Biography of Famous Scientist Paul Kammerer Part 1

About the famous or infamous scientist Paul Kammerer, biography and history as he claimed to have made breakthroughs in the field of acquired characteristics but was proved a fraud and a hoax.


Paul Kammerer (1880-1926)

Early in the 20th century, the Austrian Paul Kammerer was renowned for being a sensitive and brilliant biologist. He was regarded by fellow members of the scientific community as a "modern Darwin" and as someone who had made one of the greatest biological discoveries of his time.

But Kammerer eventually became one of science's most tragic figures. From the academic heights where he commanded enormous peer respect, he plummeted to the depths of professional and personal despair through his apparent involvement in a foolhardy hoax. Praise turned to ridicule when the deception was exposed, and ultimately Kammerer put a violent end to his own life by firing a bullet into his head.

Until the last few weeks of his life, Kammerer seemed to be destined for a happier fate. Born in Vienna in 1880, he had evolved into a strong proponent of a theory of evolution that ran contrary to Darwin's philosophy. Kammerer believed that acquired traits could, in fact, be inherited. Thus, he reasoned, the offspring of a guitarist who practiced five hours a day would have nimble fingers because of his parent's many hours of dedicated strumming. Likewise, a blacksmith who developed huge arm muscles while working at his forge would transfer this physical characteristic to his children.

By contrast, Darwin had theorized that children could inherit from their parents only what the parents themselves had inherited--not any new skills that the parents had acquired during their lifetime.

In his book The Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics, published in 1924, Kammerer strongly disagreed with the Darwinists. "If acquired characteristics cannot be passed on...then no true organic process is possible. Man lives and suffers in vain. Whatever he might have acquired in the course of a lifetime dies with him. His children and his children's children must ever and again start from the bottom."

Kammerer then added, "If acquired characteristics are occasionally inherited, then it becomes evident that we are not exclusively slaves of the past--slaves helplessly endeavoring to free ourselves of the shackles--but also captains of our future, who in the course of time will be able to rid ourselves, to a certain extent, of our heavy burdens and to ascend into higher and even higher strata of development."

Other scientists, including the French naturalist Jean Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829), had espoused this same principle. But Kammerer went a step further by claiming to have produced evidence that proved the theory to be fact. Part of that evidence, according to Kammerer, was to be found in the studies he had made of fire salamanders, creatures having a black skin covered with large yellow spots. He had raised one set of salamanders on black soil and another set on yellow soil. In what he hypothesized was an attempt to make themselves less conspicuous, the salamanders on the yellow soil gradually developed even larger yellow spots. Conversely, those on the black soil tended to lose their yellow spots. And, he stressed, as subsequent generations of these salamanders were born, each new set offspring had either smaller or larger spots than its predecessors due to the controlled environmental "background color."

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