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Explanations > Evolution > Mutation

Description | Discussion | So what?



Mutation is a principle of imperfect copying.

When a copy is created, the general idea is that it should be identical to the item being copied, yet this is seldom so. Small changes creep in and even a photocopied page is not identical to the original.

In the reproduction of life, whether animal or plant, mutation occurs where there are spontaneous changes in DNA/RNA. The genetic 'how to build life' instructions are hence changed. This may be harmless, harmful or helpful, although the latter is statistically less likely, as the process is a random one.

As the instructions are contained in each cell, when the cell is replicated the instructions are also spread, and will also spread to offspring. One mutation hence can, in time, change an entire species.

Sometimes mutations are successful for a while and then become useless, though harmless (for example the human appendix). These are called 'evolutionary baggage'.

Most genetic instructions are about how to build a new life. However there are also instructions on how to mutate, including what can mutate, how it mutates, how big the change is and how often mutation occurs. This instruction itself is also subject to mutation.

Evolution occurs through the process of mutation plus natural selection. Hence if a mutation is unsuccessful, then there will be less chance of offspring appearing or surviving, and the mutated branch dies out.


Mutation is nature's way of doing experiments and helps a species cope with the constantly varying environment. Unsuccessful mutations die out, whilst timely changes help cope with changing conditions of temperature, food availability and so on.

Mutation is important in genetic competition, such as when prey evolve to avoid predators, who then also evolve to be better hunters. Likewise the giraffe acquired a long neck to get to the leaves on tall trees where other animals cannot reach. Height is also useful for seeing predators coming from afar.

Mutation speed

Some organisms mutate much faster than others. The common cold, for example, mutates at such a rate that it has proved difficult to find a cure. Mutation hence can be a multi-generational race between predator and prey. Rapid mutation is not always good, as if the organism has found an effective form, mutating out of this can cause problems.

There is a natural balance of how much and how often mutation should occur. Too much mutation and insufficient numbers of the species will survive. Too little and they will not be able to cope with changing context and competition. The right degree of mutation depends largely on the speed of change in the environment. When the world changes, you may need to have several variants alive which can cope with the change.

Mutating mutation

'Regulatory genes' control the function of many other genes. When the regulatory genes mutate there can hence be a disproportionately large resulting change. Most such changes are too big and are unsuccessful. However a few can be highly effective and are particularly important in times of significant external change.

Mutation of the rules of mutation is a clever and essential addition, as any pattern of mutation itself can be limiting. The speed of change of this secondary mutation is much slower than the primary mutation mechanism.

Genetic combination

As well as mutation, variation in a species comes from the combination of genes from both parents. This will not result in new changes -- only a mixture of the already-existing parental genetic material.

Without mutation, there would be a steady drift towards homogenisation in which genetic combination would be something like mixing a cake -- eventually it is just one smooth substance with everyone being very similar.

Organizational mutation

In translating mutation principles to organizational change, the critical thing to note is that mutation changes the instructions for how a thing is built and how it works. Hence in trying times for businesses, mutations with low spending may well do better, whilst the high rollers may do better on an upturn.

If you change the rules of how a company runs, it may perform better and it may perform worse. Hopefully, with appropriate intelligence, there is more chance of improvement as compared with natural mutation, where the changes are random. One of the dangers of organizational mutation is that it is so logical and mired in the current mindset, it lacks the creative variation that may be needed to make the leaps that are needed.

Survival, it has been said, is a choice. Some organizations choose to perish rather than change.


Memes are 'idea genes' that can easily mutate as they are passed from one person to another. The same can happen to a simple sentence as misunderstanding mutates the words. In a famous case of a first-world-war communication, the message 'Send reinforcements we're going to advance' mutated into 'Send three and four pence we're going to a dance.'

Personal mutation

Personally, the ability to adapt and change is a good principle for success. If you get set in your ways, you may become a victim of circumstances. Yet if you keep 'mutating', you may find your way out of a tight corner.

So what?

Understand the forces and process of mutation in any individual or organization with which you are working. Help nudge and speed up mutation when the competition and context are changing faster than the ability to cope. Also see if you can make the mutation more intelligent without becoming blinkered.

See also




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