Mendelian-Mutationism: The Forgotten Evolutionary Synthesis

Abstract

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.

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We thank Eric Haag, John Beatty and Dave McCandlish for discussion. We thank two anonymous reviewers for detailed comments. The identification of any specific commercial products is for the purpose of specifying a protocol, and does not imply a recommendation or endorsement by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

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Stoltzfus, A., Cable, K. Mendelian-Mutationism: The Forgotten Evolutionary Synthesis. J Hist Biol 47, 501–546 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10739-014-9383-2

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Keywords

  • Mutationism
  • Darwinism
  • de Vries
  • Morgan
  • Bateson
  • Punnett