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About David J Depew

David J. Depew is Emeritus Professor of Communication Studies and POROI (Project on the Rhetoric of Inquiry) at the University of Iowa. He was previously Professor of Philosophy at California State University, Fullerton. Much of his work is in the philosophy, history, and rhetoric of evolutionary biology, writing often with Bruce H. Weber. He also writes on ancient biology and its relation to modern; and on how rhetoric, philosophy, and science have interacted since antiquity.
In my publications, I have looked at the non-evolutionary biology that preceded Darwinism with both Marjorie Grene in Philosophy of Biology: An Episodic History (Grene & Depew, 2004) and with Bruce Weber in Darwinism Evolving: Systems Dynamics and the Genealogy of Natural Selection (Depew & Weber, 1995). I have, for example, compared Aristotle and Darwin (Depew, 2008). Like Grene, I have tried to see what Aristotle's philosophy as a whole, including his political and poetic theories, looks like in the light of his focus on (and personal experiences in) biological inquiry.
I also look at why, among competing evolutionary frameworks, Darwinism has been more dominant than its rivals, and at the curious fact that when one version of Darwinism gets into empirical trouble it is usually succeeded not by non-Darwinism, but by a new, more explanatorily powerful, empirically less objectionable version of the theory of natural selection. This approach has allowed Weber and I to spot more pluralism in the Darwinian tradition than is often admitted (Depew and Weber,1995). It has also allowed me as an historian with a philosophical bent (and vice versa) to identify conceptual change as a principal mechanism by which this plurality is generated and maintained (Depew, 2005).
My stress on conceptual change has in recent years led me to explore a way of thinking about the history of Darwinism as public rhetoric. I have interpreted the Origin of Species itself in this light (Depew, 2009). I suggest that public-sphere discourse about Darwinism has long been somewhat out of sync with technical sphere Darwinian evolutionary science and that there is persistent miscommunication, as well as intense interaction, across these spheres (Depew, 2009). I approach debates about creationism and intelligent design as exhibiting this tension.
In a more speculative vein, often working with Bruce Weber, I have wondered what will happen to Darwinism as developmental genetics breaks out of the box into which the makers of the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis put it (Weber and Depew, 2001; Depew & Weber, 2011). Whether a putative “new synthesis” will be Darwinian (selectionist) or post-Darwinian depends in part, we have been surmising, on which version of the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis one privileges (Depew and Weber, 2011).
I am currently at work with John P. Jackson, an expert on the history of scientific racism in the United States, on a book manuscript about population genetical Darwinism and American anthropology. We argue that the overtly anti-racialist cultural anthropology that took root at Columbia University through the influence of Franz Boas intersected in scientifically and politically progressive ways with the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis in post-World War II America. We argue that this mid century connection has roots in distinctively American approaches to Darwinism that flourished at the turn of the twentieth century; and that accounts of the Sociobiology crisis of the l970s, and even disputes about the Evolutionary Psychology of the 1990s, are not persuasive or complete without reference to earlier discussions between anthropologists such as Ashley Montagu and population geneticists such as Theodosius Dobzhansky.
I research, think, and write in the long light of European intellectual history and its discursive dynamics. As the arrangement of selected publications below suggests, I see Darwin as heir to a great tradition of thinking that he honored by changing its trajectory (Depew, 2009). So too with many illustrious Darwinians, such as Dobzhansky. For this reason, I see no way to assess the claims of evolutionary biologists, especially where they bear on human affairs, without recognizing them as interpreters embedded in their own times as well scientists conversant with facts that they attempt, often quite successfully, to explain. I mention at the end of the list below some papers that bear on interpretation in historical disciplines, natural or social. In some of these papers, I call attention to the tension-filled but in my view ultimately productive rivalry between philosophy and rhetoric as interpretive guides. I also list book reviews from the last decade or so.


Present Professor Emeritus, Communication Studies, University of Iowa

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Books (9)

Aristotle (7)

From Aristotle to Darwin and Other 19th Century Thinkers (7)

Darwin and Darwinism (14)