Sewall Wright
Wright in 1954
Born(1889-12-21)December 21, 1889
DiedMarch 3, 1988(1988-03-03) (aged 98)
Alma materLombard College
University of Illinois
Harvard University
(Sc.D., 1915)[3]
Known forCoefficient of determination
Population genetics
Causal graph
Fixation index
Fitness landscape
Genetic rescue
Genetic drift
Inbreeding coefficient
Path analysis
Shifting balance theory
Threshold model
AwardsDaniel Giraud Elliot Medal (1945)
Weldon Memorial Prize (1947)
National Medal of Science (1966)
Darwin Medal (1980)
Thomas Hunt Morgan Medal (1982)
Balzan Prize (1984)
Foreign Member of the Royal Society (1963)[1]
Scientific career
InstitutionsUniversity of Chicago[2]
University of Wisconsin[2]
Doctoral advisorWilliam Ernest Castle
Other academic advisorsWilhelmine Key
Doctoral studentsEdric Lescouflair

Sewall Green Wright FRS(For) Honorary FRSE (December 21, 1889 – March 3, 1988) was an American geneticist known for his influential work on evolutionary theory and also for his work on path analysis. He was a founder of population genetics alongside Ronald Fisher and J. B. S. Haldane, which was a major step in the development of the modern synthesis combining genetics with evolution. He discovered the inbreeding coefficient and methods of computing it in pedigree animals. He extended this work to populations,[4] computing the amount of inbreeding between members of populations as a result of random genetic drift, and along with Fisher he pioneered methods for computing the distribution of gene frequencies among populations as a result of the interaction of natural selection, mutation, migration and genetic drift. Wright also made major contributions to mammalian and biochemical genetics.[5][6][7]


Sewall Wright was born in Melrose, Massachusetts, to Philip Green Wright and Elizabeth Quincy Sewall Wright. His parents were first cousins,[8] an interesting fact in light of Wright's later research on inbreeding. The family moved three years later after Philip accepted a teaching job at Lombard College, a Universalist college in Galesburg, Illinois.

As a child, Wright helped his father and brother print and publish an early book of poems by his father's student Carl Sandburg. At the age of seven, in 1897, he wrote his first "book", entitled Wonders of Nature,[5] and he published his last paper in 1988:[9] he can be claimed, therefore, to be the scientist with the longest career of science writing. Wright's astonishing maturity at the age of seven may be judged from the following excerpt quoted in the obituary:[5]

Have you ever examined the gizzard of a fowl? The gizzard of a fowl is a deep red colar with blu at the top. First on the outside is a very thick muscle. Under this is a white and fleecy layer. Holding very tight to the other. I expect you know that chickens eat sand. The next two layers are rough and rumply. These layers hold the sand. They grind the food. One night when we had company we had chicken-pie. Our Aunt Polly cut open the gizzard, and in it we found a lot of grain, and some corn.

He was the oldest of three gifted brothers—the others being the aeronautical engineer Theodore Paul Wright and the political scientist Quincy Wright. From an early age Wright had a love and talent for mathematics and biology. Wright attended Galesburg High School and graduated in 1906. He then enrolled in Lombard College where his father taught, to study mathematics. He was influenced greatly by Professor Wilhelmine Key, one of the first women to receive a Ph.D. in biology.[10][11][12] Wright received his Ph.D. from Harvard University, where he worked at the Bussey Institute with the pioneering mammalian geneticist William Ernest Castle investigating the inheritance of coat colors in mammals. He worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture until 1925, when he joined the Department of Zoology at the University of Chicago. He remained there until his retirement in 1955, when he moved to the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He received many honors in his long career, including the National Medal of Science (1966), the Balzan Prize (1984), and the Darwin Medal of the Royal Society (1980). He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences,[13] the American Philosophical Society,[14] the American Academy of Arts and Sciences,[15] and a Foreign Member of the Royal Society.[1] The American Mathematical Society selected him as the Josiah Willards Gibbs lecturer for 1941.[16][17] For his work on genetics of evolutionary processes, Wright was awarded the Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal from the National Academy of Sciences in 1945.[18]

He died in Madison, Wisconsin, on March 3, 1988.


Wright married Louise Lane Williams (1895–1975) in 1921.[19][20] They had three children: Richard, Robert, and Elizabeth.[21][22]

Sewall Wright worshipped as a Unitarian.[23][24]

Scientific achievements and credits

Population genetics

Visualization of a fitness landscape. The X and Y axes represent continuous phenotypic traits, and the height at each point represents the corresponding organism's fitness. The arrows represent various mutational paths that the population could follow while evolving on the fitness landscape.

His papers on inbreeding,[4][25] mating systems,[26] and genetic drift[27] make him a principal founder of theoretical population genetics, along with R. A. Fisher and J. B. S. Haldane. Their theoretical work is the origin of the modern evolutionary synthesis or neo-Darwinian synthesis.[28] Wright was the inventor/discoverer of the inbreeding coefficient and F-statistics, standard tools in population genetics. He was the chief developer of the mathematical theory of genetic drift,[27] which is sometimes known as the Sewall Wright effect,[29] cumulative stochastic changes in gene frequencies that arise from random births, deaths, and Mendelian segregations in reproduction. In this work he also introduced the concept of effective population size. Wright was convinced that the interaction of genetic drift and the other evolutionary forces was important in the process of adaptation. He described the relationship between genotype or phenotype and fitness as fitness surfaces or evolutionary landscapes. On these landscapes mean population fitness was the height, plotted against horizontal axes representing the allele frequencies or the average phenotypes of the population. Natural selection would lead to a population climbing the nearest peak, while genetic drift would cause random wandering. He did not accept Fisher's genetic theory of dominance,[30] but instead considered it to arise from biochemical considerations.[31][32] Although set aside for many years, his interpretation is at the basis of modern ideas of dominance.[33][34]

Evolutionary theory

Wright's explanation for stasis was that organisms come to occupy adaptive peaks.[35] In order to evolve to another, higher peak, the species would first have to pass through a valley of maladaptive intermediate stages. This could happen by genetic drift[27] if the population is small enough. If a species was divided into small populations, some could find higher peaks. If there was some gene flow between the populations, these adaptations could spread to the rest of the species. This was Wright's shifting balance theory of evolution. There has been much skepticism among evolutionary biologists as to whether these rather delicate conditions hold often in natural populations. Wright had a long-standing and bitter debate about this with R. A. Fisher, who felt that most populations in nature were too large for these effects of genetic drift to be important.

Path analysis

Wright's statistical method of path analysis,[4][36] which he invented in 1921 and which was one of the first methods using a graphical model, is still widely used in social science. He was a hugely influential reviewer of manuscripts,[1] as one of the most frequent reviewers for Genetics.

Plant and animal breeding

Wright strongly influenced Jay Lush, who was the most influential figure in introducing quantitative genetics into animal and plant breeding. From 1915 to 1925 Wright was employed by the Animal Husbandry Division of the U.S. Bureau of Animal Husbandry. His main project was to investigate the inbreeding that had occurred in the artificial selection that resulted in the leading breeds of livestock used in American beef production. He also performed experiments with 80,000 guinea pigs in the study of physiological genetics. Furthermore he analyzed characters of some 40,000 guinea pigs in 23 strains of brother-sister matings against a random-bred stock. (Wright 1922a-c). The concentrated study of these two groups of mammals eventually led to the Shifting Balance Theory and the concept of "surfaces of selective value" in 1932.[9]

He did major work on the genetics of guinea pigs,[37][38] and many of his students became influential in the development of mammalian genetics. He appreciated as early as 1917 that genes acted by controlling enzymes. An anecdote about Wright, disclaimed by Wright himself, describes a lecture during which Wright tucked an unruly guinea pig under his armpit, where he usually held a chalkboard eraser: according to the anecdote, at the conclusion of the lecture, Wright absent-mindedly began to erase the blackboard using the guinea pig.[citation needed]


The creation of the statistical coefficient of determination has been attributed to Sewall Wright and was first published in 1921.[39] This metric is commonly employed to evaluate regression analyses in computational statistics and machine learning.

Wright and philosophy

Wright was one of the few geneticists of his time to venture into philosophy. He found a union of concept in Charles Hartshorne, who became a lifelong friend and philosophical collaborator. Wright endorsed a form of panpsychism. He believed that the birth of the consciousness was not due to a mysterious property of increasing complexity, but rather an inherent property, therefore implying these properties were in the most elementary particles.[40]


Wright and Fisher, along with J.B.S. Haldane, were the key figures in the modern synthesis that brought genetics and evolution together. Their work was essential to the contributions of Dobzhansky, Mayr, Simpson, Julian Huxley, and Stebbins. The modern synthesis was the most important development in evolutionary biology after Darwin. Wright also had a major effect on the development of mammalian genetics and biochemical genetics.

Judea Pearl and Dana Mackenzie's The Book of Why (2018) describes the contribution of Wright's work on path analysis and delays in its acceptance by several technical disciplines (specifically statistics and formal causal analysis).[41]

OpenMx has as its icon a representation of Wright's Piebald Guinea Pig.



  1. ^ a b c Hill, W. G. (1990). "Sewall Wright. 21 December 1889-3 March 1988". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 36: 568–579. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1990.0044. PMID 11616179.
  2. ^ a b Fowler, Glenn (March 4, 1988). "Sewall Wright, 98, Who Formed Mathematical Basis for Evolution". The New York Times. Retrieved May 18, 2021.
  3. ^ "Sewall Wright - American geneticist". Retrieved March 21, 2018.
  4. ^ a b c Russell, Elizabeth S. (December 1989). "Sewall Wright's contributions to physiological genetics and to inbreeding theory and practice". Annual Review of Genetics. 23 (1): 1–20. doi:10.1146/ ISSN 0066-4197. PMID 2694927. Retrieved March 1, 2023.
  5. ^ a b c Crow, J. F. (1988). "Sewall Wright (1889-1988) — Obituary". Genetics. 119 (1): 1–4. Bibcode:1988Natur.332..492S. doi:10.1038/332492a0. PMC 1203328. PMID 3294096.
  6. ^ Crow, J. F.; Dove, W. F. (1987). "Sewall Wright and physiological genetics". Genetics. 115 (1): 1–2. doi:10.1093/genetics/115.1.1. PMC 1203043. PMID 3549442.
  7. ^ Hill, W. G. (1996). "Sewall Wright's 'Systems of Mating'". Genetics. 143 (4): 1499–1506. doi:10.1093/genetics/143.4.1499. PMC 1207415. PMID 8844140.
  8. ^ Allendorf, Fred W.; Luikart, Gordon H.; Aitken, Sally N. (2012). Conservation and the Genetics of Populations. John Wiley. p. 548. ISBN 978-1-118-40857-5.. So were Darwin and his wife Emma (Wedgwood).
  9. ^ a b Wright, S. (1988). "Surfaces of selective value revisited". Am. Nat. 131: 115–123. doi:10.1086/284777. S2CID 85397524.
  10. ^ Wright, Sewall (September 1, 1965). "Dr. Wilhelmine Key". Journal of Heredity. 56 (5): 195–196. doi:10.1093/oxfordjournals.jhered.a107413. ISSN 1465-7333. PMID 5323812.
  11. ^ Crow, J. F. (September 1, 2004). "The Wilhemine E. Key 2003 Invitational Lecture: Genetics: Alive and Well. The First Hundred Years as Viewed Through the Pages of the Journal of Heredity". Journal of Heredity. 95 (5): 365–374. doi:10.1093/jhered/esh061. ISSN 0022-1503. PMID 15388764.
  12. ^ Lescouflair, Edric. "The Life of Sewall Wright". Harvard Square Library. Retrieved September 20, 2022.
  13. ^ "Sewall Wright". Retrieved June 26, 2023.
  14. ^ "APS Member History". Retrieved June 26, 2023.
  15. ^ "Sewall Wright". American Academy of Arts & Sciences. February 9, 2023. Retrieved June 26, 2023.
  16. ^ "American Mathematical Society". Retrieved March 21, 2018.
  17. ^ Wright, Sewall (1942). "Statistical genetics and evolution". Bull. Amer. Math. Soc. 48 (4): 223–246. doi:10.1090/S0002-9904-1942-07641-5. MR 0006700.
  18. ^ "Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal". Retrieved January 7, 2018.
  19. ^ "Ohio Marriages, 1800-1958," database, FamilySearch ( : December 8, 2014), Sewall Wright and Louise Lane Williams, September 10, 1921; citing Licking, Ohio, reference 508B; FHL microfilm 384,312.
  20. ^ Provine, William B. (1989). Wright and Evolutionary Biology. University of Chicago Press. p. 106. ISBN 9780226684734. Retrieved January 7, 2018. They were married in Granville on September 10, 1921... The Wrights had two boys, Richard and Robert, during the remaining four years in Washington.
  21. ^ "United States Census, 1930," database with images, FamilySearch ( : accessed January 7, 2018), Sewall Wright, Chicago (Districts 0001-0250), Cook, Illinois, United States; citing enumeration district (ED) ED 208, sheet 11A, line 50, family 226, NARA microfilm publication T626 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 2002), roll 423; FHL microfilm 2,340,158.
  22. ^ "Sewall Wright Profile".
  23. ^ Ruse, Michael (June 30, 2009). Monad to Man: The Concept of Progress in Evolutionary Biology. Harvard University Press. p. 376. ISBN 9780674042995. Archived from the original on January 7, 2018. Retrieved January 7, 2018. Wright worshipped as a Unitarian
  24. ^ Provine, William B. (1989). Sewall Wright and Evolutionary Biology. University of Chicago Press. pp. 460, 497. ISBN 9780226684734. Retrieved January 7, 2018. Unitarian.
  25. ^ Wright, Sewall (1940). "Breeding Structure of Populations in Relation to Speciation". The American Naturalist. 74 (752): 232–248. doi:10.1086/280891. S2CID 84048953.
  26. ^ Wright, S (1946). "Isolation by distance under diverse systems of mating". Genetics. 31 (1): 39–59. doi:10.1093/genetics/31.1.39. PMC 1209315. PMID 21009706.
  27. ^ a b c Wright, Sewall (1948). "On the Roles of Directed and Random Changes in Gene Frequency in the Genetics of Populations". Evolution. 2 (4): 279–294. doi:10.1111/j.1558-5646.1948.tb02746.x. PMID 18104586.
  28. ^ Wright, Sewall (1930). "The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection". Journal of Heredity. 21 (8): 349–356. doi:10.1093/oxfordjournals.jhered.a103361.
  29. ^ The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (2002) by Stephen Jay Gould, Chapter 7, section "Synthesis as Hardening"
  30. ^ Fisher, R. A. (1929). "The Evolution of Dominance; Reply to Professor Sewall Wright". The American Naturalist. 63 (689): 553–556. doi:10.1086/280289. hdl:2440/15105. S2CID 84667207.
  31. ^ Wright, Sewall (1929). "The Evolution of Dominance". The American Naturalist. 63 (689): 556–561. doi:10.1086/280290. S2CID 85301374.
  32. ^ Wright, Sewall (1934). "Physiological and Evolutionary Theories of Dominance". The American Naturalist. 68 (714): 24–53. doi:10.1086/280521. S2CID 84400871.
  33. ^ Kacser, H; Burns, J.A. (1981). "The molecular-basis of dominance". Genetics. 97 (3–4): 639–666. doi:10.1093/genetics/97.3-4.639. PMC 1214416. PMID 7297851.
  34. ^ Orr, H. A. (1991). "A test of Fisher's theory of dominance". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 88 (24): 11413–11415. Bibcode:1991PNAS...8811413O. doi:10.1073/pnas.88.24.11413. PMC 53145. PMID 1763055.
  35. ^ Wright, S. (1937). "The Distribution of Gene Frequencies in Populations". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 23 (6): 307–320. Bibcode:1937PNAS...23..307W. doi:10.1073/pnas.23.6.307. PMC 1076930. PMID 16577780.
  36. ^ Wright, Sewall (1960). "The Treatment of Reciprocal Interaction, with or without Lag, in Path Analysis". Biometrics. 16 (3): 423–445. doi:10.2307/2527693. JSTOR 2527693.
  37. ^ Wright, Sewall (1926). "Effects of Age of Parents on Characteristics of the Guinea Pig". The American Naturalist. 60 (671): 552–559. doi:10.1086/280125. S2CID 84805740.
  38. ^ Wright, Sewall (1960). "The genetics of vital characters of the guinea pig". Journal of Cellular and Comparative Physiology. 56: 123–151. doi:10.1002/jcp.1030560413. PMID 13786823.
  39. ^ Wright, Sewall (January 1921). "Correlation and causation". Journal of Agricultural Research. 20: 557–585.
  40. ^ Steffes, David M (2007). "Panpsychic Organicism: Sewall Wright's Philosophy for Understanding Complex Genetic Systems". Journal of the History of Biology. 40 (2): 327–361. doi:10.1007/s10739-006-9105-5. PMID 18175605. S2CID 3255830.
  41. ^ Pearl, Judea (May 2018). The Book of Why. New York: Basic Books. p. 6. ISBN 978-0-465-09760-9.

Further reading