Studies of dredged and drilled samples from the North Atlantic ocean have revealed that basalts with a wide range of major and trace element compositions have been generated at the Mid-Atlantic Ridge (M.A.R.). Many of the basalts erupted between latitudes 30 degrees and 70 degrees N do not have the geochemical characteristics of normal mid-ocean ridge basalts (m.o.r.b.) depleted in the more-hygromagmatophile (hyg.) elements. Drilling along mantle flow lines transverse to the ridge has shown that different segments of the M.A.R. have produced basalts with a distinct compositional range for tens of millions of years. As more data have become available, the nature and scale of this variation have been established and tighter constraints can now be placed on the petrogenetic processes involved. The rare earth elements are used to test quantitatively the effects of open and closed system fractional crystallization, equilibrium partial melting (including continuous melting), zone refining and mantle mixing processes on basalt chemistry. When evaluated in terms of the more-hyg. elements, the results show that major heterogeneities must exist in the mantle sources feeding the M.A.R. Ratios of many of the more-hyg. elements remain consistent in space and time in basalts erupted at a particular ridge segment, but vary widely between different ridge segments. These ratios are not significantly modified by the processes of basalt generation. The hyg. element relations provide a major constraint on the nature of heterogeneity in the Earth's mantle and the processes producing it. The mantle sources of anomalous ridge segments can be best explained in terms of variable veining of a hyg. element depleted host by a hyg. element enriched liquid or fluid generated by very small degrees of partial melting. Such incipient melting, as well as subduction zone processes, may be viable mechanisms for changing hyg. element ratios in the mantle source regions on the scale observed. These processes can be integrated into a model for mantle evolution which involves (1) upward migration of incipient melts to provide a hyg. element enriched source for alkali basalts and a hyg. element depleted source for normal m.o.r.b., and (2) extraction of continental crust and recycling of the depleted residue into the mantle at subduction zones. Also, some recycling of continental material into the mantle may be required to explain Pb isotope patterns.