As evidence he is not a cartoonish rich man, Mitt Romney has invoked a political form of the discarded theory of Lamarckism while talking about how his father grew up poor and worked with his hands. As evidence that he wrote "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt" out of his love for the auto industry, Romney writes in the Detroit News Tuesday that when his dad took over American Motors, "I was 7 and got my love of cars and chrome and fins and roaring motors from him." This is startling evidence Romney believes in the evolutionary theory debunked a century ago known as Lamarckism: "the idea that an organism can pass on characteristics that it acquired during its lifetime to its offspring."
The theory goes something like this: giraffes have long necks because they stretched to reach high-up leaves, and they passed that lengthening down to their babies. It's named for Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829), and it was cast aside for Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection, which says that instead of animals passing on acquired characteristics, they pass on mutations in their DNA. (Hair color is passed down; appreciation for hip-hop is not.) But the discarded theory still has some adherents, at least in politics. Romney is not the only well-educated American elite who has fallen victim to this bad science. So did The New York Times' David Brooks, who wrote extensively last month about how Romney must be a hard worker thanks to the heredity of acquired characteristics. That Romney -- who went to private schools and did his missionary work in Paris -- was "corrupted by ease and luxury" is "preposterous," Brooks writes. It makes much more sense, he argues, to imagine that Romney is not a product of his privileged upbringing, but instead has hard work in his DNA because his great-great-grandfather was chased to Mexico by anti-Mormon mobs and rebuilt his life there. Yes, great-great-grandfather. But Brooks didn't just cite the hardships faced by Romney's GGF, he also pointed to his GF, and, of course, his F.
It appears Romney found much to like in Brooks' Lamarckism. Romney's first argument was that he could save the economy because of who he was. "Romney seems to think it's enough to run on his biography as a businessman," The Wall Street Journal complained in January. "As things stand, [Romney's] overriding issue is himself," the Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes pointed out, demanding some bigger ideas. "He’ll revive the economy. Why? Because he says he will." But Romney is only fixing that by adding his father's biography to his argument. In his concession speech a week ago, Romney said he believed in America because his dad did:
"My father never graduated from college. He apprenticed as a lath and plaster carpenter. And he's pretty good at it. He actually could take a handful of nails, stick them in his mouth, and then, you know, spit them out, pointy end forward. On his honeymoon, he put aluminum paint in the trunk of the car and sold it along the way to pay for the gas in the hotels.
There were a lot of reasons why my father could have given up and set his sights a lot lower. But my dad believed in America. And in the America he believed in, a lath and plaster guy could work out to become head of a car company and a guy who had sold aluminum paint out of his car could end up being governor in one of the states he'd sold that very aluminum paint."
Romney's father was born in Mexico; his family returned to America after the government confiscated their property. Perhaps the lesson Mitt learned from those stories is that America rewards business leaders. Or maybe he learned that you should always keep some of your money in a place the government can't get to -- like, say, a Swiss bank account. But Romney wasn't born with an ability to spit out nails pointy-end first, or a talent for working really, really hard, for that matter.
Slate's John Dickerson writes that Romney is an "assertion candidate," not a persuader. "He declares something and voters are meant to believe that it is so," Dickerson explains. "If they don't, his instinct is to say it more—he used the phrase 'conservative' 25 times in that same [CPAC] speech—or with greater emphasis—in this case adding the most extreme antonym to the word weak that can be found in the thesaurus." Romney's assertions make more sense when you consider his Lamarckian arguments: I care about the poor because my dad did. I care about Detroit because my dad did. Of course I'm a conservative -- I was born that way!
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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