Saltational evolution: hopeful monsters are here to stay
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Since 150 years it is hypothesized now that evolution always proceeds in a countless number of very small steps (Darwin in On the origin of species by means of natural selection or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle of life, Murray, London, 1859), a view termed “gradualism”. Few contemporary biologists will doubt that gradualism reflects the most frequent mode of evolution, but whether it is the only one remains controversial. It has been suggested that in some cases profound (“saltational”) changes may have occurred within one or a few generations of organisms. Organisms with a profound mutant phenotype that have the potential to establish a new evolutionary lineage have been termed “hopeful monsters”. Recently I have reviewed the concept of hopeful monsters in this journal mainly from a historical perspective, and provided some evidence for their past and present existence. Here I provide a brief update on data and discussions supporting the view that hopeful monsters and saltational evolution are valuable biological concepts. I suggest that far from being mutually exclusive scenarios, both gradual and saltational evolution are required to explain the complexity and diversity of life on earth. In my view, gradual changes represent the usual mode of evolution, but are unlikely to be able to explain all key innovations and changes in body plans. Saltational changes involving hopeful monsters are probably very exceptional events, but since they have the potential to establish profound novelties sometimes facilitating adaptive radiations, they are of quite some importance, even if they would occur in any evolutionary lineage less than once in a million years. From that point of view saltational changes are not more bizarre scenarios of evolutionary change than whole genome duplications, endosymbiosis or impacts of meteorites. In conclusion I argue that the complete dismissal of saltational evolution is a major historical error of evolutionary biology tracing back to Darwin that needs to be rectified.