Templeton wastes $ 630,791 on “biology” research, finally making its anti-evolution agenda explicit

The John Templeton Foundation has announced yet another big grant for “biology” research, except that its principal investigators are a theologian (Christopher Southgate) as well as a biologist (Niles Lehman). Click on the screenshot to go to the announcement. As you see, the grant, which just started, will last 32 months, and eat up over half a million dollars:


But first meet the principals/ Southgate is an associate professor of Theology and Religion at the University of Exeter. His own website details his activities, and, as usual, he’s been supported by Templeton in several ways. There’s no evidence that he has any qualifications to be Principal Investigator on a biology grant:

THEOLOGY – Chris has taught at the University of Exeter since 1993. His main fields of study are the science-religion debate, ecotheology and environmental ethics. He welcomes enquiries from prospective research students. His current project is on divine glory (see Zygon, Dec 2014)

His current teaching includes the modules ‘Evolution, God and Gaia’, and ‘God, Humanity and the Cosmos’. His book The Groaning of Creation: God, Evolution and the Problem of Evil (Westminster John Knox Press, 2008) has been described as ‘quite excellent’ (Church Times)

Chris is Project Director for a major new project in practical theology, aimed at identifying good practice after a congregation has suffered a sudden tragedy. For details see www.tragedyandcongregations.org.uk. This project is funded by the Templeton World Charities Foundation Inc.

SCIENCE – Chris will also be Principal Investigator on a new scientific project starting in January 2018 entitled ‘Cooperation and interpretation in the emergence of life’. More details shortly.

But wait—there’s more:

Southgate’s research and teaching won him a Templeton Award, and he has since served as a Coordinating Editor of the Science and Religion Textbook Project for the Templeton Foundation.

But wait: there’s still more!:

  • “How can congregations be helped in times of tragedy?”, £154,977 from the Templeton World Charities Foundation [JAC: see above]
  • “Information and the Origins of Life’, with Andrew Robinson. £196,562, Science and Transcendence Advanced Research Series, made possible by the Templeton Foundation, 2008-2011.

As usual, once you have a stall in the Templeton stable, they keep giving you big buckets of oats.

Niles Lehman is a professor of chemistry at Portland State University, and, at least, has some qualifications, since his research is in prebiotic chemistry. Like Southgate, he’s been munching from Templeton’s feed bag for a while; this announcement is from 2006:

Niles Lehman, Chemistry faculty, received a $436,432 grant from the John Templeton Foundation for “NetLife: Experimental Evolution of Networks in Abiogenesis.”

What a pity he had to put together a Templeton grant proposal with a theologian. But why on earth did Lehman do it?

Well, of course, there’s the money—essential to advance both your research and your career. But that isn’t all: have a look at Templeton’s description of what the grant is about. I’ve rarely seen Templeton be so explicit about why they’re constantly going after neo-Darwinism:

The Darwinian research program has been very successful over almost 150 years. But two of its core presumptions militate against pursuit of one of JTF’s key areas: ‘the exploration of the evolution and fundamental nature of life, especially as they relate to meaning and purpose’. These Darwinian presumptions are: the centrality of competition, and the need to avoid teleological explanations. 

In other words, because the Templeton foundation doesn’t like competition (although of course Sir John made his money as a mutual fund manager) or nonteleological—i.e., naturalistic—explanations, they have to attack the evil instantiation of those paradigms: modern evolutionary biology. Clearly, Templeton is trying to buttress Sir John’s original agenda, which was to find evidence for God in science, and to finally answer those Big Questions of meaning and purpose. And such evidence would be teleology in biology: non-materialistic evidence of “purpose” or directionality in evolution.  Ergo, this grant sets out to find it:

This project works at the transition from non-life to life, to clarify key characteristics of life at its origin, and therefore its fundamental nature. We draw on published work by the project team showing the importance a) of cooperation between RNA fragments in developing catalytic ability and correct folding, and b) of purposive responses to signs in the environment (interpretation) understood within a naturalised teleology, also demonstrated in single RNA molecules. Showing interpretation in proto-life implies that meaning-finding and purpose goes ‘all the way down’. Through empirical research and computer modeling, the present project seeks to answer the question: can a cooperative system of RNA catalysts be constructed capable of two modes of action based on interpretation of the state of the environment. Using proven experimental systems, computer models and game theory, we will explore adaptive interactions between these two behaviors in evolutionarily ancient molecules. The project aims to show that cooperation (rather than mere competition) and interpretation (which is inherently purposeful) may together have been intrinsic to the emergence of life. We expect at least four major papers to result from the study, together with presentation at the International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life, a review article on the philosophical implications, and a TED talk. The proposed work could help to show that the default mode of Nature can be meaning-seeking and cooperative, not selfish as is widely supposed.

I am astonished, for of course cooperation between fragments of RNA could be (and almost certainly is) the result of natural selection, not God telling the molecules, “Thou shalt cooperate in helping big molecules fold properly.” As for the “purposive responses to signs in the environment. . . understood within a naturalised teleology”, I have no idea what that means. If they find molecules cooperating (and by that I mean “working together”), how can that provide evidence for God? Does the cooperation of molecules in clotting blood, or fighting antigens, also denote “purposive responses”? No, I’m afraid that Drs. Lehman and Southgate will have to do better than showing cooperation to convince us of teleology in nature.

Well, they strain at gnats:

. . . we will explore adaptive interactions between these two behaviors in evolutionarily ancient molecules. The project aims to show that cooperation (rather than mere competition) and interpretation (which is inherently purposeful) may together have been intrinsic to the emergence of life.

Again, what does it mean to say that “interpretation is inherently purposeful”? Is that the job of theologian Southgate to get his $300,000 by pronouncing, “Cooperation means God did it”? And in what way would “interpretation”, which is a phenomenon of human mentality, have been “intrinsic to the emergence of life”?

So we see again an enormous waste of money, and a seemingly reputable scientist getting mired in the hinterlands of theology. It is beyond me how a researcher can participate in such a project, unless he’s either a believer or desperate for money.

The only good thing about this announcement is that Templeton pulls no punches in telling us why they don’t like modern evolutionary biology: it’s too naturalistic (no teleology) and too competitive (presumably between “selfish genes” or organisms themselves in ecology and evolution). And so they throw money at projects that attack these paradigms.

The thing is, we have no evidence against pure naturalism, and competition among genes and individuals is well documented. Of course “selfish” genes can produce cooperation, something that Dawkins has been at pains to emphasize given the misconstrual of his title “The Selfish Gene.” But that’s not enough for Templeton. They not only want to show cooperation (which is presumably why they fund people like David Sloan Wilson and Martin Nowak), but also that the cooperation comes from God. Sadly, there’s still no evidence for Templeton’s teleological God (remember, they once funded Intelligent Design projects for that reason), and so they throw good money after bad.

I find the John Templeton Foundation reprehensible, for they take advantage of scientists’ need for money to push their own agenda, which is a nasty miasma of theology and science. I decry any scientist who would take money from them, and I won’t listen to excuses like “I’m just doing pure science.” In this case Lehman doesn’t have that excuse, for he co-wrote a grant with a theologian designed to find purpose in the origin of life. Shades of Genesis!

Here: have a six-minute video (click on screenshot) featuring Southgate telling us about God’s nature, and supposedly answering the question, “Did God make animals suffer?” (I gather Southgate’s answer is “yes”, and his astonishing explanation is apparently so that animals could experience the sufferings of Jesus and, like humans, be redeemed by the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Typical theological apologetics. This bit starts at 4:42.)

Creation may be groaning, but so is Professor Ceiling Cat (Emeritus)!


  1. Posted April 6, 2018 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    So to summarize, the PIs research backgrounds are:

    The evolution of RNA catalytic ability and

    Divine glory

  2. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted April 6, 2018 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    “His main fields of study are the science-religion debates, […]”

    Sounds so studious, erudite, monkish – what other pair ups can we conjure up :

    Science v superstition
    Science v not-science
    Science v magic
    Science v Literature
    Science v Sports

  3. Dave
    Posted April 6, 2018 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    “Did God make animals suffer?” (I gather Southgate’s answer is “yes”, and his astonishing explanation is apparently so animals could experience the sufferings of Jesus and, like humans, be redeemed by the Crucifixion and Resurrection.”

    While idly browsing wildlife videos on YouTube during my lunch hour today, I came across some footage of an injured deer being eaten alive by a pair of Komodo dragons. The dragons went in by the back entrance, so the prey was alive and conscious for quite a long time. From the noises it was making it clearly didn’t enjoy the procedure. I felt quite sorry for the poor beast at the time but I feel much better knowing that it was experiencing the sufferings of Jesus, and that it’s now happily grazing in cervine heaven.

    • Helen Hollis
      Posted April 6, 2018 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

      But, Catholics do not claim that animal souls are immortal. So why, if they are not immortal souls need they suffer for a Jesus that will not let them in to heaven?

  4. Historian
    Posted April 6, 2018 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    I watched the Southgate video. He thinks apparently that pain and suffering are reflections of God’s glory. I couldn’t discern why he thinks this is the case. If so, is this a god worthy of worship? In any case, we have another example of theological drivel.

    • Posted April 6, 2018 at 11:41 am | Permalink

      Oh, a religious masochist (or sadist)! Those are so much fun! (Cf. Mother Theresa)

  5. Randall Schenck
    Posted April 6, 2018 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    Templeton is really no different from the big money campaign pacs in the u.s. buying their political and social order. Big Templeton meet the Koch Brothers. I see no difference, using money to influence agenda and public thinking.

  6. Posted April 6, 2018 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    What they call ‘cooperation’ does evolve ‘all the way down’. There is nothing new about that! But other terms describe the same thing while not being nearly as misleading. Words like ‘interdependency’, ‘coevolution’, ‘symbiosis’, and ‘mutual exploitation’.

    ‘Ecotheology’ is apparently a thing, as described here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ecotheology In brief, it is environmentalism motivated by spirituality. If the JTF spent tons of money on actually trying to improve the environment I would try hard to say slightly nicer things about them.

  7. Posted April 6, 2018 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    I don’t think evolution presumes organisms compete, as Templeton claims. That would suggest an ultimate purpose—to best a rival. Organisms just do what they do, and if they are good at it and reproduce, the sieve of natural selection implies that they will flourish. If not, they will not. We just classify what we see them doing into human terms like competition and cooperation.

  8. glen1davidson
    Posted April 6, 2018 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    The project aims to show that cooperation (rather than mere competition) and interpretation (which is inherently purposeful) may together have been intrinsic to the emergence of life.

    I think that the point about interpretation being inherently purposeful means that they’re going to purposefully interpret the data to fit their agenda.

    Btw, there’s certainly nothing new about cooperation being important in life, and it may well be important in the origin of life as well.

    So one mealy-mouthed statement about “interpretation” that makes no sense, and, apparently, their hope to try to interpret cooperation in some self-serving way.

    It should be cancelled for being impossibly opaque and ambiguous, but it won’t be because the whole intent is to inject teleology into life. Not necessarily anti-evolution altogether, but clearly they’re hostile to the non-teleological versions that the evidence actually fits.

    Glen Davidson

  9. Ken Kukec
    Posted April 6, 2018 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    … once you have a stall in the Templeton stable, they keep giving you big buckets of oats.

    Problem is, the Templeton provender
    eventually makes its way through the academic alimentary canal to be published as droppings at the other end.

  10. Ron DeBry
    Posted April 6, 2018 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    Lehman is Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Molecular Evolution. Puts a somewhat scary spin on the acceptance of Templeton $$$.

  11. Posted April 6, 2018 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    I have no problem with a notion of “cooperation” being extended to molecules (if one grants the “selfish gene” idea). But teleology? Gettoutahere.

  12. James McCloskey
    Posted April 6, 2018 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    “The project aims to show that cooperation (rather than mere competition) and interpretation (which is inherently purposeful) may together have been intrinsic to the emergence of life.“

    I didn’t get a chance to reply on PCC(E)’s “purpose and meaning” thread, but my would-have-been response is relevant here:

    S = k log W

    As far as I can tell, the purpose of life is to accelerate the heat death of the universe.

    And if cooperation (as one approach in the competition to survive) results in a more stable and/or more efficient means to increase entropy, so be it.

  13. Posted April 6, 2018 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    Wish they had a 2nd look at the title of The Groaning of Creation… before they published. I bet I am not the only one who thought it ribald.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted April 6, 2018 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

      I didn’t notice till you mentioned it (I must be getting slow) – and now I can’t un-notice it. 8-(


  14. Posted April 6, 2018 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    Apparently Templeton supports “ecneics” — the method of first forming a conclusion, then searching for evidence to support it.

    • Posted April 6, 2018 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

      Anagram of the day

      • Posted April 6, 2018 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

        I should have said Garaman of the day

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted April 6, 2018 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

          Not a anagram, it’s just reversed. Which I suppose technically counts as a subset of the set of anagrams…


          • Posted April 7, 2018 at 11:42 am | Permalink

            Also known as palindromes. Sentences like this one are in use since the beginning of mankind:

            – Madam, I’m Adam.
            – Sir, I’m Iris.

  15. Posted April 6, 2018 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    In a word, they use money given to them by gullible people to hinder the intellectual advance of humanity.

  16. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted April 6, 2018 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    I have a pretty good idea of what is meant by “naturalized teleology”- I’m just not especially sure of its truth or what would constitute evidence for it,

    There is an article on Teleology in the Oxford Handbook of PHilosophy and Biology (edited by Michael Ruse), and it rightly points out how “naturalized teleology” walks a tightrope. “Naturalizing teleology walks a fine line between identifying the causes of goal-directedness and at the same time showing that goal-directedness explains phenomena that its causes cannot.” (p.122- article by Denis Walsh)

    • Posted April 7, 2018 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

      Thanks, you just saved me some typing. It reminds of something Daniel Dennett has written:

      (Using the terminology of “cranes” (legitimate, mechanistic explanations) and “skyhooks” (essentially, fake—e.g. supernaturalistic—explanations) ) Good reductionists suppose that all Design can be explained without skyhooks; greedy reductionists suppose it can all be explained without cranes.

      Naturalized teleology is a crane. More power to the builders.

  17. Herb Hunter
    Posted April 6, 2018 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    I find it intellectually and morally offensive to suggest that a moose dying of tick induced anemia or squirrel pups left to die of hypothermia or starvation because their mother was killed by a passing car are made to suffer so that they will experience the sufferings of Jesus who was made to suffer as a condition for forgiving humans for the flaws built in to them by an arbitrary, petty and heartless deity.

  18. eric
    Posted April 6, 2018 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

    These Darwinian presumptions are: the centrality of competition, and the need to avoid teleological explanations.

    Neither of these are “presumptions.” They are at best provisional conclusions based on evidence which may be overturned, should new evidence arise.

    Want me to consider a teleological explanation for a animal or plant? Sure. We do that all the time…when there is evidence for it. A breeding book is evidence of a teleological explanation for an organism. A DNA code registered by Monsanto is another example. A grape plant whose leaves have different DNA than it’s roots (which occurs in grafting) is another. A big, 4 billion year old moon monolith with the text “how we designed earth life” on it would be another example. The reason we don’t conclude teleological explanations in the vast majority of cases is because there’s no evidence for it, and plenty of evidence of evolution (undirected by any intelligence) instead.

    As for ‘centrality’ of competition, the same argument as the one above applies here – when we see evidence of other survival strategies being important, we pay attention to that evidence. But beyond that, I find it humorous to think that billions of multi-celled organisms competing against each other is an observation that supports the primacy of competition over cooperation. The success of multi-celled organisms supports a conclusion that the cooperators won – or at least, that they very successfully occupied many niches in the Earth’s ecosystems. You cannot explain the existence of any multicelled organism on Earth without recognizing that cooperation is an incredibly important evolutionary strategy, helping (along with competition) to define and explain the descent with modification of life on Earth.

  19. ashdeville
    Posted April 7, 2018 at 3:12 am | Permalink

    Ecotheology? Just wow!

    I’ll make my specialist field Combined Paratheology and Theo-scientific metagibberish

  20. Hempenstein
    Posted April 7, 2018 at 6:53 am | Permalink

    On the positive side, while they seem to be setting out to find some residue of divine inspiration in RNA molecules, that also means that they’re tacitly accepting at least some amount of abiogenesis.

  21. mirandaga
    Posted April 7, 2018 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    I’m not “out for blood,” but I’m genuinely confused on one point. I don’t see how one can argue that “we have no evidence against pure naturalism” and at the same time fault the Templeton Foundation for trying to find such evidence. This “You-won’t-find-any-evidence-so-don’t-bother-looking” stance strikes me as decidedly counter to the tradition of scientific inquiry.

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