Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics in the Bible?

When the issue of creationism raises its ugly head (either in the form of young earth creationism, intelligent design, or another variant) it usually involves the first chapters of the book of Genesis, specifically the special creation of humans and the Noachian Deluge. There's much more in Genesis than stories involving forbidden fruit and boat construction, however, and one story in particular is interesting when considered in the light of the history of the "evolution idea." Most of you will be familiar with the idea of the inheritance of acquired characteristics, most famously championed by Lamarck but recognized by other naturalists as well, one of the most famous examples being a blacksmith passing along his strength/large muscles to his offspring. By utilizing/strengthening some parts of his body during his life, he somehow "locked-in" these traits which would be inherited by his progeny. We now know that evolution does not proceed in this way, but for a time it was a competitor with natural selection for the primary mechanism of evolution, the inheritance of acquired characteristics seeming like a more "positive" mechanism of evolution that appealed to those who felt that the "brutal" mechanism of natural selection was not consonant with Christian theology. It is interesting to note, then, that a strange sort of inheritance is present in the book of Genesis. From Genesis 30:25-43 (King James Version);

And it came to pass, when Rachel had born Joseph, that Jacob said unto Laban, Send me away, that I may go unto mine own place, and to my country.

Give me my wives and my children, for whom I have served thee, and let me go: for thou knowest my service which I have done thee.

And Laban said unto him, I pray thee, if I have found favour in thine eyes, tarry: for I have learned by experience that the LORD hath blessed me for thy sake.

And he said, Appoint me thy wages, and I will give it.

And he said unto him, Thou knowest how I have served thee, and how thy cattle was with me.

For it was little which thou hadst before I came, and it is now increased unto a multitude; and the LORD hath blessed thee since my coming: and now when shall I provide for mine own house also?

And he said, What shall I give thee? And Jacob said, Thou shalt not give me any thing: if thou wilt do this thing for me, I will again feed and keep thy flock.

I will pass through all thy flock to day, removing from thence all the speckled and spotted cattle, and all the brown cattle among the sheep, and the spotted and speckled among the goats: and of such shall be my hire.

So shall my righteousness answer for me in time to come, when it shall come for my hire before thy face: every one that is not speckled and spotted among the goats, and brown among the sheep, that shall be counted stolen with me.

And Laban said, Behold, I would it might be according to thy word.

And he removed that day the he goats that were ringstraked and spotted, and all the she goats that were speckled and spotted, and every one that had some white in it, and all the brown among the sheep, and gave them into the hand of his sons.

And he set three days' journey betwixt himself and Jacob: and Jacob fed the rest of Laban's flocks.

And Jacob took him rods of green poplar, and of the hazel and chesnut tree; and pilled white strakes in them, and made the white appear which was in the rods.

And he set the rods which he had pilled before the flocks in the gutters in the watering troughs when the flocks came to drink, that they should conceive when they came to drink.

And the flocks conceived before the rods, and brought forth cattle ringstraked, speckled, and spotted.

And Jacob did separate the lambs, and set the faces of the flocks toward the ringstraked, and all the brown in the flock of Laban; and he put his own flocks by themselves, and put them not unto Laban's cattle.

And it came to pass, whensoever the stronger cattle did conceive, that Jacob laid the rods before the eyes of the cattle in the gutters, that they might conceive among the rods.

But when the cattle were feeble, he put them not in: so the feebler were Laban's, and the stronger Jacob's.

And the man increased exceedingly, and had much cattle, and maidservants, and menservants, and camels, and asses.

If nothing else this passage further goes to show that the Bible is not a good source when considering the natural world; by the sort of logic present in the verses above a cow that sees a Target truck before mating should give birth to calves featuring the corporate logo. Stretching this to the absurd, we could ask if you think of someone other than the person you're having sex with during the act, will the child look like the person you thought of? Such a tall-tale is no longer plausible. (It should be noted that artificial selection shows up as well, Jacob underhandedly breeding all the stronger animals in front of the robs to ensure that the animals that would rightfully belong to Laban's would be feebler, but there is no reason at all while Jacob's plan might have worked in the first place.) Admittedly, however, using Lamarck and acquired characteristics was only a hook; saying that the Bible contains evidence of such an idea would be an incorrect post hoc interpretation as what Lamarck conceived as a naturalist has nothing to do with the passage from Genesis (at least as far as I am aware). Even so the above passage reveals no divine intervention or miracle, but rather an inaccurate depiction of how nature works that rightly makes the reader skeptical of other claims in the book.

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As any farm boy knows, it's the city slickers who write all the books. Farmers are too busy farming to undertake such nonsense. You got about what you should expect.

By Three-Fitty (not verified) on 26 Dec 2007 #permalink

And Laban said, Behold, I would it might be according to thy word.

He'd've been a lot cooler if he'd just said, "Make it so."

Pity he trusted his livestock (daughter included) to such a cheat, though...

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 26 Dec 2007 #permalink

What we're dealing with here is sympathetic magic, the notion that resemblances between things cause similar outcomes. Observation of the rods causes similarity in the sheep that affects their progeny. It's in no way Lamarckian inheritance, though.

Wouldn't Jacob's trick make a great creationist "science" fair project?

I'm visualizing an array of calves, kids & lambs with eye-catching patterns, each standing by the graphic display which influenced its coat, as a continuous-loop video shows the proud contestant keeping the animals' parents focused on the patterned graphic while they were, ah, conceiving.

Winner gets a trip to the Answers in Genesis museum!

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 26 Dec 2007 #permalink

Stretching this to the absurd, we could ask if you think of someone other than the person you're having sex with during the act, will the child look like the person you thought of?

You mean that's not true? I think a certain number of people are going to be very upset to hear that...