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David L. Hull, Philosopher of Science, Dies

Professor emeritus was devoted to understanding how science, particularly biology, works

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August 12, 2010 | by Megan Fellman

EVANSTON, Ill. --- David L. Hull, 75, Dressler Professor in the Humanities Emeritus at Northwestern University and a leading philosopher of science, died Aug. 11 of pancreatic cancer at his home in Chicago.

Mr. Hull, an evolutionary theorist, taught at Northwestern from 1985 to 2000. He is widely regarded as making known the field of research that became the philosophy of biology, and his career was devoted to understanding how science, and biology in particular, works.

“For all intents and purposes, David invented the field of philosophy of biology as we now have it,” said Kenneth Seeskin, professor of philosophy and Philip M. and Ethel Klutznick Professor of Jewish Civilization in Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. He was a close colleague of Mr. Hull.

Mr. Hull began his academic career, Seeskin said, as a sociologist of science, specializing in the life sciences. Eventually he knew the fields he covered so well that the professional societies he was investigating made him a member and asked him to present papers on substantive issues in science.  

“Honest and open to a fault, he was a model colleague who never once complained about office size, salary, teaching assignments, committee assignments or anything else,” Seeskin said. “When Northwestern first made him an offer, he took less than 15 minutes to think it over. In time, his colleagues -- myself included -- began to think of him more as an angel than a human being.”

Mr. Hull was the author of a 1988 book, “Science as a Process: An Evolutionary Account of the Social and Conceptual Development of Science,” perhaps his most well-known and controversial work. Scientific change occurs, according to Mr. Hull, in much the same way that evolutionary change occurs in the natural world -- via repeated cycles of variation, replication and environmental interaction. One of his earliest ideas that has stood the test of time is the notion that species are individuals rather than classes of things with essential features.

“There are many whose careers owe something to David,” said Robert J. Richards, Morris Fishbein Professor of the History of Science at the University of Chicago, in a Chicago Sun-Times obituary.

In 2009, Mr. Hull donated books and reprints from his personal library to the Arizona State University Center for Biology and Society. The David L. Hull Collection includes a number of out-of-print books as well as published works on evolutionary biology, systematics and taxonomy, psychology, Darwin and the philosophy of science.

Mr. Hull was an advocate for gay and lesbian rights and worked with disadvantaged youth. He also was an avid artist and painter.

After serving in the Army, Mr. Hull got his undergraduate degree at Illinois Wesleyan University in 1960 and his Ph.D. at Indiana University in 1964, where he received the program’s first Ph.D. in the history and philosophy of science.

He taught biology and philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee from 1964 to 1984. Mr. Hull joined the Northwestern faculty in 1985 and was named the Dressler Professor in the Humanities in 1989. He retired from the University in 2000. Mr. Hull held positions in scientific societies, including as president of the Philosophy of Science Association and the Society for Systematic Zoology.

Mr. Hull is survived by his brother, Richard Hull of North Carolina, one niece and two nephews. A memorial service is being planned for October.