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Emergence of Biological Complexity — Cambridge Templeton Consortium

Yesterday’s Nature has, on page 24 of the advertisement section, an announcement requesting grant proposals for the John Templeton Foundation’s “Purpose in the living world” research programme, titled “The Emergence of Biological Complexity” (for more go here and here). Purpose? Biological complexity? Evidence of fine-tuning in biological complexity? All in one breath? This may not be full-fledged ID, but it certainly isn’t “the literal interpretation of Darwin.”

THE EMERGENCE OF BIOLOGICAL COMPLEXITY

Introduction

The John Templeton Foundation has made up to $3 million available for research grants to stimulate and sponsor new research insights directly pertinent to the ‘great debate’ over purpose in the context of the emergence of increasing biological complexity, ranging from the biochemical level to the evolution of life and the emergence of society and culture. This programme seeks to enrich and deepen the rigour, quality, and scientific and philosophical basis for this debate. The focus is primarily on innovative scientific and systematic research, but projects with strong philosophical or theological components are also encouraged. Grant proposals from all sides of this ‘debate’ are welcomed. The deadline for proposal summaries is May 9th, 2005.

Topics and Scope

Biochemistry and Fine-Tuning: to what extent can arguments analogous to “fine tuning” in physics and cosmology be applied to chemistry and biochemistry?

  • How optimal are life’s nucleotide and amino-acid alphabets? How were these selected?
  • Do the properties of proteins or protein interaction networks show any evidence of fine-tuning?
  • Are there alternative solvents to water for the emergence and maintenance of life?
  • Are there evidences of fine tuning and convergence in biochemical pathways (such as the Krebs cycle)?
  • Does systems biology shed new light on the range of chemistries suited for the emergence of life?
  • What is the relationship between randomness at the molecular level and emergent biochemical properties?
  • Philosophical aspects and potential theological significance of biochemical fine tuning.
  • Evolutionary History and Contemporary Life: Evolution, Ecology, Ethology

  • What features in common do evolutionary trends show?
  • Is convergence of evolutionary importance?
  • How well do we understand evolutionary simplifications?
  • How can we define better the concept of character-complexes?
  • How similar are social systems in different groups of organisms?
  • How common are evolutionary reversals?
  • To what extent do differently constructed nervous systems: e.g. mammalian and molluscan, achieve similar mental capacities?
  • How similar are different modes of communication?
  • Becoming Fully Human: Social Complexity and Human Engagement with the Natural and Supernatural World

  • What is the nature and significance of convergences in cultural evolution (shamanism, the blossoming at certain times of monumental religious construction, sacrificial cults and potentially many others)?
  • Is the spiritual sense a human universal or perhaps even more broadly found among other hominids?
  • What does a study of the earliest symbolic cultures (as found at the Blombos cave site, for example) reveal about the connection of symbolism with being, spirit, and concepts of the transcendent?
  • How do archaeologists evaluate the “religion-drives-innovation” thesis that is more often proposed in other fields of study and with other kinds of data?
  • What do Neanderthal ‘burials’ imply about the evolution of a spiritual sense?
  • Can a study of prehistory contribute to the debate in the social sciences about the nature and importance of human agency and purpose? The fact that archaeology rarely reveals individuals never mind their intentions does not necessarily mean all of culture change is due to extrinsic factors such as climate, outside of any kind of ‘purpose’. Has the field progressed to the point where we may be able to newly enter this territory?
  • How can we recognise the spiritual, the religious, and conceptions of the transcendent from archaeological data?
  • What can we know of the religious or spiritual experiences of early Homo sapiens?
  • What evidence is there for directionality in human asocial and technological development?
  • The Consortium

    The selection and evaluation of proposals will be managed by the Cambridge Templeton Consortium, consisting of

  • Chair: Professor Derek Burke, Former Vice Chancellor of the University of East Anglia
  • Biochemistry and Fine Tuning: Dr. Jonathan Doye and Dr. Ard Louis, Department of Chemistry, University of Cambridge.
  • Evolutionary History and Contemporary Life: Evolution, Ecology, Ethology: Professor Simon Conway Morris FRS, Department of Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge.
  • Becoming Fully Human: Social Complexity and Human Engagement with the Natural and Supernatural World: Professor Graeme Barker FBA and Dr. Chris Scarre, McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge.
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