Templeton entangles itself with the National Academy of Sciences and University of Chicago Press

Well, I’m resigned to the fact that one lone voice of a superannuated biologist cannot overcome  the millions of dollars dispensed annually by the John Templeton Foundation, all in the cause of blurring the boundary between science and religion.  The Foundation simply pours too much feed into the Science Trough, and hungry researchers can’t help but sidle up for their ration of slop. And so event after event, science society after science society, holds out their hands for those free-flowing dollars, which Templeton dispenses without too much scrutiny.

The other day I was invited to a conference in Washington D.C. called “Evolutionary Theory: A Hierarchical Perspective”.  Here’s the announcement on the Internet; click on this screenshot (and others) to go to the website:

Screen Shot 2016-07-13 at 6.08.56 AM

As you’ll see in a second, the meeting is in conjunction with the launch of a new multi-authored book about hierarchies in evolution.

Looking at the program for the meeting, which takes place at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., I noticed that right after a ten-minute introduction by one of the book’s editors, there is to be an “introductory address by a representative of John Templeton Foundation.” That set off alarm bells, so I wrote back to the organizer, telling him that I don’t attend Templeton-sponsored events and asking what the Foundation’s involvement was in this project. I was told then that the Foundation has supported the conference’s work in a helpful and liberal way “in each step, without any kind of interference.” I was also reproved for having “a radical prejudice against attending a free scientific debate”. (I didn’t, however, notice any critics of the hierarchical view, like David Queller or Stuart West, among the invitees.) But of course the Templeton agenda isn’t usually achieved through interference, but through selectively funding those projects that meet its aims.

It turns out there’s an entire Hierarchy Group site, which announces that the John Templeton Foundation is their “major sponsor.” Now I’m not sure what Templeton’s after here, but my suspicion is that a). they want to show that modern evolutionary theory is woefully incomplete without the notion of hierarchy, as in group selection, and b). that a reductionist approach to evolution is unproductive.  (Templeton hates reductionism.) This is in line with Templeton’s historical pattern of funding, for example the large amount of money they give to David Sloan Wilson’s group to study multilevel selection as well as the evolution of religion.

This time the project, which was funded in 2013, got a small amount by Templeton standards: a mere $178,000.  Here’s the website:

Screen Shot 2016-07-13 at 6.06.18 AM


And that $178K has yielded a book: Evolutionary Theory, a Hierarchical Perspective which, to my immense sadness, is being published by the University of Chicago Press on September 28. If your own pocketbook is deep enough, you can pick it up for about $100. Looking at the contents, I’m not enthused.

My questions are, of course, why is the National Academy of Sciences hosting this event given the connection with a science-and-theology institute (the Templeton Prize was, as I recall, also awarded there a few years ago), and why is the University of Chicago Press issuing a book that wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the theological bent of John Templeton?

I’m sure both institutions could and will give good reasons for their decisions, but once again we see the insinuation of Templeton, and its agenda, into the nature of evolutionary biology. Unlike the National Science Foundation, which funds evolutionary biology after grants are peer reviewed by a panel of expert scientists, ensuring a rigorous vetting and support of all areas of the field, the Templeton Foundation dispenses cash without an overly rigorous review—and the projects must have an aim that comports with Templeton’s goals.

What this does, of course, is turn the course of science in a direction closer to what Templeton wants.  I abhor that, even though many of my colleagues are lined up behind the trough, licking their lips.


  1. Posted July 13, 2016 at 1:23 pm | Permalink


  2. Randall Schenck
    Posted July 13, 2016 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    Nothing seems to be more powerful than greed and few are immune to it. It lies at the heart of our demise.

    • Posted July 13, 2016 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

      Just ask Richard Fuld.

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted July 13, 2016 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

        Too bad more did not get the same. There are so many and he is only one.

  3. Posted July 13, 2016 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    Does the “hierarchical perspective” have the Pope at the top of the hierarchy?

  4. ploubere
    Posted July 13, 2016 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    Disappointing. But there is a long and ugly history of rich people’s money having undue influence over all aspects of society.

  5. Posted July 13, 2016 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    This is what happens when the fiduciary responsibility of the trust is to square circles where they shouldn’t be squared.

  6. Heather Hastie
    Posted July 13, 2016 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    There is not enough money invested in research and in tough times it’s often the first thing to be cut. This leaves a space for organisations like Templeton to insert themselves. If there’s nowhere else to get the money for their research, I understand why scientists would go to them. It’s obviously not ideal, but it’s the result of a lot of a less than ideal world.

  7. Posted July 13, 2016 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    I have two questions. What the hell sort of almost certainly immoral, if not illegal, activity did old man Templeton indulge in to accumulate so much loot? He must have been rich as Croesus.

    2nd, what does “hierarchy” refer to in evolutionary theory? All I can find on the web is stuff from this group, which is like asking the devil is hell isn’t nice enough.

    • Posted July 13, 2016 at 2:39 pm | Permalink


    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted July 13, 2016 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

      I have heard only some rumors about ‘hierarchy theory’ in evolution, and this is the first (not very) clear exposition about it that I have seen. Best I can tell, and it is pretty vague, is the idea that evolutionary changes at the genetic level naturally propagates up the hierarchy of biological organization. So populations evolve, of course because there are differences in reproduction rates between organisms in a population. What is ‘new’ here is that population level changes means that a community of organisms also changes. And that means the ecosystem changes. And that means the biosphere changes a little.

      If I have this basically right, then there is actually something to explore here. It is not wrong, but it will be very complex.

      What worries me, now that I think of it, is that it will be misunderstood to imply there are ‘mysterious pullers of strings’ at those higher levels. That ‘something’ is causing ecosystems to evolve. Ooooh. I can see the crooked fingers of Templeton already poised to seize upon such notions.

      • Posted July 14, 2016 at 12:27 am | Permalink

        Would an example be that, say, a hox or other gene changes in a bacterium and then — by some mechanism or another perhaps yet to be defined — this propagates “up” to us? That would put us back at the top again, where we were before the pedestal was pulled out from under us.

        How much money can go into wishful thinking!

      • Posted July 14, 2016 at 11:32 am | Permalink

        Correct me if I’m reading this wrong, but the way I read the table of contents of the volume is that it is just a vast generalization of the “levels of selection” idea beyond the usual genes, individuals, species.

        Does this have merit? Maybe. I’m just a layperson …

        Besides the introduction’s author (NE), are any of the names involved well known?

    • Posted July 13, 2016 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

      + 1

    • Posted July 13, 2016 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

      Templeton made his money in mutual funds; I don’t think it was illegal. But he did move to the Bahamas to avoid taxes. He was later knighted.

    • reasonshark
      Posted July 14, 2016 at 7:27 am | Permalink

      “Hierarchy” in evolutionary terms probably means something close to “multilevel selection theory”, the idea that there are multiple selection units working in tandem at different size scales, from genes through individuals and up to groups of organisms. It’s usually allied with group selection theories that try to explain social traits in terms of a group’s collective advantage rather than via individual or genetic advantage.

      That said, meme theory would count as a component of multilevel selection theory, too, since the proposed unit of selection – the cultural idea – acts (at least in part) independently of the gene.

      Hypothetically speaking, it’s a plausible idea. The unit in question has to be a self-replicator that every so often produces a minor variation – a mutant – that competes with the original for resources and can in theory replace it, and that codes for traits that can be passed on to another discrete generation – ideally because they help it to survive and compete in the first place.

      So basically, you need a multiplier that sometimes makes mistakes and that preserves whatever variant has the best overall advantage against resource competitors.

      The catch is that the vehicles those replicators inhabit can also look superficially like replicators themselves, the obvious example being asexual organisms that clone themselves. That’s why a lot of people easily fall into the trap of thinking individuals can be selected for; because individuals “multiply” and pass on their traits.

      But they pass on their traits in the first place because the genetic material* inside them is passing on the code for making said trait, not the trait itself. That’s why you can pull a leg off a stick insect and its offspring won’t be born with one leg fewer than normal.

      And if individual selection is untenable, then “higher level” selection is even more so, since groups rarely even have the suggestive replicator qualities individuals clearly do (for instant, discrete generations and non-genetic* inheritance**). Basically, try to imagine groups acting like giant discrete DNA strands, and you can see the problem quickly.

      * Also, some of the cellular structures are passed on along with the genes and contribute to inheritance and replication, but AFAIK you’re not missing much if you ignore them.

      ** Cultural inheritance, such as teaching skills and spreading ideas, is the obvious counterexample, so if memetics is true, then by extension that version of multilevel selection theory is true too.

      • Posted July 14, 2016 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

        Thanks. That clears up some things for me.

        • Posted July 15, 2016 at 10:57 am | Permalink

          Yes, species sorting, genus sorting, etc up the hierarchy, the Great Chain of Being.


          That’s what this is all about.

          Gould and Eldredge did not see that their idea of species sorting could be co-opted by the Intelligent Design lobby.

          Neither did I. Probably because I could not accept the operation of natural selection on anything higher than the level of the organism, resulting in speciation. So I simply ignored the theory.

          (Species sorting et seems to me to be unrelated to the theory of punctuated equilibrium.)

          I suppose that I am biased towards allopatric speciation. I suspect, but have no evidence, that the claimed instances of sympatric speciation are actually allopatric. The observers just do not have sufficient data about environmental differences at the time speciation occurred.

          We know now that during glacial maxima, the lakes in the African Rift system were dramatically drawn down. During the Holocene Climate Optimum, the same lakes may have overflowed and created mini-lakes.

          Much earlier, during the late Miocene to early Pliocene, was a time of mega-lakes in Africa. (The Sudd is a remnant of these mega-lakes.)

          Chichlid speciation may have arisen by allopatric speciation during a time when the environment was more fragmented than today.

          Today observers may claim that some species occupy the same ecological niche and therefore evolved by sympatric speciation.

          Too bad we can’t interview those chichlids to discover if they can perceive differences in their environments that we cannot perceive.

  8. Ken Elliott
    Posted July 13, 2016 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    I can’t quite articulate this the way I’d like, but it’s almost a case, among many, in which the accusers are guilty of the accusations they make. I have heard from some decidedly religious folks in my life that scientists are in on the grand conspiracy, that the whole thing is rigged, whatever the whole thing is. The place in which it seems to be legitimately rigged is with Templeton money pushing research in decidedly religious directions hoping to discover particular outcomes.

  9. Christopher Bonds
    Posted July 13, 2016 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    Sounds like $100 not well spent.

  10. Hempenstein
    Posted July 13, 2016 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    From my onw experience with private foundations – ones that don’t operate in the scientific sphere – they love nothing more than funding a study. Forget funding actual work that produces a result.

  11. peepuk
    Posted July 13, 2016 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    When Gould looks down from hell (atheist), what would he think?

    Everything in its right place, punctuated equilibrium has finally found its niche.

    • reasonshark
      Posted July 14, 2016 at 7:06 am | Permalink

      To be fair to Gould, punctuated equilibrium is not as radical an idea as, say, creationists like to portray it. It is legitimate to ask how regular or irregular evolutionary change is on geological timescales, i.e. whether it’s closer to being constant and continuous (strict gradualism), or closer to being jumpy and stop-start (punctuated equilibrium). It was a debating point within the framework of neodarwinism, not actually a challenge to it.

  12. Posted July 14, 2016 at 1:17 am | Permalink

    I wonder if what is objected in this blog article is evolution above the level of speciation, whether allopatric or sympatric?

    I have read most of what Niles Eldredge and S. J. Gould have written concerning punctuated equilibrium.

    Elizabeth Vbra’s Paleoclimatology and Human Evolution (Yale, 1995), which explored the same subjects but did not uncover much supporting evidence.

    Eldredge. Gould and Vbra seemed to me to follow in the tradition of Ernst Mayr. (Populations, Species, and Evolution. Cambridge, Mass. 1970) Mayr described his position as “organicist” in the popular text, This is Biology, 1997, page 20.

    I did not get the sense that any of these authors could be used to support a religious interpretation of evolution. I understood that these authors were concerned only with technical matters.

    Ditto Jeffrey Schwartz’s book Sudden Origins, Wiley 1999, which explore the role of hox genes to support the theory that human evolution has been in the direction of neoteny.

    I can see vaguely how the Templeton people might utilize theories of species selection. But even there, the connection with religion seems tenuous, far-fetched even.

    Am I missing something? Apart from purely technical issues with punctuated equilibrium, species selection and the modern evolutionary synthesis?

    • reasonshark
      Posted July 14, 2016 at 7:36 am | Permalink

      I think the idea behind the OP is that hierarchical evolution is considered a fringe idea that garners little support among the biological community, but that nevertheless gets an undue amount of attention, funding, and publicity as a result of a few parties who see it as a way of reclaiming religious credibility. Like with creationism and ID.

      For instance, group selection has often been invoked to explain the evolutionary value of religion, such as encouraging social cohesion, suppressing selfish impulses, and enabling ideas to thrive through tactical martyrdom and zealotry. Part of it is the pro-social nature of such ideas (“Selfish gene theory” versus “group selection theory” sounds like a classic good-versus-evil conflict), and part of it is probably a result of thinking evolutionary theory is too “materialistic” and needs help when explaining humans in particular.

  13. David Percival
    Posted July 14, 2016 at 5:05 am | Permalink

    This seems a rather hysterical overreaction. On the face of it the research is being done by well respected scientists into legitimate matters. If they come back with stuff which is suspect in some ways that is the time to criticise. the Department of defence does much research for motives that many of us would find objectionable but that does not mean that all the results are invalid. If science has to wait for funding from organisations that have passed some sort of prior approval knowledge is going to grow very slowly indeed.
    Is it that the gene centred reductionists are getting worried that their dogmas are under threat?

  14. hazel-rah
    Posted July 15, 2016 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

    My gag reflex to the Templeton Foundation has always been how its funded projects go seemingly unsupervised – particularly the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love.

    For all his boasting, DS Wilson’s religious studies enterprise has been about the sloppiest social science that I have witnessed in my lifetime. ‘Darwin’s Cathedral’ (2002) is inconclusive, resting on a sample set of three or four hastily reviewed, historical examples and an unfinished experiment on a randomized sample he introduces at the book’s conclusion. This publication was followed by a project he details in ‘Testing major evolutionary hypotheses about religion with a random sample’ (2005) – an investigation he organized through an undergraduate seminar, which ultimately failed to produce any conclusive results.

    Of course, Templeton is only partially to blame for this. Wilson has turned into a weapons-grade fruit loop:


    … but certainly the Foundation’s willingness to blindly throw heaps of cash at his half-baked ideas is not helping matters.

    In short, I suggest that Templeton is not perverting serious science through either gross capitalism or religious ideology. It is fostering vacuous pop philosophy that wastes audiences’ time, energy, and money. It is not so much Templeton that deserves to be attacked, it is the BS artists who suck at its teat.

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