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In Memoriam Donald T. Campbell

Donald T. Campbell died on Sunday, May 5, 1996, apparently from the complications of surgery. He was Emeritus Professor of Sociology, Anthropology, Psychology and Education at Lehigh University.

Campbell was one of the truly important thinkers in evolutionary philosophy and social science methodology, and one of the most cited authors in the social sciences. He was a past president of the American Psychological Association, a distinction comparable to a Nobel prize in psychology. As a recent newsgroup message called him: "A very great experimental psychologist and methodologist (perhaps the greatest)" (Claire Gilbert, blazing[ at ]

We had made him a honorary "Associate" of the Principia Cybernetica Project (see the project's Masthead), since he had always supported our plans to collaboratively develop an evolutionary-cybernetic philosophy. I recently had the chance to collaborate with him on a paper entitled "Selection at the Social Level" (published in a special issue of "World Futures"), and we had plans to write further joint papers on the evolution of social systems. Alas, that cannot happen anymore.

The announcement included below emphasizes Campbell's contribution to experimental methodology. So let me remind you of his more philosophical contributions. He was the founder of the domain of "evolutionary epistemology" (a label he created), in which he generalized Popper's falsificationist philosophy of science to knowledge processes at all biological, psychological and social levels.

Within that domain his main contributions are the concepts of: 1) "Blind Variation and Selective Retention (BVSR)", where he emphasizes the fact that knowledge initially can only be developed by trial-and-error, and 2) "vicarious selectors", which allowed him to explain how initially blind trials could develop into intelligent search guided by knowledge developed earlier. He generalized the hierarchical organization of vicarious selectors in his analysis of the phenomenon of "downward causation" (another term popularized by him), where a higher level system or whole constrains its parts.

He applied this same evolutionary philosophy to the development of social systems, arguing that cultural evolution is necessary to explain the development of human society. The necessary tension between cultural and biological evolution allowed him to explain the organization of archaic societies and the emergence of religious systems. He used these insights to plead for the development of an evolutionary ethics, which could guide our actions without recurring to arbitrary metaphysical principles. He also applied these ideas to some problems in present-day society, arguing for alternative types of social organization, without falling into the trap of designing utopias which only work on paper.

The depth and thoroughness of his thinking, his attention to detail, and the width of the interdisciplinary terrain he covered (from psychology to anthropology, sociology, education, biology, philosophy and systems theory), should be an example to us all. Although he is no longer here to teach us in person, he leaves behind a wealth of writings which will inspire researchers for the decades to come. A small sample of his work can be found in his and Gary Cziko's of evolutionary epistemology.

The obituary below gives some more details about Campbells work in methodology.

> From: Burt Perrin <100276.3165[ at ]COMPUSERVE.COM>
> Don Campbell was one of the giants-arguably *the* giant-in evaluation  as
> well as in social psychology, philosophy of science, and in many other fields.
> He was one of the few true rennaissance men of our day, although I am sure he
> would reject the label. He spoke with people across many different disciplines
> and many different theoretical orientations, acknowledging the contributions
> of all.
> He set the intellectual direction for evaluation. For example, he reminded us
> that that our goal, as researchers and evaluators, is to aim to eliminate rival
> competing hypotheses through the simplest means possible. Campbell may be best
> known within evaluation circle for coining the concept of quasi-experimental
> designs and for advocating use of experimental methods for evaluation. Perhaps
> less well known is that Campbell did not hold these methods to be a priori
> superior to any other. Long before it became fashionable to do so, he also
> strongly defended the use of qualitative methods-and indeed of the application
> of common sense. The method must follow the question. Campbell, many decades
> ago, promoted the concept of triangulation - that every method has its
> limitations, and multiple methods are usually needed.
> I had the privilege of studying with Campbell in the 60s at Northwestern
> University - before anyone spoke of evaluation. He was my major intellectual
> inspiration. I remember how he frequently welcomed me-a lowly undergraduate-
> into his office - and invariably could insert a hand into a file cabinet or a
> pile of papers on or near his desk - and pull out something he had written
> about almost any conceivable topic.
> I will stop now. Program evaluation, psychology, philosophy, and humankind has
> suffered a major loss.
> Burt Perrin
> Toronto, Canada
> 100276.3165[ at ]

See also: Donald T. Campbell, Master of Many Disciplines, Dies at 79 obituary in the New York Times

Copyright© 1996 Principia Cybernetica - Referencing this page

F. Heylighen,

May 14, 1996 (modified)
Apr 25, 1995 (created)


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