Blute Blog

Blute's blog about evolutionary theory: biological, sociocultural and gene-culture.

Remembering David Hull

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This post is long overdue. David died in 2010 (see his brief biography and bibliography on Wikipedia). He was a philosopher of science, specifically of Biology, and wrote the first textbook on that – Philosophy of Biological Science in 1974. While he published much else, his magnum opus was Science as a Process: An Evolutionary Account of the Social and Conceptual Development of Science published in 1988.

Key Ideas: Science as a Process tells the story of the three schools of biological systematics vying for dominance in the 1970’s and early 1980’s – cladistics which maintained that biological classification should be strictly historical, numerical taxonomy which maintained that it should be based on overall observed similarities and differences, and those who advocated a pragmatic mixture of both and who called themselves evolutionary taxonomists. In the course of telling that story, Hull presented his evolutionary theory of science. Morphing into a sociologist, he used a variety of sociological methods including studying referees’ reports to illustrate it empirically. Science is based on curiosity (innovation), credit (descent), and checking (selection). Concepts, theories and methods in science literally evolve culturally including even by the equivalent of kin selection according to Hull.

He also took part in the lively units of selection debate in Biology over the plausibility or lack thereof of group selection. According to Hull, the debate was confused because the elements of an evolutionary process are predicated of different entities – genes replicate, organisms are selected and lineages evolve.

He is also remembered along with Michael Ghiselin for drawing a distinction between individuals and classes. Species and other higher taxa are “individuals”, not in the sense of functionally integrated organisms, but in the sense that they are branches of the tree of life – historically specific entities about which only particular statements can be made. They have an historical origin, a specific geographical distribution, and an historical end. They stand in contrast with the universally specified “classes” of traditional scientific theories, Newton’s mechanical systems for example obey certain laws whenever and wherever they are found. They did not deny that there may be such classes in biology scattered across the tree of life – laws governing small organisms with fast life cycles versus large ones with longer slower life cycles for example both of which can be found in a variety of taxa. Like his altruistic personality in general, David was proud of the fact that he and Michael never engaged in priority disputes over the individuals-classes distinction.

HIV/AIDS: As a gay man, David’s life was affected by the Aids outbreak in the west in the 1980’s. Not so well known is that he wrote Science as a Process, at nights while in the daytime nursing to the end two friends dying of HIV/AIDS. When I asked him why he did it, he said simply “they had nowhere else to go”. He regularly advised young colleagues to talk to their students about HIV. He used to say, “tell them you are not trying to stop their fun. It is just that they need to use protection until we get this thing figured out.” I have often wondered how many lives he saved indirectly that way.

Organizing & Mentoring: David did much organizing and mentoring. As well as being President of the Philosophy of Science Association for a time, while researching the history of biological systematics for Science as a Process, like the anthropologist who becomes king of the tribe he is studying, David became President of the Society for Systematic Biology! He was also a founding member of the International Society for the History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Biology, ISHPSSB or Ishkibble to insiders! Like David, it is interdisciplinary in nature – a society in which biologists, philosophers of science, historians of science and social scientists actually talk to one another about Biology and it remains my favourite society.

I had much personal experience of David’s mentoring of many younger colleagues from the first paper I sent to him based on part of my PhD thesis (by snail mail in those days). I received a prompt reply about how I got almost everything right except one thing! At various times he invited me to take part in sessions at Duke University and ISH, always followed my work with interest and comments, and I understand he wrote letters for my tenure and promotion to Associate Professor and later to full Professor. It was so characteristic of David that while a graduate student of mine, Paul Armstrong, was interviewing him for a project we were working on analysing texts and interviewing theorists on the general theories of science/scholarship that had emerged after the decline of logical positivism, a study later published in the journal Perspectives on Science, David could not resist inserting career advice for Paul!

Last Contact: My last contact with David was after the ISHPSSB meeting in Australia in 2009. He had had a fall and had not been able to go. We exchanged e-mails – he was anxious to know how everything went and all the gossip. When my monograph was coming out in 2010 I sent him the final text to read and was dismayed to soon receive a response from someone sorting out his academic affairs that he had died. That was probably the saddest day of my professional life.

Written by Marion Blute

May 5, 2019 at 7:18 pm

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  1. I had forgotten how touching this eulogy to David is. I’m so glad it’s now on your blog.


    Gail Greer

    May 5, 2019 at 7:29 pm

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