Journal of the History of Biology

, Volume 47, Issue 4, pp 501–546

Mendelian-Mutationism: The Forgotten Evolutionary Synthesis

Open Access

DOI: 10.1007/s10739-014-9383-2

Cite this article as:
Stoltzfus, A. & Cable, K. J Hist Biol (2014) 47: 501. doi:10.1007/s10739-014-9383-2


According to a classical narrative, early geneticists, failing to see how Mendelism provides the missing pieces of Darwin’s theory, rejected gradual changes and advocated an implausible yet briefly popular view of evolution-by-mutation; after decades of delay (in which synthesis was prevented by personal conflicts, disciplinary rivalries, and anti-Darwinian animus), Darwinism emerged on a new Mendelian basis. Based on the works of four influential early geneticists – Bateson, de Vries, Morgan and Punnett –, and drawing on recent scholarship, we offer an alternative that turns the classical view on its head. For early geneticists, embracing discrete inheritance and the mutation theory (for the origin of hereditary variation) did not entail rejection of selection, but rejection of Darwin’s non-Mendelian views of heredity and variation, his doctrine of natura non facit saltum, and his conception of “natural selection” as a creative force that shapes features out of masses of infinitesimal differences. We find no evidence of a delay in synthesizing mutation, rules of discrete inheritance, and selection in a Mendelian-Mutationist Synthesis. Instead, before 1918, early geneticists had conceptualized allelic selection, the Hardy–Weinberg equilibrium, the evolution of a quantitative trait under selection, the probability of fixation of a new mutation, and other key innovations. Contemporary evolutionary thinking seems closer to their more ecumenical view than to the restrictive mid-twentieth-century consensus known as the Modern Synthesis.


Mutationism Darwinism de Vries Morgan Bateson Punnett 

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute for Bioscience and Biotechnology ResearchRockvilleUSA
  2. 2.Biosystems and Biomaterials DivisionNISTGaithersburgUSA
  3. 3.Program in the History of Science and TechnologyUniversity of MinnesotaMinneapolisUSA

Personalised recommendations