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Biographical Sketch

Richard Goldschmidt
Richard Goldschmidt 

Richard Goldschmidt (1878-1958), a brilliant but unorthodox geneticist, did not believe that Charles Darwin's idea of slow, gradual changes could account for the origin of species. Forced out of his native Germany by the Nazis, he continued to develop his research at the University of California at Berkeley, where he wrote his magnum opus The Material Basis of Evolution published in 1940.

Although he recognized the constant accumulation of small changes in populations (microevolution), he believed they did not lead to speciation. Between true species he saw "bridgeless gaps" that could only be accounted for by large sudden jumps, resulting in "hopeful monsters."

Goldschmidt tried to explore possible genetic mechanisms of how rapid change might occur in lineages of organisms. He suggested that a relatively small change might have a large effect on the phenotype, especially through "controlling" genes which mediate the expression of the organism's blueprint. Later, he thought macromutations or mutants (which used to be called "monsters") might arise in a single generation, and this biological novelty might enjoy a selective advantage under changing environmental conditions.

That was where the "hopeful" came in. One hope was that the mutation would prove so useful in the newly changed environment that it would become selected as a new norm. Another hope was that the variant would appear often enough in the population to allow several similar "monsters" to find one another and produce offspring. There is a grotesque humor about the unfortunate phrase "hopeful monsters" that lent itself to caricatures of Goldschmidt's ideas and obscured the theoretical issues.


[ Richard Milner, The Encyclopedia of Evolution, NY: Facts on File, 1990, pp. 221-222. ]


Gould on Richard Goldschmidt

"As a Darwinian, I wish to defend Goldschmidt's postulate that macroevolution is not simply microevolution extrapolated, and that major structural transitions can occur rapidly without a smooth series of intermediate stages. . . . In his infamous book of 1940, Goldschmidt specifically invokes rate genes as a potential maker of hopeful monsters: 'This basis is furnished by the existence of mutants producing monstrosities of the required type and the knowledge of embryonic determination, which permits a small rate change in early embryonic processes to produce a large effect embodying considerable parts of the organism.' In my own, strongly biased opinion, the problem of reconciling evident discontinuity in macroevolution with Darwinism is largely solved by the observation that small changes early in embryology accumulate through growth to yield profound differences among adults."

"The Return of Hopeful Monsters" Natural History magazine 86 (June 1977): 24, 30.


"By proposing a comprehensive formalist theory in the heyday of developing Darwinian orthodoxy, Richard Goldschmidt became the whipping boy of the Modern Synthesis—and for entirely understandable reasons. Goldschmidt showed his grasp, and his keen ability to utilize, microevolutionary theory by supporting this approach and philosophy in his work on variation and intraspecific evolution within the gypsy moth, Lymantria dispar. But he then expressed his apostasy by advocating discontinuity of causality, and proposing a largely nonselectionist and formalist account for macroevolution from the origin of species to higher levels of phyletic pattern. Goldschmidt integrated both themes of saltation (in his concept of "systemic mutation" based on his increasingly lonely, and ultimately indefensible, battle to deny the corpuscular gene) and channeling (in his more famous, if ridiculed, idea of "hopeful monsters," or macromutants channeled along viable lines set by internal pathways of ontogeny, sexual differences, etc.). The developmental theme of the "hopeful monster" (despite its inappropriate name, virtually guaranteed to inspire ridicule and opposition), based on the important concept of "rate genes," came first in Goldschmidt's thought, and always occupied more of his attention and research. Unfortunately, he bound this interesting challenge from development, a partially valid concept that could have been incorporated into a Darwinian framework as an auxiliary hypothesis (and now has been accepted, to a large extent, if under different names), to his truly oppositional and ultimately incorrect theory of systemic mutation, therefore winning anathema for his entire system. Goldschmidt may have acted as the architect of his own undoing, but much of his work should evoke sympathetic attention today."

The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 2002, p. 68.


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