WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Author and academic Denis Dutton, founder of the popular and pioneering Arts & Letters Daily website, has died in New Zealand, his family said Wednesday. He was 66.
Dutton had prostate cancer but continued working as professor of philosophy at New Zealand's Canterbury University until his health deteriorated rapidly a week ago, the family said. He died Tuesday.
He was widely known for Arts & Letters Daily, a groundbreaking early Internet aggregator featuring links to commentary on arts, literature and events.
"I think that he has been an incredibly passionate advocate for ideas and truth and a wonderful father and husband," said his son, Ben.
Dutton established Arts & Letters in 1998, later saying in interviews that he was simply looking for a way to capture and organize the ballooning number of book reviews, articles and essays available online. The site, designed to look like an 18th-century broadsheet, quickly gained a loyal following, with London's Guardian newspaper describing it in 1999 as "the best website in the world."
Readers were drawn to the content Dutton featured, but also to the clever teasers he penned to highlight each piece.
Dutton hoped the site would prompt people to stretch themselves intellectually and explore fresh ideas that do not necessarily fit preconceived notions.
"A vegetarian gun-control advocate who opposes capital punishment is fine," he told Salon.com in a 2000 interview. "But what pricks my interest more is the vegetarian anti-capital punishment cowboy who carries three shotguns displayed in the back window of the cab of his truck."
Tributes to Dutton began flowing across the Internet as news of his death spread Wednesday, with fans calling him a Renaissance man, a gentleman and a visionary. "Denis was the intellectual's Matt Drudge," wrote The New Yorker.
Dutton continued on as editor of Arts & Letters after selling it in 2002 to the U.S.-based Chronicle of Higher Education.
"Denis was the creative force behind Arts & Letters Daily and wrote all the items on the page himself, even when he was on vacation," Phil Semas, president and editor in chief of The Chronicle, said in a statement posted on the company's website. "He is nearly irreplaceable. Even so, we intend to continue Arts & Letters Daily in the spirit in which Denis created and nurtured it."
Dutton was born in California on Feb. 9, 1944 and later received a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of California Santa Barbara. After college, he joined the Peace Corps and moved to India, where he became enchanted with the sitar, an instrument he continued playing for decades.
He taught at several U.S. universities, including the University of Michigan, where in 1976 he founded the academic journal, "Philosophy and Literature," later taken over by Johns Hopkins University Press.
In 1984, he moved to New Zealand to work as a philosophy professor at Canterbury University. It was from there that he launched Arts & Letters Daily.
His recent work focused on Darwinian applications in aesthetics, explored in his best-selling book "The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure and Human Evolution," in 2009, which he described as a study of art as a product of evolution.
"Whenever you have a pleasure, whether it's a pleasure of sweet and fat or the pleasure of sex or the pleasure of playing with your children, or being in love, that does suggest that there is some kind of Darwinian adaptation that underlies the phenomenon," he said last year in an interview with Radio New Zealand's National Radio.
Dutton also helped found the New Zealand Skeptics Society. The group's president, Vicki Hyde, told National Radio Wednesday that Dutton was a larger than life character "who was always eager to learn more and ... always willing to see the absurdity of human nature, but (who) never became too cynical about it."
He also served as a board member of state-owned Radio New Zealand for seven years.
In early December, Dutton was awarded Canterbury University's Research Medal, its highest honor for a researcher described as a true intellectual leader.
He is survived by his wife, Margit, and two children, Sonia and Ben.
Funeral details were not immediately available.
Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press
Published in The Washington Post on Dec. 29, 2010.