Directed Mutation and Galileo

Jorolat jorolat at
Sat Jan 1 08:18:32 EST 2000

    In 1988 a minor collision occurred between natural reality and evolutionary
theory when an article entitled "The Origin of Mutants" [1] appeared in Nature
Magazine. The authors (Cairns et al.) reported experiments in which
advantageous mutations in bacteria appeared to have happened with a greater
frequency than conventional theory could account for. Subsequent experiments
producing similar results have been performed by other scientists one of whom,
Barry Hall, has said "Mutations that occur more when they`re useful than when
they`re not: that I can document any day, every day, in the laboratory" [2].
Various mechanisms have been proposed to account for the phenomena, research
continues and  links to web-sites containing commentaries and details of
specific experiments are appended [3].
   Much of the furore which followed publication of the original article was
invoked by how the results of the experiments were interpreted. For example,
the sentence "We describe here experiments and some circumstantial evidence
suggesting that bacteria can choose which mutations they should produce" caused
many people to make an immediate association with the theories of Lamarck and
predictably generated a storm of protest. In circumstances such as these the
significance of any discovery tends to become secondary as arguments and
counter-arguments rage and consequently attempts have been made to find a
description of the phenomena less emotive than the original one of "Directed
   "[the mutations]...have been called "adaptive", "directed", "Cairnsian",
"selection-induced", "stationary-phase", "stressful lifestyle-associated
mutations (SLAM)", and even "Fred" by one researcher who gave up trying to find
a name that would not inflame critics" (my italics).
   The above quotation is taken from an article written in 1997 by Susan
Rosenberg [4] who is a researcher in this field and appears under the
sub-heading of "The mutation whose name one dare not speak". It is suggested
the reason "one dare not speak" is due to fear of invoking similar conditioned
responses as those that Galileo encountered upon presentation of the
Heliocentric Theory. Though charged with heresy Galileo`s real crime was
psychological in that he suggested a reality conflicting with the life-long
conditioning of his contemporaries who, either unable or unrequired to
re-adjust, characteristically made him responsible for their inner turmoil by
forcing Galileo to recant prior to the imposition of house arrest. As is usual
in any psychological hierarchy awareness of Galileo`s natural right to an
independent experience of life was entirely missing and the "punishment"
   Conditioned responses of the type indicated above generally require their
specific "triggers" but the underlying psychological mechanism is generic.
Illustrating this point is an example that recently occurred in Dover, England:
  "One of the incidents in "The Secret of the Toys" involved [3 year-old] Jenny
and ..... a woman called Eleanor. It was witnessed by several people two of
whom made an approach after the child had gone home:
"Did you see what that yank kid did to Eleanor?"
   The tone in which "yank kid " was said indicated that the first step in the
acquisition of a new victim had been taken. Now that Jenny was a yank she
automatically became potentially responsible for all the resentment the term
had accumulated since it first acquired negative connotations. The two people
were of an age where this had probably happened when Americans were "over
sexed, over paid and over here". No doubt it had been added to in the
interim..." [5]
   The mechanism is simple: responses to the present moment become a function
of what in real terms is an entirely unrelated psychological past and it is
suggested that similar transitions occurred whenever those researching
"Directed Mutation" became responsible for all things "Lamarckian" (it is
emphasised, however, that though the mechanism is generic the degree of the
conditioned response is not: the capability to translate "Directed Mutation"
into "Lamarckism" does not imply the capability to translate "Jenny" into
   Conditioning frequently occurs when a person is being trained and an easily
recognizable example is the soldier returning to civilian life who, as a result
of psychological adjustments made during basic training, has initial difficulty
in not automatically marching in step with whomever they accompany. The
difficulty occurs as growing awareness that marching in step will never be
necessary again upsets the "comfort zone" formed during (and to compensate for)
the conditioning process. By way of contrast a soldier who "learns" to march in
step would retain the natural capacity to do so only when circumstances warrant
   In a perhaps less obvious but similar manner conditioning can also occur in
the classroom, students may not only be intellectually receptive to what is
being taught but also psychologically susceptible to how it is taught. A
spontaneous question about Directed Mutation, for example, could invoke a
conditioned anti-Lamarckian response leading to inhibition not only within the
questioner but also within any other student who momentarily feels an interest
in the question. The degree of inhibition would be increased if the
anti-Lamarckian response contained an element of ridicule because of the
tendency for "sycophantic" students to a) immediately indulge or join in
derisory laughter and b) permanently adopt a similar bias. The subsequent
repression of natural impulses within any of the students (to avoid the
psychological "no-go" area that has been declared) would be a form of
self-conditioning that could, over time, lead to the formation of attitudes
sympathetic to those of the tutor. One manner in which irrelevant prejudices
can be perpetuated.
   Soon after publication of "The Origin of Mutants" a geneticist from the
University of  Maryland commented "Many people have had such observations, but
they have problems getting them published" [6] and Shapiro, whose work preceded
Cairns, said "The significance of the Cairns paper is not in the presentation
of new data but in the framing of the questions and in changing the psychology
of the situation" [7] . One hopes the psychology of the situation will continue
to change, it is of little interest to anyone alive to-day if in a century or
two hindsight shows that those investigating the phenomena of "stationary-phase
mutations" have been, or are, guilty of heresy.
   The phenomena of "stationary-phase mutations" has many interesting
possibilities: what if, for example, the mechanism responsible also existed in
the single-cell Common Ancestor?. One could speculate further but at the moment
perhaps it is sufficient to say how unfortunate researchers in any field should
feel the need to use the words "one dare not speak".   



[1] Cairns, Overbaugh and Miller (1988), The Origin of Mutants, Nature 335:
142-145 (subscription required)
[2] Corliss (1990), Hypermutation rather than Directed Mutation?, Science
Frontiers (secondary source)
[3] Beardsley (1997), Evolution Evolving, Scientific American (click on the "In Focus" article)
     Richardson, Survival of the Mutable
     Goodman, Directed Mutation: Heredity Made to Order
     Jones, Suntoke, Shereck, Molecular Biology of Prokaryotes - Directed
[4] Rosenberg (1997), Mutation for Survival, Genetics and Developement Vol 7,
No. 6  n.b. access to this
article is free until 31/12/99
[5] Latter (1999), Racism
[6] [7] Corliss (1989), Directed Mutation, Science Frontiers (secondary source)
Model of an Internal Evolutionary Mechanism (presented as an extension to
Homoeostasis) and proposed method of testing.
Psychology. Social Psychology inc. Real-Life stories.

More information about the Plant-ed mailing list