On this date in 1880, biologist Paul Kammerer, who either was a scientific pioneer or a charlatan, was born in Vienna, Austria. Kammerer was perhaps the most famous — or infamous — proponent of the Lamarckian theory of evolution, an alternative to Darwin’s system of natural selection of random mutations. Lamarckianism held that individual organisms develop characteristics during their lifetime in response to the environment, and that those characteristics are passed on and amplified over successive generations of offspring. Kammerer sought to prove this by experiments with amphibians, in which he interfered with their breeding. His most famous experiment involved a species of midwife toads, whom Kammerer forced to breed in water instead of upon land, as they did naturally. The male offspring of Kammerer’s experimental subjects developed dark nuptial pads that were characteristic of water-breeding species, which he offered as proof of Lamarckian evolution. But when G.K. Noble, curator of the herpetology section of the American Museum of Natural History, examined one of Kammerer’s specimens, he discovered that the pad apparently had been darkened by India ink. Kammerer was derided as a fraud, and in 1926, he committed suicide.
But the story isn’t over yet. In 1971, novelist-historian Arthur Koestler published a book, The Case of the Midwife Toad, in which he argued that Kammerer’s amphibian actually had been tampered with by someone in an effort to discredit him, possibly out of antisemitism. Koestler claimed that other experiments by Kammerer — in particular, his effort to induce regeneration of larger siphon ends in the sea squirt — had never been refuted. Unfortunately, when biologist J.R. Whittaker tried to replicate Kammerer’s sea squirt results, he was unable to do so. In a 1985 article, he concluded that those findings had been “also an invention of Paul Kammerer’s highstrung imagination.” But wait, there’s still more. In 2009, Chilean scientist Alexander Vargas re-examined Kammerer’s work yet another time, and published an article suggesting that his results were authentic and could be explained by epigenetics — an emerging scientific field that studies chemical reactions that switch on or off various parts of the genome. He just came up with the wrong explanation for what he saw. That last distinction, however, has been conveniently ignored by “creation science” advocates, who’ve presented Kammerer as a martyr crushed by those dictatorial Darwinians. While you’re pondering that, here are the strange science stories of the day.