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Vol. XI • 1989

The Story of Paul Kammerer, is Lamarckism Dead?
Ellen Myers

You have never heard of Paul Kammerer and his midwife toads? Don't let that bother you. In 1938, Lester Aronson tells us, Kammerer's story "was regularly told to biology students as an object lesson." In the 70s, however, he found in an informal poll "of graduate students and young instructors, including one assistant curator of amphibians and reptiles … that none had ever heard of the Kammerer affair." (Aronson, 1975, p. 115) The "object lesson" of the Kammerer story was that cheating in scientific experiments is a no-no and may backfire upon the one in charge if discovered. I first heard of Kammerer in a fascinating expose of scientific frauds where he shared the spotlight with other famous twentieth century hoaxes such as the Venezuelan Ape-Man of De Loys and De Courteville and Dawson's and Teilhard de Chardin's Piltdown Man.  (Silverberg, 1965)

Darwinian evolution was already the accepted paradigm when young Paul Kammerer set out to show that not Darwinism plus "Mendelism" but rather Lamarckism, the inheritance of acquired characteristics, was the key to biological progress and transformation of species.  With this purpose he carried on experiments with newts, sea squirts and midwife toads (Alytes) at the internationally respected Institute for Experimental Biology of Vienna, Austria, from 1903 till after World War I.  Kammerer considered his work with sea squirts most significant, but the scientific community paid more attention to his reported success with growing "nuptial pads" on male midwife toads.  These animals normally mate on land and are named "midwife" toads because the males wrap the egg strings laid by the females around their hind legs and carry them about for several weeks until they hatch. Kammerer forced them to mate in water by raising the temperature in his aquarium.  He then reported that the males developed small wart-like patches on their normally smooth forelimbs the better to cling to the females during mating.  Such nuptial pads are found in many water-breeding toads.  In addition, Kammerer claimed, subsequent generations of Alytes males came equipped with nuptial pads by inheritance from their fathers.

His Lamarckist claims sorely puzzled orthodox Darwinians.  Had not August Weismann proven Lamarckism wrong in the 1880s by cutting off the tails of 1,592 mice through twenty-two generations without ever once producing the birth of tailless mice.  Even when Kammerer published photographs of Alytes forelimbs with nuptial pads and brought a midwife toad specimen to Cambridge where England's scientific elite could see it displayed in 1923, most Darwinists remained uncommitted. To Kammerer's chagrin William Bateson, his most stubborn and outspoken opponent, even contended that the alleged nuptial pad "was no nuptial pad at all, but just a spot of black pigment." (Kammerer, 1924, p 63)

There were some dissidents. Dr Thornton Gardiner. professor of zoology at Cambridge, said that "Kammerer begins where Darwin left off;' Another British scientist enthused that Kammerer might have made "the greatest biological discovery of the century." (Koestler, 1971, p.91) After World War Kammerer, like dismembered and defeated Austria fallen on hard times, resigned from the Biological Institute and went on lecture tours to support his family. These tours, mostly in Europe and two in the United States, were very successful. Newspaper reporters became interested, and sensational headlines appeared in staid England as well as excitable America . B. Watson of Johns Hopkins University and the founder of the behaviorist school of psychology wrote that

Kammerer himself was motivated by the hope the Lamarckian evolutionist model seemed to offer for the education and improvement of mankind (Kammerer, 1924, pp.30-32 and passim). In addition to his lecture tours and the resulting journalistic publicity he wrote a hefty book, The Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics, first published in English translation in New York in 1924 (the German original appeared in Stuttgart in 1925).

This same wishful thinking about Lamarckism also inspired the Soviet government. Because Communism sees man as the product of his environment. in particular economic conditions, the Russian Communist Party elite embraced Lamarckism as its official creed, In 1925 it offered Kammerer a professorship at the University of Moscow. Kammerer, a staunch socialist and atheist, was not loath to accept though not immediately moving to Russia, perhaps for private reasons (a love affair, Koestler, 1971, pp.117-119).

One fact which raised questions in the minds of Western scientists was that Kammerer had never allowed any of his peers to check and verify his actual work directly and personally since it was first published in 1919. Only in early 1926 did he finally permit Professor C Kingsley Noble of the American Museum of Natural History in New York and Dr. Hans Przibram of the University of Vienna and his erstwhile boss or the Institute for Experimental Biology to personally examine the last remaining specimen of his midwife toads. Noble and Przibram mode o stunning discovery While the toad's forelimbs showed no evidence whatever of nuptial pads, they did show a copious injection of black ink under the skin. Noble and Przibram reported their findings in the prestigious international journal Nature on August 7, 1926. setting off an academic bombshell.

In the midst of the uproar over this exposure of fraud Kammerer was busy shipping scientific equipment and personal belongings to Moscow, apparently preparing to move there and assume his new post. However, on September 22, 1926 he wrote a letter to the Moscow Academy of Science in which he resigned his position. In it he also affirmed that he himself had not injected coloring into the midwife toad specimen, nor had he painted a salamander also discovered doctored with black ink. He expressed the hope that he would find courage to end his life which had been hopelessly destroyed by what had happened.  He also explained that he had kept sending things to Moscow because, first, he wonted to keep his intention secret from his family, and second, he wanted to leave his library to the Communist Academy after his death in compensation for any troubles he had caused them (Kammerer in Science 64, 1926, 493-494).  The next day he shot himself through the head in a Vienna suburb.

Kammerer's suicide confirmed the fraudulence of his experiments and the bankruptcy of Lamarckism to the scientific community in the West. The Soviet Union, however, set out to vindicate him as a hero of the people victimized by villainous capitalists.  A Soviet film, Salamandra, was produced under the sponsorship of Anatoly Lunacharsky, then Soviet Commissar of Education. The film featured a brief appearance by the Commissar himself as well as Madame Lunacharsky in the female lead. It ended with Kammerer's triumphant arrival in the Soviet Union, land of the honest and the free. (Goldschmidt in Science 109, June 1949, 220-222) Lamarckism survived in the Soviet Union as its compulsory official doctrine for nearly forty years, until its champion, the inept and dictatorial Trofim Lysenko, was finally dismissed from his post as director of the Soviet Academy of Sciences Institute of Genetics in February 1965 (William Broad and Nicholas Wade, 1982, pp. 186-191).

Interest in the Kammerer story has periodically recurred in the literature. What kind of person was Kammerer? Was he ever a trustworthy scientist? If he himself did not commit the fraud, who did? The last question has never been answered. Even Kammerer's defender Arthur Koestler. whose book The Case of the Midwife Toad is the most detailed study of Kammerer and his work, admits the possibility that Kammerer

Lester P Aronson whose survey of what graduate students knew about Kammerer was cited above takes issue with Koestler in his 1975 article "The Case of the Case of the Midwife Toad." He believes that

Aronson equates Darwinian / neo-Darwinian evolutionism with science as his reference to N D Newel's 1974 article "Evolution under Attack" (Natural History 33 (4):32-39) makes clear. He then gives specific refutations of some of Koestler's charges and conjectures.  For example, he rejects Koestler's attempt to have the India ink stain in the doctored Alytes specimen reproduced in order to show the fraud could not nave been perpetrated before 1926. This was futile, says Aronson. for "I can easily imagine the ink being injected on more than one occasion" (p120).  He denies that the scientists at Cambridge who examined the specimen failed to note the deception, quoting a 1959 book by Dr. Graham Cannon cited by Derek Freeman (the Australian scientist who exposed Margaret Mead) in his 1972 offer to the New Scientist. "Bateson, Cannon says, examined the specimen with a hand lens (in April 1923) and remarked, "It looks to me like a spot of ink."' (p. 120) Koestler could nave learned as much from Kammerer himself as shown above. Aronson also refers to unpublished papers in the personal file of Professor Noble to show that while Koestler did not believe Kammerer had committed the fraud, other biologists at the time did. Thus a letter to Noble

Aronson also denies Koestler's charge that the scientific community was remiss in not repeating Kammerer's main experiments, referring to several unsuccessful attempts to do so, one to the "definitive report" by Munro Fox in 1924 [pp. 122-23]. Richard Goldschmidt stands somewhere between Koestler and Aronson in his reminiscences of the Kammerer affair, yet is convinced that Kammerer's work was fraudulent. He tries to excuse Kammerer on the grounds that he was not really a professional scientist but basically an amateur ["Aquarianer"). He writes:

This statement is not found in Koestler. After telling how Noble found India ink in Kammerer's specimen, and of Kammerer's suicide, Goldschmidt continues:

Alma Mahler-Werfel who worked for a short time as laboratory assistant to Kammerer agreed in her memoirs with Goldschmidt's judgment, reporting that

Anyone concerned for honest science must reject both "amateurishness" and especially "obsessive desire for favorable results" as excuses for Kammerer's practices

Though Kammerer failed to prove Lamarckism, many persons of note shared and still share his rejection of Darwinism, quite apart from creationists [who. of course, also reject Lamarckism or any evolutionist theory). Among the older generation Sigmund Freud, Samuel Butler. and William McDougall were staunch Lamarckists. Darwin himself was of two minds about Lamarck: he gave examples of alleged inheritance of acquired characteristics in his 1868 Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication and wrote to Francis Galton in 1875 that

Darwin even inserted a new Lamarckian chapter into the sixth edition of The Origin of Species in defense against objections to his original theory raised by Fleeming Jenkin. Only the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel's work in genetics in 1900 shored up faltering Darwinism. Chance genetic viable mutations plus natural selection were accepted as the evolutionist mechanism by neo-Darwinists. This synthesis too, was scorned by notable scientists such as Professor C. H. Waddington who

William Bateson. Kammerer's nemesis, started his career with Lamarckism but turned to Darwin-plus-Mendel when failing to prove the inheritance of acquired characteristics during a protracted expedition to Central Asia. However, toward the end of his life he came to regret his commitment to "Mendelism" as well, thinking it "a blind alley which would not throw any light on the differentiation of species, nor on evolution in general." (ibid., pp. 121 and 126) Kammerer had said as much, even asserting that Darwin-plus-Mendelism only re-established the hated biblical fixity of species in new dress (Kammerer, 1924, pp. 253-258).

Numerous non-creationist scientists from the 1950s to the 80s have also been skeptical about all forms of Darwinism. They postulate some sort of "holistic" evolutionism as does Koestler, and/or evolution by latent or conscious "upward striving." These beliefs marked the famous "vitalist" evolutionism of Henri Bergson, George Bernard Shaw, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (who combined it with "God-talk"). and also Kammerer (see Kammerer, 1924, pp. 258, 264-265, 281, 284-285 etc.). They are all Lamarckist in that they presuppose a formative impact of the environment upon the organism which carries over into inheritance and transformation of species They all and for that matter non-theistic Darwinist evolutionists as well believe with Kammerer in the "miraculous oneness of living nature" (Kammerer, ibid. p 33). which allows conclusions about man based upon experiments with animals and plants and is "holistic" to the core.  As yet the "holistic" evolutionists have not come up with scientific mechanisms plausibly accounting for their views, though they theorize about holistic or regional force fields and/or evolutionary changes in embryonic stages.

The theory of "punctuated equilibrium" proposed as an alternative to Darwinism as well as to holism and vitalism is also essentially Lamarckist in that it proposes evolutionary change by sudden, revolutionary, genetic mega-leaps due to catastrophic environmental changes or events which affect an organism's genetic make-up. Such mega-leaps are thought to "punctuate" normal long periods of "stasis" or absence of evolutionary change. This theory now bids fair to replace obsolescent Darwinism. It is atheistic. It does not violate the well established laws of genetics in that the direct agent of change is still genetic mutation.  It takes account of the lack of intermediate evolutionary forms in the fossil record, the great stumbling block far Darwinism.  It even agrees with Marxism-Communism in its emphasis upon revolutionary overthrow of existing conditions and, yes, the dependence of organisms including man upon the environment. It is no accident that one of this theory's chief proponents, Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard, is a Marxist, and that today's "New Age" leaders, intent upon the transformation of mankind into one united whole as the next evolutionary leap, favor it (Ferguson, 1980, pp.159 and 162) Kammerer, too, shared this intent. As Martin Gardner said, Lamarckism combines "easily with political doctrines which emphasize the building of a better world" (Gardner, 1952, p 143) Lamarckism, though scientifically impossible even in its new garb (all arguments against evolution by chance mutations would also count against punctuated equilibrium's mega-mutatians), did not die with Kammerer, for if Darwinism cannot account for evolution only Lamarckism is left though it can't either. Truly evolutionism in all its forms is in crisis today and creationists stand vindicated after all.


Aronson, Lester R., `The Case of the Midwife Toad ` Behavior Genetics, Vol.5, No.2, 1975, 115-125
Goldschmidt, Richard B "Resesarch and Politics," Science 109, 1949, 219-227
Kammerer, Paul, "Letter to the Moscow Academy;' Science 64, 1926, 493-494.
Noble. G. K., "Kammerer's Alytes," Nature CXVIII, August 7,1926, 209-210.
Przibram, Hans, "Kammerer's Alytes" (2) Nature CXVIII, August 7, 1926, 210-211.

Broad,William. and Nicholas Wade, Betrayers of the Truth.  New York: Simon and Schuster. 1982
Ferguson, Marilyn. The Aquarian Conspiracy. Personal and Social Transformation in the 1980s.  Los Angeles, CA:  J. P. Tarcher Inc., 1980
Gardner. Martin, In the Name of Science.  New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1952
Kammerer, Paul.  The Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics. New York: Boni and Liveright Publishers, 1924
Koestler, Arthur, The Case of the Midwife Toad. London 1971
Mahler-Werfel, Alma, Mein Leben . Fischer Verlag 1960
Silverberg, Robert, Scientists and Scoundrels.  New York 1965

"The Story of Paul Kammerer, is Lamarckism Dead?"
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