a sun up in the sky, along with a few puffy clouds, and a small cabin near the river.  The cabin always looked the same—a box with a roof, one door and two windows—and it was dreadful.

The second thing I would draw was perhaps more unique—certainly more unexpected: I would draw a surfer riding a large, curling wave. Hundreds of them. And I’ve never once been surfing.

I had watched a friend draw it once—just a fun little cartoon surfer. Nothing particularly noteworthy about it, but people seemed impressed by this drawing, and that was more than enough to inflict me with that human desire to impress with a work of my own. I spent countless hours in my attempts to replicate this image, with no concern at all about adding any element of originality. I did not want to be able to draw anything—I wanted to be able to draw that exact picture. I didn’t want to be an artist; I just wanted to have one arrow in my artistic quiver with which I could impress people.

Like all things born out of childhood delusions, my dream was never realized. But I was never deceived; no little inkling of inappropriate self-confidence or egoism ever crept into my perception of my own artistic skills.  I was fully aware of both my transparent unoriginality and my utter inability to create anything mistakable for “art.”

All is not lost, though. Had I truly held any pure desire toward art I might easily have excelled in abstraction. The nature of art, for better or for worse (most certainly for worse) is such that many is a niche left waiting to be created, developed, capitalized upon and then squandered.  Many are the art lovers just waiting for the next bit of horridly existential tripe to adore as a passing and (later) regrettable fad, and few are those who recognize true talent. I might have found success by exploiting my failures as some form of social commentary—but in terms of merit and artistic vision, I’ve never had it and I’ve always known that I never would. And it was not for lack of practice. Apart from my weekly art sessions in church, even, I would take time out to draw and sketch throughout a great deal of my education, but not only did I never become technically proficient, I did not seem to even improve!  Not even marginally!

This is remarkable, and it is also profound.  It is also the basis of my acceptance of at least one element of the principle of Lamarckianism. And this is what finally brings us to Charles Willson Peale.


Like me, Peale was an American (in this we both differ from Lamarck).  Like Lamarck, Peale was born in the 1740’s (in this I am very much unlike them both).

Peal was one of the most famous, prodigious and fertile (in several senses of the word) artists of American history—and he just happened to come into his own in the midst of a period in which American history was just beginning.  Peale was a capable portraitist, meaning that men would pay his rather exorbitant fee for the privilege of sitting perfectly still for hours on end in order to have him paint their likeness.

Peale is responsible for some of the most well-known American portraits of the early nation—iconic images of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Hancock and Thomas Jefferson stand among countless others (many of which you’d probably recognize if you saw them). Prior to the revolution, he had studied for two years in England with Benjamin West, an American-born painter who had since moved to London.

But Peale’s abilities were not limited to painting alone.  He had many other talents, as well, such as carpentry (he wrote a very well-received article entitled “An Essay on Building Wooden Bridges,” which I would certainly read, if I ever happened to come across a copy), shoemaking (cobbling, as it was then called) and optometry. As a teenager, he even owned his own saddle-making shop for a time, though his business was forced into bankruptcy when some Loyalists (those who remained loyal to the British crown in the years leading up to the revolution) discovered that he was a member of the Sons of Liberty, a Patriotic organization.

All of this is somewhat peripheral and has little to do with my point, but it has that invaluable quality of being good biography, so it would be a pity not to allow a bit of wandering for the sake of something interesting.

The point (if there is one) is this: Throughout his full, meaningful life, full of children (he had seventeen of his own!) and portraiture business, Charles Willson Peale maintained the firm and outspoken belief that the seed of artistic ability lies within all men. To Peale, absolutely anyone could be taught to draw, and to draw well. He believed, in other words, that there is no man naturally born with the instincts and ability to compose a portrait or landscape or what have you better than any other man. The quality of a man’s art is the result of a man’s training and discipline.

While I personally think that Peale’s assessment is almost disastrously foolish (using myself as proof), his theory was not without evidence. His own family makes his point rather strongly. Upon returning to America in 1769 after his apprenticeship in England, Peale decided to teach his younger brother James how to draw. James took well to the lessons and became a famous painter himself, known for his miniature and still-life works. In addition, after becoming the progenitor of a houseful of children, Peale decided to teach them to paint as well—as any good patriarch would. Several of these heirs to his artistic crown, to whom he gave such fittingly artistic names as Rembrandt Peale, Titian Peale, Raphael Peale and Rubens Peale, became well-known artists in their own right. Even Sarah Miriam Peale, the daughter of James (Charles’ niece), devoted her life to art, becoming the first professional American woman portrait painter.

Perhaps Peale was right. His family certainly seems to be a testament to the theory that anyone can be taught to draw.

Or is it?

Here’s where Lamarck (finally) comes in and the argument threatens us with some semblance of lucidity.

While a century and a half has passed since Lamarck’s theories of soft inheritance were brutally and savagely supplanted by those of Charles Darwin and his “survival of the fittest,” I still propose to set Lamarck against Peale as
if the debate was still relevant.

So while Lamarck’s theories have been thoroughly debunked, I think that he might yet be willing to apply them to the Peale problem, asserting that any family with such clear artistic ability, spread over a number of blood-related individuals must possess some form of the “art” gene—that which makes them creative, gives them a steady hand and an eye for recreating reality on a canvas.

At the very least, Peale would have to explain how, if the artistic potential lay dormant within everyone, then why do I seem to have no capacity for putting images to canvas—why does continued practice yield no results?

Why indeed?

I have to admit that when I began this essay, I had every intention of siding with Lamarck in asserting that the Peale family is living proof of some form of Lamarckianism, but I admit that as the argument has progressed I have become less and less convinced. I finally reach my breaking point with Lamarck on the strength of just a single piece of evidence: My own family.

If the artistic ability of the Peale family could be somehow attributed to genetic inheritance rather than the product of education, how am I to explain the artistic bloodline into which I was born?

Art, both as a hobby and as a profession, exists on both sides of my family in some abundance.  My grandmother on my mother’s side was a prolific and successful painter—she certainly had a way with both portraits and scenery and lived a long and healthy life off the fruits of her artistic labors. Likewise, my Aunt on my father’s side of the family has also made her living as an artist—painting, sculpting, carving and molding in every conceivable medium.

Now I am left in a bit of a tough spot as far my conclusions are concerned, a position I do not enjoy in the least—I am infinitely more comfortable living in a world without any gray area; where all is either passion or dispassion, and where nothing is allowed to exist in between; I am absolutely appalled by the very notion of indecision. For if it turns out that Lamarck was right, and artistic ability might be inherited genetically, doesn’t it stand to reason that I might have received some of that from my own relatives? On the other hand, if the skill is something to be learned, then why have I failed so dramatically in honing my own skills?  I can recall countless hours spent attempting to create objects out of clay given to me as a gift from my aunt. I remember her attempts at teaching me to carve objects from soft stone. I remember avidly watching Bob Ross (for he was everywhere) and thinking, “That doesn’t seem so hard!” But then, in practice, coming to realize that to paint even the simplest landscape or surfer or even a bowl of fruit was just about the most difficult thing I could imagine attempting… where am I to land on this issue?

Might there be a middle ground?

Heaven help us!

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