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My Absent Career 5: Two Davids

Last updated on 1 Jan 2023

Sometime around 1994, I was finishing my computing diploma and got access to a unix terminal. Typing various commands assigned to us, I mistyped something and instead typed rn and what came up was the mother of all chat boards, which I later found out was called USENET, but which I knew as “newsgroups”. Among the list was which was tailor-made for me, not least because Terry Pratchett himself sometimes commented. I met Terry three or four times, including at a dinner organised by the Pratchett Club at Melbourne Uni. He was an incredibly generous author to his fans, and it was fun trying to get him to crack a joke on the group.*

However, there were also groups that discussed things I was interested in. One was where actual biologists posted interesting things about, err, evolution. It was moderated too, so it lacked my other fascination – creationists. But not to worry, because there was a third group – By 94, I was a full fledged contributor. Now these were useful because I was learning about evolution as part of my take on Hull’s approach to science. Cultural and epistemic processes resemble often biological evolution, so I figured I had better wrangle some free education out of these folk while I could. But it was also useful as a former Christian to consider how the epistemic commitments of these extreme creationists (and they are, just like flat earthers and anti-vaxxers are extremists) led them to basically reject all science and history to speak of.

One of the things I found most interesting was that the partisanship was political as much as doxastic. They did not believe in creation or hate evolution because that was something they had come to by reflection. It was because they were told to by authority figures. This was also, to a lesser extent, true of the proevolution exponents. In fact, as a result of my years there (roughly 20 years) I both formed my idea of epistemology as a social development process, and made numerous friends of like mind, something I could not have done easily in Melbourne.

One person who was of enormous assistance to me was David Rindos, an evolutionary anthropologist. I never met David personally (he lived in Perth, though he was an American, which may as well have been in America for all I had the ability to travel), but for several years not a day went past without a discussion. When he died in 1997, I was devastated. I mourned a man I only knew via ASCII text, and I didn’t know how to process that.

Through these groups I also connected with numerous scientists. I won’t list them but they have helped me in many of my projects and publications (and appear in the acknowledgements of those publications). David Hull, of course, was a great influence, even if I did end up disagreeing with him. Unfortunately, my last interaction with his was my rejection of the essentialism story, and my suggestion to him that he had misunderstood that Aristotle’s use of genos and eidos were logical terms, not terms of natural history. David said to me, in basically my last conversation at his home in Chicago, “Well, Aristotle was a piss-poor philosopher then, if he didn’t use his terms consistently!” I know David had a better understanding of Aristotle than that. He was ill by then, and probably in pain. I let it slide, but we never spoke again. I fear he thought I was being disloyal.

I have found that there are two kinds of academics: those who think their students should toe a line of some kind in order to be allies. I have met a number of those. And the other kind just appreciate a good argument and good work in their students. I have met a precious few of them, and I cherish and am thankful for them. Gary Nelson is one, and H. John McCloskey, who taught me Metaethics at Latrobe was another. David was an amazing help to me for no real benefit to him, and I respect him for that. But I feel that he wanted me to remain orthodox, and I couldn’t. It didn’t stand up, and I suspect he knew that.

* It was from Terry that I learned the art of numerous unnecessary footnotes.