The Mutationism Myth (1): The Monk’s Lost Code and the Great Confusion

This is the first in a series of blogs first published in 2010 on Sandwalk.

The mutationism myth tells the story of how, just over a century ago, the scientific community responded to the discovery of Mendelian genetics by discarding Darwinism, and how Darwinism subsequently was restored.  In this, the first of six parts, we are not going to confront any tough scientific or conceptual issues. Instead, we are just going to review an odd story about our intellectual history.

The Mutationism Story

While “myth” has the connotation of falsehood, the story that a myth tells isn’t necessarily a false one. The mutationism myth, at least, is anchored in historical events.1

The mutationism myth tells the story of how, just over a century ago, the scientific community responded to the discovery of Mendelian genetics by discarding Darwinism, and how Darwinism subsequently was restored. The villains of the story are the influential early geneticists or “Mendelians” who saw genetics as a refutation of Darwinism; the heroes are first, the founders of population genetics, theoreticians who sorted everything out in favor of Darwinism by about 1930, and second, the architects of the Modern Synthesis, activists who popularized and institutionalized what we’re calling “Darwinism 2.0”.

This story has been re-told in secondary sources for nearly 50 years, though I sense that the frequency is decreasing as this episode passes into ancient history. To find examples, try looking up “mutationism” (sometimes “Mendelism” or even “saltationism”) in the index of a book about evolution.

I encourage you to consult whatever sources you have and to share the stories that you find. Note that you won’t always be successful. A quick survey of several dozen contemporary books on my shelf reveals that most don’t address this episode specifically (a notable absence, in some cases 2); some tell the mutationism myth with varying degrees of panache; and a few provide a historical account rather than a myth. The few historical accounts that I found were in Gould’s 2002 The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, Strickberger’s 1990 textbook Evolution, and the Wikipedia entry on “Mutationism”.

Sample stories

Lets look at a few examples of the mutationism story. Readers who want to check out a freely available online source from the scholarly literature may refer to Ayala and Fitch, 1997 ( One example that really caught my eye is not from scientific literature, but from the 2005 obituary for Ernst Mayr in The Economist:

It was not that biologists had given up on evolution by the 1940s-quite the contrary. But they had got very confused about its mechanism. . . . The geneticists of the early 20th century did not help. They rediscovered the laws of inheritance first developed 40 years earlier by Gregor Mendel, an unsung Moravian monk. They also discovered the idea of genetic mutation. But instead of linking these things to natural selection, they came up with the idea of “saltation”-in other words, sudden mutational shifts from one well-adapted species to another. Nor, the geneticists complained, had there been enough time for natural selection to do its work, given what they had discovered about the rate at which mutations occur, and the fact that most mutations are deleterious. It was all a bit of a mess. . .Mr Mayr’s advantage over the laboratory-bound biologists who had hijacked and diluted Darwin’s legacy was that, like Darwin, he was a naturalist-and a good one. (anonymous, 2005)

Of course, this is a magazine article, written by anonymous staff writers– typically one doesn’t see such florid language in the scholarly literature. But did the staff writers of the Economist (representing elite opinion) really originate this story, based on their own personal recollections of the 1930’s? Of course not. Mayr himself popularized the image of geneticists as laboratory-bound geeks lacking the organic insight of “naturalists”. This disdain for the geneticists who “hijacked” Darwin’s legacy is readily apparent when evolutionary writers depict geneticists as fools holding “beliefs” that have “obvious inadequacies”, unable to understand or “grasp” their own scientific findings:

“It is hard for us to comprehend but, in the early years of this century when the phenomenon of mutation was first named, it was regarded not as a necessary part of Darwinian theory but as an alternative theory of evolution! There was a school of geneticists called the mutationists, which included such famous names as Hugo de Vries and William Bateson among the early rediscoverers of Mendel’s principles of heredity, Wilhelm Johannsen the inventor of the word gene, and Thomas Hunt Morgan the father of the chromosome theory of heredity. . . Mendelian genetics was thought of, not as the central plank of Darwinism that it is today, but as antithetical to Darwinism. . . It is extremely hard for the modern mind to respond to this idea with anything but mirth” (Dawkins, 1987, p. 305)

“According to mutationism, random changes in the hereditary material are sufficient for adaptation without much, or any, selection at all. Mutations just somehow happen to be adaptive, the right changes simply manage to occur. The inadequacies of this view are obvious” (Cronin, 1991, p. 47).

“Darwin knew nothing of this [i.e., genetics] but as it turned out, his ignorance was sublimely irrelevant to the problem he was really interested in tackling: evolution. This point was not fully grasped by biologists. Many early geneticists at the dawn of the 20th century, thought their discoveries of the fundamental principles of genetics somehow cast doubt [on], or rendered obsolete, the concept of natural selection. It took several decades of experimentation and theoretical (including mathematical) analysis to show not only that there was no conflict inherent between the emerging results of genetics and the older Darwinian notion of natural selection, but that the two operate in different domains.” (Eldredge, 2001, p. 67)

“Mendelian particulate inheritance (today, we call the “particles” genes) was originally identified with De Vries’s “mutation theory”, according to which new variations or species originated in large jumps, or macromutations, and evolution was exclusively explained by mutation pressure. Darwinian naturalists, believing that Mendelism was synonymous with mutation theory, held on to theories of soft inheritance, while they considered selection a weak force at best. They did not know of the new findings in genetics that would have supported Darwinism. (SegerstrŒle, 2002)

Notice how, in every version of the story above, the position taken by early geneticists just doesn’t make sense. This isn’t a story of theory versus theory, its a story of confusion ultimately yielding to reason.

If de Vries and the other geneticists are playing the role of the pied piper in this story, the “naturalists” are like the children lured away from their Darwinian home. Ultimately the innocents are returned, and order restored, by mathematicians:

“Between 1918 and 1932 Fisher, Haldane, and Wright showed that Mendelian genetics is consistent with natural selection. Only then, more than 60 years after the publication of The Origin of Species, was the genetic objection to natural selection finally removed. Modern molecular and developmental genetics have confirmed in exquisite chemical detail the key aspects of genetics necessary for Darwin’s ideas to work: that the genetic material is DNA, that DNA has a sequence, . . . mutates . . . contains information . . ” (p. 16 of Stearns and Hoekstra, 2005)

One might have thought that the compatibility of genetics and selection was obvious from the start, or that it had been demonstrated by the selection experiments of Johannsen, but apparently biologists of the time had a high demand for mathematical rigor.

Anatomy of a Myth

In a subsequent post, we will look at original sources to see what the “mutationists” actually believed, and why. And eventually we will integrate this into the bigger picture of how evolutionary theory developed. But for now, lets just summarize the pattern that is apparent in the literature.

First, the mutationism story is clearly a story or myth, and not an ordinary scientific truth claim. We can see this because the story-tellers are not using ordinary scientific conventions to convince us that the story is true. If you or I were making an ordinary scientific argument (for instance) for an effect of “translational selection” on codon usage, we would mention a correlation between codon frequencies and the abundance of corresponding tRNAs, citing the classic work of Ikemura (1981), and we might even repeat a figure showing this correlation, to impress this point upon the minds of readers (e.g., just as in Ch. 7 of Freeman & Herron, 1998).

When I see instances of the mutationism story, typically I don’t find quotations illustrating what the mutationists believed, nor facts & figures to refute their views, but only vague attributions and generalized claims. Apropos, the following quotation from Ernst Mayr never fails to make me laugh:

The genetic work of the last four decades has refuted mutationism (saltationism) so thoroughly that it is not necessary to repeat once more all the genetic evidence against it. (Mayr, 1960)

And the puissant Dr. Mayr proceeds on, not boring the reader with any tiresome “genetic evidence”, nor citing sources that might allow the reader to evaluate the truth of his statement. Its a story, after all.

By contrast, the 3 sources that I mentioned above as providing scientific history, rather than myth, all make reference to specific experimental and theoretical results, and reveal knowledge of specific historically important scientific works. For instance, Strickberger’s reference list includes Johannsen, 1903, as well as the 1902 paper by Yule that reconciled Mendelian genetics with quantitative variation (in neo-Darwinian mythology, credit for Yule’s work is given to little Ronny Fisher, who was 11 at the time).

Second, every story has a plot or “action”, and the main action of the mutationism story is a turn of fate in which power is temporarily in the hands of the wrong people or ideas. In archetypal terms, its a story of usurpation and restoration: the throne is usurped, and the kingdom falls into darkness and confusion until the throne is restored to the king’s rightful heirs. The mutationism episode didn’t have to be told that way: it might have been presented as a period of reform (in which old ideas were abandoned) or discovery (when new territory was mapped out). Instead, its presented as a mistake, an interlude of confusion, a collective delusion.

Indeed, another way to look at the mythic action is that the Mendelians are wizards or false prophets who place the kingdom under a spell, leading folks astray and causing them to believe things that they just shouldn’t have believed.

What delusional spell did the Mendelians cast? In the story by Eldredge, or by Stearns & Hoekstra above, the spell is that Mendelian genetics is inconsistent with “the concept of natural selection” (Eldredge). In the story told by SegerstrŒle, Cronin, Mayr and The Economist, the delusional spell is a bit different: the principle of selection is irrelevant because mutational jumps alone explain evolution.

Third, the key to restoring Darwin’s kingdom was to add the missing piece of genetics. Ultimately, after the period of darkness ended, the discovery of genetics “provided the missing link in Darwin’s theory” (SegerstrŒle, 2002), or “The missing link in Darwin’s argument was provided by Mendelian genetics” (Ayala & Fitch, 1997). Darwinism was restored, not by taking away the power of genetics, but by redirecting it to support Darwinism. Clearly, genetics is the key to ruling the kingdom, like the One Ring that Rules them All in Tolkien’s world. The ones who have the ring have the power.

The story is made more fascinating by the fact that the key to power is literally a code of rules developed by a monk that remained lost for nearly half a century. The usurpers who discover The Monk’s Code misinterpret it, and use it to overthrow the true king, establishing a reign of error. But when The Founders decipher the true meaning of the Monk’s Code, The Architects campaign throughout the kingdom, spreading the news: the Monk’s Code proves that Darwin is the true king. Darwin’s rule is re-established, all opposition ceases, and the kingdom is unified.


If you would like to contribute a mutationism story, I would be happy to start a collection if you make it easy for me by providing a complete and well formed text item. Be sure to provide a quoted passage with a source, citing exact page numbers. If we get enough stories, lets try to recruit a sociologist or historian to study this further.


To summarize, the mutationism story is a myth that is retold in secondary sources. The basic story is simple: the discoverers of genetics misinterpreted their discovery, thinking it incompatible with Darwinism; Darwinism went into disfavor; population geneticists came along and showed that genetics was the missing key to Darwinism; Darwinism was restored and once again reigned supreme.

Next time on the The Curious Disconnect, we’ll start pulling on some of the loose threads of this story.

For now, note how the writers quoted above are genuinely baffled by our scientific history. It just doesn’t make sense to them. A century ago, most of an entire generation of scientists thought of genetics as a contradiction of Darwinism. This is a historical fact, and presumably it has an explanation that rational folks can understand by examining what scientists of the time wrote. But this historical fact mystifies Dawkins, Eldredge, Cronin, and others.


Anonymous. 2005. Ernst Mayr, evolutionary biologist, died on February 3rd, aged 100. The Economist, February.

Ayala, F. J., and W. M. Fitch. 1997. Genetics and the origin of species: an introduction. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 94:7691-7697.

Cronin, H. 1991. The Ant and the Peacock. Cambridge University Presss, Cambridge.Dawkins, R. 1987. The Blind Watchmaker. W.W. Norton and Company, New York.

Eldredge, N. 2001. The Triumph of Evolution and the Failure of Creationism. W H Freeman & Co.

Freeman, S., and J. C. Herron. 1998. Evolutionary Analysis. Prentice-Hall, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey.

Gould, S. J. 2002. The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Ikemura, T. 1981. Correlation between the abundance of Escherichia coli transfer RNAs and the occurrence of the respective codons in its protein genes: a proposal for a synonymous codon choice that is optimal for the E. coli translational system. J Mol Biol 151:389-409.

Mayr, E. 1960. The Emergence of Evolutionary Novelties. Pp. 349-380 in S. Tax, and C. Callender, eds. Evolution After Darwin: The University of Chicago Centennial. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

SegerstrŒle, U. 2002. Neo-Darwinism. Pp. 807-810 inM. Pagel, ed. Encyclopedia of Evolution. Oxford University Press, New York.

Stearns, S. C., and R. F. Hoekstra. 2005. Evolution: an introduction. Oxford University Press, New York.

Strickberger, M.W. 1990. Evolution (1st edition).


1 The defining characteristic of a myth is not that it isn’t literally true, but that it isn’t told for reason of being literally true, but for reason of being meaningful or poignant: a myth is a story with a cultural value, not necessarily a literal-truth value. The connection between myths and untruths, then, has to do with discoverability: when we find a pattern P = { X people are repeating story Y }, where X is a large number, this pattern by itself does not prove that Y is a myth because X people might have all discovered or verified Y independently; but if Y has diverse elements that are untrue (or unverifiable), then we can conclude that its repetition does not signify independent verification, suggesting that its a myth.

2The Oxford Encyclopedia of Evolution does not have an article on mutationism; the article on Morgan says nothing of his views on evolution; there is no article on Bateson; mutationism is only addressed peripherally in Hull’s article on the history of evolutionary theory; it is mainly addressed in SegerstrŒle’s article on neo-Darwinism.