Death of John Davison–a little late

I guess I missed this last year:

John A. Davison obituary

For future reference, here is his hopelessly disorganized blog:

http://jadavison.wordpress.com/

which may eventually disappear, depending on WordPress.com policy. Then there is this page, which also will probably disappear:

http://www.uvm.edu/~jdavison/

I’m afraid John will leave no clear scholarly legacy, since his theories were never presented and disseminated in a way that would preserve them. However, he left a huge impression on the evolutionary debates, as arguably the most tenacious and prevalent commenter and the one who was most despised by all parties.

To me, the most interesting thing about him was his rhetorical position, which refused to align with established parties and maintained a stubbornly idiosyncratic viewpoint. I suppose I identified with that and envied his outspokenness.

His rhetorical position seemed to be a great example of what happens when someone combines various purely inductive insights without trying to apply any sort of metaphysical framework. That is totally contrary to the axioms of rationalistic thought as it has been practiced since the Renaissance; it is a sort of literal, pedantic understanding of inductive reasoning.

It also matches up perfectly with the stereotypical method of conspiracy theory construction, and not coincidentally, John was rather conspiracy-minded. That psychology has been an object of fascination for me for a long time.

I felt sorry for John because of his banishment from other sites, despite how well-deserved it was, considering how disruptive he could be for someone trying to manage large numbers of commenters and create coherent discussion threads. This is also consistent with the influence of conspiracy theory fans in politics, insofar as they tend to disrupt everyone’s attempts to shape the public narrative. Yet, if the tide turns and a particular conspiracy theory becomes a widespread belief, it can seem to drive a genuine sociological shift. I suspect that such a shift is actually the result of more tangible forces, though, and that the popularity of a particular cloud of anomalous ideas merely provides cover for intellectual rationalization on all sides, including historians writing narratives long after the fact.

I would characterize “evolution by natural selection” as just such an inductive fallacy (while acknowledging that this position is normally taken by evolution advocates against the “argument from design”).

For example, the Darwinian explanations for speciation and extinction would have had little impact on the world if not for the pre-existing 19th-century social trends of positivism, cultural imperialism, and racial purification. All three of these trends led to evident absurdities and atrocities in the 20th century, and Darwin nearly became a minor footnote in scientific history.

Then, “evolution by natural selection” was rehabilitated as a transcendent metaphysical system (“nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”) by being incorporated within the real science of genetics in the middle of the 20th century. It became relevant as a political issue in the US by piggybacking on the “space race” era concern for total social mobilization in support of science, and then (paradoxically, I think) became attached to global environmentalist fanaticism.

Right now I think the pro-evolution rhetoric has degraded somewhat, and the only way it will make progress is if there is a consolidation into a pantheistic set of beliefs, or if there is a momentous technological breakthrough in transhumanism. There is also a remote possibility that evolutionary psychology could metastasize into a religious system. Otherwise, “evolution by natural selection” will become a meaningless political position with decreasing social relevance, as “free market capitalism” and “international communism” already have.

I considered John Davison’s theistic evolution to be a quirky example of how someone might consolidate evolution and ethics in order to make it relevant again. Of course, he had no hope of spreading his ideas, since he was personally too annoying and he never found a political niche for his position. Nevertheless, I valued his strident argumentativeness and his unwavering sincerity.

 

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