Commensal house mice have spread from their probable origin in north India, differentiating into a number of forms described variously as species, semispecies or subspecies. The different taxa can breed together and exchange genes but they retain their distinctiveness (although Mus (musculus) molossinus of Japan seems to be the result of a complete fusion between M. (m.) musculus and M. (m.) castaneus). The most widespread form is M. (m.) domesticus, which has successfully colonized every continent as a commensal, albeit with varying contributions from other Mus genomes. It has also been domesticated as the laboratory mouse. This means that the same genome is exposed to a wide variety of environments and gives tremendous opportunities for exploring the operation of different evolutionary mechanisms. Mice have accompanied evolutionary understanding from early Darwinian days – confirming Mendelian ratios and showing they applied in mammals, providing data on rates of evolution, and representing examples of dominance modification, differential survival, competition and other indicators of a struggle for existence. However, they have an unfulfilled potential to drive as well as to illuminate evolutionary theory – by revealing more about, for example, the interactions between gene flow and social determinants, constraints on introgression and physiological adjustments. This potential can be explored through our ever-deepening knowledge of the genome and molecular mechanisms, and by the application of new techniques, but its most effective agent will always be the cross-disciplinary synergy of visionary scientists like Julian Huxley, Charles Elton and Louis Thaler. © 2005 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2005, 84, 335–347.