"How the Giraffe Got Its Neck"

A contemporary drawing of a Giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis)
in the Jardin du Plantes of the Museum of Natural History, Paris, 1827

    "It is interesting to observe the result of habit in the peculiar shape and size of the giraffe (Camelo-pardalis): this animal, the largest of the mammals, is know to live in the interior of Africa in places where the soil is nearly always arid and barren, so that it is obliged to browse on the leaves of trees and to make constant efforts to reach them. From this habit long maintained in all its race, it has resulted that the animal's fore-legs have become longer than its hind legs, and that its neck is lengthened to such a degree that the giraffe, without standing up on its hind legs, attains a height of six metres (nearly 20 feet)." - Jean Baptiste Lamarck (1809) "Zoological Philosophy"

    Lamarck's explanation of the giraffe's neck is a classic "adaptationist" story [sometimes called  "Just So" stories after those of Rudyard Kipling], a clever and attractive explanation of the adaptive significance of a character, which is however not based on any empirical data. Actual observation  of giraffes shows that they prefer to browse at shoulder height. The extended neck of giraffes instead appears to be a consequence of sexual selection. Male giraffes use their neck and head as clubs in agonistic displays with other males in competition for females: those with thicker necks and more massive skulls and horns are more successful, and are the mates preferred by females.

    The French verb rendered here as "obliged" is "besoin", usually translated as "want" or "need". Note the different implications: a giraffe that "wants" to stretch its neck has a purpose or goal, whereas one that "needs" to stretch its neck is satisfying a mechanical requirement. The former is a teleological argument, that evolution moves toward an end-point.

Illustration from Gordon Ratray Taylor, "The Science of Life"; all text material © 2019 by Steven M. Carr