Panpsychic Organicism: Sewall Wright’s Philosophy for Understanding Complex Genetic Systems

Creationists view Evolutionary Theory to be the by-product of atheism, but it has always intrigued me that there were deeply religious and non-atheistic individuals who were great contributors to evolutionary theory such as RA Fisher.


It’s not clear to me if Sewall Wright is an atheist, but he had an interesting philosophical viewpoint.

I stumbled on this 2008 paper

Panpsychic organicism: Sewall Wright's philosophy for understanding complex genetic systems. - PubMed - NCBI

when I was reading up on Genetic Drift which is, to my surprise, connected to Sewall Wright, not just Kimura.


The paper challenges Will Provine’s view that Wright was not influenced by philsophy.

From the paper:

Taking Pearson’s argument for a single ‘‘mental construct’’ to a whole new level, Wright deduced a world filled with vast levels of consciousness, each an organismic unity emerging from a less organized, less tightly-knit group of minds.

[Wright writes]‘‘We must postulate common consciousness as arising from interactions
among elementary physical entities within an atom, or among atoms and
electrons within a molecule, or among molecules within a living cell as
well as among cells within a multicellular organism in carrying through
the concept of [psycho-physical] identism. We should again recognize
that the external aspect of a stream of consciousness is not matter defined
by mass and occupancy of space so much as by the association of action
[energy]. We must suppose that wherever there is physical action, this is the external aspect of at least a flicker of consciousness.’’47

Wright did not yet have a platform for expressing these ideas at the end of his Harvard days or directly thereafter, at the USDA in Washington from 1915 to 1925. Finishing a thesis, securing a job, and managing the transition all took priority. With the exception of a few published book reviews, however, Wright kept mum on his philosophy even into the 1920s, 30 s, and 40 s, reserving publication on his full metaphysics until after he had established himself in quantitative genetics and evolutionary biology.

As a philosopher, Wright felt convinced that these tightly knit systems of complex activity represented other minds in nature, located on hierarchic levels according to their degrees of conscious sophistication. Genes were no doubt one example of consciousness in nature

Biographer William Provine believed that Wright always followed a clean-cut delineation between his philosophic and scientific pursuits. The two other historians who have looked at Wright’s philosophy, M.J.S. Hodge (1992) and Michael Ruse (2004), have contradicted
Provine’s account by showing that there was a definite carryover of concept from Wright’s philosophy to Wright’s work in genetics and evolution. Hodge linked Wright’s monistic panpsychism with his emphasis on chance indeterminism in genetics and evolutionary biology. Ruse linked Wright’s organicism with his emphasis on systems of
dynamic equilibrium in his ‘‘shifting balance’’ theory of evolution.

Even before Darwin, non-atheistic geologists were at work piecing together the geologic column and the age of the Earth. I don’t think it’s helpful look at Creationist views, because pretty much everything will be atheistic if we just go far enough down that rabbit-hole. Better (IMO) to look at what people can conclude despite their different views.

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Agreed. I try not to reference them as a premise. I don’t exactly get along with my creationist brethren.

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From 1914 to 1921 Wright developed his “method of path coefficient” (or “path analysis”), a new procedure drawing from both laboratory experimentation and statistical correlation in order to analyze the relative influence of specific genetic interactions on phenotype variation.

I didn’t know this was the origin of Path Analysis. I’d always assumed it came out of the social sciences.

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Don’t forget Jim Crow.

Genetic drift was first mentioned by the Hagedoorns in a 1921 paper in Dutch. There were no equations, it was a verbal treatment. RA Fisher understood it, and in a 1922 paper gave the first application of diffusion equations to population genetics – he used an equation from physics, a heat equation, and the thermal noise term was genetic drift. However, he made a technical mistake which was later corrected by Sewall Wright. Wright developed his machinery for calculating inbreeding coefficients by path analysis in 1921, and this led him on to consider small populations. His theoretical treatment appears in his large 1931 paper, and it is mentioned in an abstract published in 1929. Wright did most of the theoretical work on genetic drift, developing the concept of effective population size and the mathematics for various effects on it. Neither Wright’s views on panpsychism, nor Fisher’s adherence to the Church of England show up in any of their equations, as far as I can see.

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I believe Sal is equating genetic drift to neutral evolution.

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Dan Eastwood: Yes, Sewall Wright invented path analysis and path coefficients. The first path diagram, in one of his 1921 papers in Genetics, has guinea pigs drawn in as the organisms – Wright did most of the genetics that has ever been done with guinea pigs. This is the leading candidate for the first Graphical Model. A structural equations modeling program OpenMx has as its symbol a guinea pig. Sociologists who started using Wright’s methods included Otis Dudley Duncan, who overlapped with Wright at the University of Chicago. As it came to be popular, people would occasionally discover that it had been invented by a long-dead geneticist. They were then startled to find out that he was very much alive (he lived to age 98). At Wright’s 1960 retirement banquet at the University of Wisconsin, where he had moved in 1955, a sociologist spoke, noting Wright’s invention of path coefficients. He said, tongue-in-cheek, that based on Wright’s contribution to sociology, his department was prepared to offer Wright an assistant professorship.


That was very informative. I didn’t know about the relation of Fisher’s insights to Wrights. Thanks a million!

This was the relationship of Drift and Neutral evolution that I was going from (from Wiki):

In 1968, population geneticist Motoo Kimura rekindled the debate with his neutral theory of molecular evolution, which claims that most instances where a genetic change spreads across a population (although not necessarily changes in phenotypes) are caused by genetic drift acting on neutral mutations.[6][7]

Is that in error?

No. Perhaps, though, you have confused the part with the whole.

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Thanks @Joe_Felsenstein, that’s good stuff! :slight_smile:

Will Provine self-published a book The Random Genetic Drift Fallacy which might interest you. Joe Felsenstein pointed out to me that Professor Provine published it while combating brain cancer so you should bear that in mind if you decide to read it.

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Ideas are judged on their merit within science, not on their source of inspiration. Kary Mullis famously credits LSD for allowing him to invent the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), but no one thinks that we should throw out this technique because it came from drug induced hallucinations. I am also confident that there are hundreds of really bad scientific models based on bad philosophy that time has completely forgotten.

I haven’t really had the heart to read it, the little I did made it clear that he was engaged in a losing struggle with the English language. Will was a good guy, and very brave and open about his struggle with brain cancer. But a historian, and not the first person I would go to in order to have the concept of genetic drift explained to me.


Thanks Alan.