Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Templeton Funds Initiative in Evolutionary Biology

[See also updates at the end of the post]

I just saw the news (here - I’m not sure if this was made public earlier) about the John Templeton Foundation's $10 million multi-part grant to fund “Foundational Questions in Evolutionary Biology” (FQEB), an initiative to be led by Harvard’s Martin Nowak.

Nowak has led what is called the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics at Harvard and has focused on the mathematical modeling side of evolutionary studies. The first announced effort is to offer fellowships to scholars pursuing envelope-pushing work on topics in evolution as well as the study of the origin of life.

I would like to learn more about this, but here are a few tidbits from the above links which are interesting. While the name evokes the earlier Templeton funding of the Foundational Questions Institute (FQXi), this program is more geographically centered (in Boston) and so, while not involving a new independent physical institute, it nonetheless is less “virtual” than FQXi. FQXi exists mainly to provide grants to scholars whose work in foundational physics might not otherwise garner funding from traditional sources. FQEB seem to be more people-driven (and Harvard/Boston oriented), and Nowak’s role seems crucial.

Importantly to me, however (as someone who watches Templeton -- see here and here -- and “roots” for them to apply their vast resources wisely), the initiative raises more potential controversy in terms of whether pure science will result from this effort versus a bias to search out and rationalize religion-friendly results. (This is not an issue with FQXi, which I think anyone who supports pure physics would be at least broadly pleased with):

  • The stated goal includes a reference to "understandings of teleology and concepts of ultimate purpose".
  • A Templeton officer says a “next phase of FQEB” will include “rigorous integrative work” with scholars in philosophy and theology. 
  • The board includes a Divinity professor(!)
  • Nowak, who has had affiliations with Templeton for some time, is himself is a committed Christian (was this a necessary if not sufficient fact in spurring this initiative?). A short essay where he expresses some of his views is here.
 The reason this is concerning, obviously, is that this country has faced an long and ongoing challenge to keep education in evolutionary biology free from interference from misguided religious folks.  The Templeton Foundation has disavowed any support for the most prominent recent political agitators in this area – the “Intelligent Design” movement -- and I think their efforts in supporting science/religion rapprochement have been harmless (if often wasteful, in my opinion). But why make a big effort in science funding in this crucial and sensitive area (which is a wonderful idea) and then contaminate it with any religiosity at all? That concerns me and I’m worried that it is a big mistake.

[UPDATE 8 Jan.2010: It seems the Templeton newsletter emailed to me on 6th January, which is my first link above, was the first public notice of this; the next blogosphere notice was today and comes from the "Intelligent Design" promoter, William Dembski, here. My brief opinion of ID is above and in an earlier blog post here.]

[UPDATE 20 Jan.2010: Templeton has announced funding priorities for the new year, and, of interest to this blog, they include Quantum Physics and the Nature of Reality and Foundational Questions in the Mathematical Sciences.]

[UPDATE 21 Jan. 2010: Also interesting to me is Templeton’s recruiting of journalist and blogger Rod Dreher to a post called a director of publications. His new blog is here (the first post is here). I assume it is no accident that he is a Christian conservative. There seems to be plenty of circumstantial evidence of an ongoing tension at JTF between the late founder’s clearly non-sectarian, progressive view of the religious impulse and the current Christian conservative leadership.]


Doru said...

I am a believer that science and humanity will continue bluring boundaries.
The Templeton foundation is one more proof of that.

Steve said...

Some of that will be inevitable, I guess. Certainly scientists are sometimes guided in their inquiry by philosophical ideas/leanings.

But if you have an institutional framework which serves to blur the lines from the outset of a research program (as you offer money and recruit scholars), I think that can undermine the science.

Matt Peed said...

I like the idea of raising teleology in the context of mathematical modeling, since one of the interesting questions to me about evolution is whether certain kinds of emergent patterns would tend to arise over a broad range of starting conditions and historical contingencies. If so, I think that could mean something important. The undirectedness of evolution's results has been rightly re-emphasized in recent years in response to naive theistic evolutionist claims, for which (as an erstwhile believer) I am indebted; but I wonder if enough consideration has been given to the possibility that some outcomes might be inherently more stable and thus predictably emergent given enough time and mutations. Perhaps flirting with the idea of teleology (in the statistical sense, not unlike thermodynamics) could be a good corrective to the overemphasis of the prior corrective. If so, I definitely think philosophers, particularly philosophers of science, would have something to contribute to placing the results in context. I struggle over the role of reduction in science and philosophy, particularly at the hazy border between microscopic statistical noise and higher-order complexity. Still, I don't understand the role of theologians, though. If bottom-up investigative results are consistent with theological notions of teleology, so be it. But this sounds like a top-down search for theologically-harmonious teleologies, which is just silly. God can take care of himself.

Steve said...

You make some interesting points. I can't disagree that those teleological issues are worthwhile, and some cross-disciplinary work with philosophy would be the way to go. I guess if I were the czar I would do this as a supplemental program over and above a pure science grant. And yes, I would leave explicit theology out.