The proper place of hopeful monsters in evolutionary biology
Hopeful monsters are organisms with a profound mutant phenotype that have the potential to establish a new evolutionary lineage. The Synthetic Theory of evolutionary biology has rejected the evolutionary relevance of hopeful monsters, but could not fully explain the mechanism and mode of macroevolution. On the other hand, several lines of evidence suggest that hopeful monsters played an important role during the origin of key innovations and novel body plans by saltational rather than gradual evolution. Homeotic mutants are identified as an especially promising class of hopeful monsters. Examples for animal and plant lineages that may have originated as hopeful monsters are given. Nevertheless, a brief review of the history of the concept of hopeful monsters reveals that it needs refinements and empirical tests if it is to be a useful addition to evolutionary biology. While evolutionary biology is traditionally zoocentric, hopeful monsters might be more relevant for plant than for animal evolution. Even though during recent years developmental genetics has provided detailed knowledge about how hopeful monsters can originate in the first place, we know almost nothing about their performance in natural populations and thus the ultimate difference between hopeful and hopeless. Studying the fitness of candidate hopeful monsters (suitable mutants with profound phenotype) in natural habitats thus remains a considerable challenge for the future.