Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 23, Issue 5, pp 591–603 | Cite as

Sewall Wright’s adaptive landscapes: 1932 vs. 1988

  • Massimo PigliucciEmail author


Sewall Wright introduced the metaphor of evolution on “adaptive landscapes” in a pair of papers published in 1931 and 1932. The metaphor has been one of the most influential in modern evolutionary biology, although recent theoretical advancements show that it is deeply flawed and may have actually created research questions that are not, in fact, fecund. In this paper I examine in detail what Wright actually said in the 1932 paper, as well as what he thought of the matter at the very end of his career, in 1988. While the metaphor is flawed, some of the problems which Wright was attempting to address are still with us today, and are in the process of being reformulated as part of a forthcoming Extended Evolutionary Synthesis.


Adaptive landscapes Evolutionary theory Genetic drift Natural selection 



I wish to thank Jonathan Kaplan for inviting me to write this paper, as well as for countless insightful discussions of evolutionary biological theory. Thanks also to Sergey Gavrilets for his patient explanations of his ideas about holey adaptive landscapes. I regret that I never got to meet Sewall Wright, he died (at the age of 99) just before attending a genetic conference where I gave one of my first papers. He was scheduled to talk about adaptive landscapes, naturally.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Departments of Ecology & Evolution and of PhilosophyStony Brook UniversityStony BrookUSA

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