Mutation: The History of an Idea from Darwin to GenomicsMutations are central to biology—they explain diversity in life forms, provide fuel for evolution, and determine one’s susceptibility to certain diseases.  But scientists have not always understood mutations as we do now—as molecular alterations in DNA.

“Mutation, of course, involves change,” writes Elof Axel Carlson. “But our understanding of that change is influenced by the time we live in.”  In his latest book, Carlson explores the history—the people, science, and ideas—behind the concept of mutation.

Carlson describes how the idea of mutation has changed considerably from the pre-Mendelian concepts of Darwin’s generation over 150 years ago. Darwin viewed “fluctuating variations” as the raw material on which evolution acted.

The 1900 rediscovery of Mendel’s experiments led to a discontinuous model of evolution by mutation.  Cytological investigations led to the chromosome theory, which proposed that chromosomes, containing genes with random mutations, provided the physical basis for Mendel’s laws. The interpretation of the gene as DNA and the deciphering of the genetic code then gave rise to molecular interpretations of mutation.

“Many scientists tend to be unaware of how their colleagues of many generations ago conceived their field,” writes Carlson. His approach in this book—examining the evolution of a concept—reveals the way science works, incrementally by small steps of additions and replacements rather than by dramatic, and rare, paradigm shifts.

Finally, Carlson explores how the nonscientific public has a different sense of the term “mutation” that has also shifted over time. He describes this in terms of eugenics, radiation, politics, medicine, and genetic engineering.

For more information on the book, click here.