Dr. Philippe Rushton
John Philippe (“Phil”) Rushton, age 68, passed away on October 2, 2012 after a courageous battle with cancer, characteristically publishing papers even during his illness. Phil was born in Bournemouth, England but lived his early years and took his early education in several countries including Canada. Returning to England in the 1960s, he earned a B.Sc. in psychology from the University of London in 1970 and a Ph.D. (1973) from the London School of Economics. After a post-doctoral fellowship at Oxford, Phil returned to Canada, teaching at York University (1974-1976) and the University of Toronto until 1977, in which year he accepted an appointment in the Psychology Department at the University of Western Ontario where he remained until his death. He was promoted to full professor in 1985. Phil published more than 200 articles, six books, including a co-authored introductory psychology textbook and was a Fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation (1988).
Phil’s early work followed from his PhD dissertation on altruism in children, resulting in highly cited papers based on social learning theory, and a well-received book, “Altruism, socialization and society (1980)”. Phil had wide interests centered on the understanding of individual differences. In addition to his research on altruism, he worked on personality traits, such as those expressed by professors in the classroom and by community health volunteers, he published on scientific excellence and on mainline methodological issues, such as data aggregation.
However, Phil’s career to a large extent was defined by work that first hit the news in 1989, in a paper he gave to a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. By this time, Phil had started to consider biological explanations for altruistic behaviors, such as genetic similarity theory and arguments popularized by E.O. Wilson’s 1975 book on Sociobiology. In his AAAS talk and subsequently, Phil argued that racial groups systematically differed on a set of personality and intellectual characteristics and he claimed that these differences were genetically based. These ideas were immediately criticized and led to a firestorm of opposition both across Canada and worldwide. Phil persevered always in defending and elaborating on those controversial ideas, including in his 1995 book, “Race, Evolution, and Behavior”. He was to the end willing to engage his critics, often by looking for additional supportive evidence of his theory.
It is not the place in an obituary to debate the logic, methodology or data Phil presented. That is the place and domain of the scientific community. What did become clear in 1989 and beyond was that the discussion of race from a biological perspective in which some groups were ranked lower on intellectual and moral dimensions was repugnant to many and would not be constrained nor contained in scholarly journals or debates.
Phil's ideas posed a challenge to the basic tenets of academic freedom and led to debate at Western and beyond. Community groups, politicians (including the then-Premier of Ontario, David Peterson), and students who perceived the work as scientific racism voiced their opposition, often calling for his dismissal from the university. The Ontario Provincial Police conducted an investigation to see if there were grounds for charges (there were not), and 19 individuals initiated human rights violation cases with the Ontario Human Rights Commission (but after years of stress for Phil, these cases were considered abandoned when the complainants failed to respond). There were demonstrations that disrupted Phil’s classes, and vandalized parts of the psychology department. Distressingly, many interested parties, even faculty members themselves, seemed oblivious to the essential role that academic freedom plays in the life of scholarly work in general. As noted by the Canadian Association of University Teachers, academic freedom is the “right to teach, learn, study and publish free of orthodoxy or threat of reprisal and discrimination”, calling it “the life blood of the modern university”. Ultimately, in defiance of the barrage of criticism that Western was facing- and showcasing the university at its best- the President of the University of Western Ontario (George Pederson) came out with a strong statement in defense of the precedence of upholding the concept of academic freedom. Although these events led to his isolation and reclusiveness within the Western professoriate, Phil Rushton remained at Western, continued to submit his papers to peer-reviewed journals and allowed his ideas to face the crucible of the scientific community.
J. Philippe Rushton is survived by his children Stephen and Katherine, granddaughters Jasmine and Aundreia and great-granddaughter Paige. Also survived by his brother Peter. Those wishing to make a donation in memory of Phil are asked to consider the London Regional Cancer Program - Research.