Lewis Wolpert

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Lewis Wolpert
Lewis Wolpert.jpg
Born (1929-10-19) 19 October 1929 (age 84)
South Africa
Residence London
Nationality British
Education BSc, PhD
Alma mater University of Witwatersrand
Imperial College London
King's College London
Occupation Developmental biologist
Years active 1960 – present
Employer University College London (Emeritus Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology)
Organization Fellow of the Royal Society
Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature
Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences
Known for positional-value concept in biological development
Notable work(s) Malignant Sadness: The Anatomy of Depression (1999)
Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief (2006)
Children Daniel Mark Wolpert
Awards Hamburger prize for education – American Soc.Dev.Biol.

Lewis Wolpert CBE FRS FRSL FMedSci (born 19 October 1929) is South African-born British developmental biologist, author, and broadcaster.


Wolpert was born into a South African Jewish family.[1] He was educated at the University of Witwatersrand (BSc), at Imperial College London, and at King's College London (PhD). As of 2010 he holds the position of Emeritus Professor of Biology as applied to Medicine in the Department of Anatomy and developmental biology at University College London.

Biologists recognise Wolpert for elaborating and championing the ideas of positional information and positional value: molecular signals and internal cellular responses to them that enable cells to do the right thing in the right place during embryonic development. The essence of these concepts is that there is a dedicated set of molecules for spatial co-ordination of cells, identical across many species and across different developmental stages and tissues. The discovery of Hox gene codes in flies and vertebrates has largely vindicated Wolpert's positional-value concept, while identification of growth-factor morphogens in many species has supported the concept of positional information.

In addition to his scientific and research publications, he has written about his own experience of clinical depression in Malignant Sadness: The Anatomy of Depression (1999). He presented three television programmes based on the book and entitled A Living Hell on BBC2. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1980 and awarded the CBE in 1990. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1999 and one of the first Fellows of the Academy of Medical Sciences in 1998. He serves as a Vice-President of the British Humanist Association.


In a 2005 article entitled "Spiked", The Guardian asked a series of scientists "What is the one thing everyone should learn about science?" Wolpert responded:

I would teach the world that science is the best way to understand the world, and that for any set of observations, there is only one correct explanation. Also, science is value-free, as it explains the world as it is. Ethical issues arise only when science is applied to technology – from medicine to industry.[2]

Wolpert has debated Christian philosopher William Lane Craig about the existence of God,[3] Christian astrophysicist Hugh Ross on whether there is a case for a creator, and William Dembski on the topic of intelligent design. In a lecture entitled "Is Science Dangerous?",[4] he expanded on this: "I regard it as ethically unacceptable and impractical to censor any aspect of trying to understand the nature of our world."

On 25 May 1994, Wolpert conducted an hour-long interview with Dr Francis Crick called "How the Brain 'sees'" for The Times Dillon Science Forum; Just Results Video Productions produced a video of the interview for The Times. On 15 January 2004, Wolpert and biologist/parapsychologist Rupert Sheldrake engaged in a live debate regarding the evidence for telepathy. It took place at the Royal Society of Arts in London.[5] In the late 1960s Wolpert proposed the illustrative French flag model, which explains how signalling between cells early in morphogenesis could be used to inform cells with the same genetic regulatory network of their position and role.

He is credited with the famous quote: "It is not birth, marriage, or death, but gastrulation which is truly the most important time in your life."

Books and lectures[edit]

Wolpert has published a number of popular-science books, including The Unnatural Nature of Science, Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief, and How We Live And Why We Die: The Secret Lives of Cells. In 2011, Wolpert published You Look Very Well, a book on the social and scientific aspects of aging. The book was withdrawn from market by its publisher in 2014 after being found to contain numerous passages copied without attribution from the scientific literature and from various websites, including Wikipedia.[6] Publication of Wolpert's upcoming book, Why Can't a Woman Be More Like a Man?, was also delayed after passages of that book were found to be copied without attribution. Wolpert apologized and took responsibility for the errors.[6]

In 1986 Wolpert was invited to deliver the Royal Institution Christmas Lecture on Frankenstein's Quest: Development of Life.


  • Wolpert, Lewis & Richards, Alison (1988). A Passion for Science. Oxford, U.K: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-854213-5. 
  • Wolpert, Lewis (1991). The Triumph of the Embryo. Oxford, UK & New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-854243-7. 
  • Wolpert, Lewis (1994). The Unnatural Nature of Science. Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-92980-2. Retrieved 14 November 2010  Paperback ISBN 0-674-9281-0  First published 1992 by Faber & Faber, London.
  • Wolpert, Lewis (1999). Malignant Sadness: The Anatomy of Depression. New York: Free Press. ISBN 0-684-87058-4. Retrieved 14 November 2010  Free registration facilitates access to introduction & chapter 1. Alternatively, type the title into Google within quotations "like this", and the webpage comes up (how found in the first instance) 
  • Wolpert, Lewis; Tickle, Cheryll (2011). Principles of development. Oxford New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-955428-7. 
  • Wolpert, Lewis (2006). Six impossible things before breakfast, The evolutionary origins of belief. W.W. Norton. ISBN 0-393-06449-2. 
  • Wolpert, Lewis (2009). How We Live and Why We Die: The secret lives of cells, Norton. Faber & Faber. ISBN 0571239129. 
  • Wolpert, Lewis (2011). You're Looking Very Well: The Surprising Nature of Getting Old. Faber & Faber. ISBN 0571250653. 

Removed from sale after discovery of plagiarism.[7]

  • Wolpert, Lewis (2014). Why Can't a Woman Be More Like a Man?. Faber & Faber. ISBN 0571279244. 


  1. ^ https://humanism.org.uk/about/our-people/distinguished-supporters/professor-lewis-wolpert/
  2. ^ "Life Lessons". The Guardian (London). 7 April 2005. Retrieved 2007-10-06. 
  3. ^ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1qh98DX3-L0
  4. ^ "Is Science Dangerous?" (PDF). Archived from the original on 29 September 2007. Retrieved 2007-10-06. 
  5. ^ "The Telepathy Debate, Royal Society of Arts, London, 15th January 2004". Archived from the original on 9 July 2007. Retrieved 2007-10-06. 
  6. ^ a b Davis, Nicola (January 18, 2014). "Eminent scientist Lewis Wolpert sorry for using others' work". The Guardian. 
  7. ^ http://retractionwatch.com/2014/01/19/book-by-leading-biologist-lewis-wolpert-withdrawn-from-sale-for-plagiarism/#more-17929

External links[edit]