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The Next Revolution in Biology (according to the Templeton Foundation)

I just received this email from the Templeton Foundation. It is fascinating for what it includes and leaves out. On the one hand, it admits that evolutionary theory is incomplete and it even tacitly consents to evolution being a telic process (evolution is a “search mechanism” — Bob Marks and I have been arguing that evolution is a search right along at the Evolutionary Informatics Lab — www.evoinfo.org). And there’s even an admission that there might be limits to evolvability (a dominant theme in ID research). At the same time, intelligent design is given no mention and the solution to evolution’s incompleteness is said to lie in “cooperation,” which is supposed to complement the competition usually associated with Darwinism. I tried to find this announcement on the web, but it appears not to be up yet, so I’m reprinting the newsletter here without a link.

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The Next Revolution in Biology [from "Templeton Report" newsletter, 6jan10]

“In every field of science, when it’s successful, you think you understand all of it,” says Martin Nowak, professor of mathematics and biology at Harvard University. “In classical mechanics,” he explains, “there was a time when physicists thought, “‘Well, that’s all there is. If I know the place of the particles in the universe, I can predict the future.’ But then came quantum mechanics and relativity theory. There was a total revolution.” Nowak is hard at work trying to launch another revolution, this time in evolutionary biology. “Our understanding of evolution,” he says, “is very incomplete.”

Thanks to a five-year, multipart grant of more than $10 million from the John Templeton Foundation, researchers will be able explore some of the Foundational Questions in Evolutionary Biology (FQEB) that have yet to be answered. For instance, Nowak explains, “evolution does not explain the origin of life because evolution presupposes populations of reproducing individuals.” The origin of life, what he calls “prevolution,” needs more research. This would include examining the transition in which chemistry finally gave rise to biology.

Established in 2009 to mark the Darwin double anniversary (Darwin’s 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species), FQEB is offering fellowships of up to $75,000 for up to two consecutive years of research for both junior and senior scholars in a variety of fields. The deadline for applications for the first round of fellowships is February 1, and the fellows will begin work in September.

The scholars who win fellowships will do research at Harvard or other academic institutions in the Boston area. They will be expected to participate in the creation of new research networks, to attend regular meetings, and to work across disciplinary boundaries. Priority will be given to work that has significant philosophical implications for evolutionary biology and scientific understanding more broadly.

What kind of research meets that standard? Nowak offers another example. Evolution, he says, is a kind of “search mechanism.” “It searches for constructions, for solutions, for particular cell shapes, particular organs. Evolution is always searching, but there is a space of possibilities that is being searched.” He asks, “What is that space of possibilities? How can we describe a theory of that space that is being searched?”

Another foundational question is, Why do individuals cooperate? Scientists long assumed there were only two principles of evolution: mutation and competition. But in recent years, Nowak says, they have identified a third principle: cooperation. “Why would competing individuals help each other?” he asks. The idea that natural selection favors cooperation–perhaps because individuals who cooperate get the reputation oof helping others and thus gain an advantage themselves–represents a fundamental shift in evolutionary biology.

Some of the other questions to be addressed by the FQEB initiative include:

• What are the limits of evolvability, and how are these transcended?
• Why does evolution (sometimes) lead to increasing complexity?
• Are there different kinds of evolution, and is there evolution in the context of evolution itself?
• What are the natural laws of evolutionary change, and can we derive a complete mathematical theory of evolutionary laws?

The field of evolutionary biology is “ripe for new approaches and ideas,” says Barnaby Marsh, vice president of strategic initiatives at the Foundation. For Sir John Templeton, such exploration on the frontiers of science was a priority, as was interdisciplinary work that might bring fresh perspectives. The next phase of FQEB, Marsh says, will include “rigorous integrative work” with scholars in philosophy and theology.

In addition to Nowak and Marsh, the board of FQEB includes Sarah Coakley, the Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge (UK); Mark Kirschner, Professor of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School; Naomi Pierce, Hessel Professor of Biology at Harvard University; and Jeffrey Schloss, chair of the biology department at Westmont College.

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7 Responses to The Next Revolution in Biology (according to the Templeton Foundation)

  1. The former agent for The Spiritual Brain (Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary, Harper One 2007) later got a JOB at Templeton, but insisted on keeping The Spiritual Brain at the same time.

    And little happened for the book thereafter.

    Read it, and decide for yourself.

    Oh, you wonder? Me, have an an agent?

    No, of course not. I was recruited for the project at a science journalists’ conference.

    I met or talked to the people and it sounded okay. I didn’t guess about Templeton bucks.

    And I had never expected this outcome.

    But what do you know these days?

  2. A lot of the questions that they want to ask are the ones ID says haven’t been answered but yet we are constantly told this is settled science with almost total consensus.

  3. Sounds a lot like the discussion we’re having in the previous thread.

  4. 4

    Dr. Dembski,

    You and Prof. Marks give many examples of search, but do not say what the term “search” denotes. I would like to see not only a denotative definition, but also an operational definition. What is the intension of a search process in nature? If someone identifies a natural process, by what procedure do we decide (now, not later) whether or not it is a search process?

  5. This would include examining the transition in which chemistry finally gave rise to biology.

    Note the materialistic assumption here, which, if wrong, will mean pursuing a phantom. Such rainbow chases are relatively easy to detect.

    It seems clear that chemistry did not give rise to biology. Chemical reactions don’t produce information and functionally integrated information-processing machinery. Yet, it is upon such technology that living systems are fundamentally based.

    Chemistry is the medium; information is the message. Life is a message, and modern science has demonstrated that beyond any reasonable doubt.

  6. Yes. And since neither physics nor chemistry has anything to say about information, neither physics nor chemistry will ever explain the origin of life. It’s logically impossible. Explaining the abstract in terms of quarks, leptons, and fundamental forces. Ha.

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