Back in March, David Barash used his regular column in the Chronicle of Higher Education to unveil “The Truth about the Temple of Templeton“. Reacting to an increasingly-large funding stream coming out of the Templeton Foundation, Barash questions whether receiving money from this religiously-affiliated, pro-business group will lead to tainted science.
Barash begins his critique by making sure that we — the readers — understand that Templeton was once aligned with creationism:
It’s worth noting that the Foundation sponsored a conference in 1999, touting “intelligent design” as an alternative to evolution, although more recently, it has backed away from overt creationism.
Rhetorically it is pretty clear what the purpose of including this information would be: by suggesting that Templeton has ever entertained creationist leanings, Barash assures that a large portion of his evolutionist readers will consider the whole foundation tainted. Unfortunately, this is how we think. I do not question that extreme forms of creationism are a threat to the very scientific principles that allow us to make important discoveries, but I also recognize that creationism comes in many forms. And there is a danger to rejecting everything that comes from a person or organization simply because some of their ideas may be flawed. Our own field has been subject to this broad-brush interpretation, but I do not reject the valuable scientific work of William D. Hamilton or Ronald A. Fisher just because both harbored eugenic ideas.
Barash’s other major charge is that the Templeton Foundation is an advocate of right-wing free-market ideology:
Although ostensibly nonpartisan, the Templeton Foundation has a special place in its great, bleeding philanthropic heart for “free enterprise,” having given cash awards to historian Gertrude Himmelfarb and economist Milton Friedman, as well as the following conservative organizations: Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, the Federalist Society and the National Association of Scholars. On its website, the Templeton Foundation announces that it “supports a wide range of programs and research initiatives to study the benefits of competition, specifically how free enterprise and other principles of capitalism can, and do, benefit the poor.”
I have no love for many of the organizations listed above: many of them advocate policies that I believe further inequities and marginalize the poor and underprivileged. But the question at hand is not whether Templeton‘s other work is on the wrong side of our personal politics: the question is whether or not Templeton is exerting undue influence on scientific research.
Luckily, we do not have to rely on indirect means (such as reading mission statements or considering the foundation’s work in other areas) of assessing the Templeton Foundation‘s scientific funding, because they have provided a comprehensive, searchable list of the projects they have funded. The organization of this list is a bit confusing and the search is not perfect, but if you spend enough time searching (or just look at everything they have funded), you begin to get a sense of the kind of work that Templeton funds. Below is a rough categorization of projects relevant to evolution (broadly defined) that have been funded by the Templeton Foundation:
- General public education through scientific programming and resources, which includes funding a Darwin and Religion web resource ($1,128,149), Brian Greene’s World Science Festival ($3,150,000) and the Thirteen-WNET “The Human Spark” series ($350,000);
- Support for media and research that considers the evolutionary basis of religious behavior, including grants to the New York Times writer Nicholas Wade ($30,000), for work in the cognitive sciences ($3,876,247), and to a team of researchers (including Robert Trivers, who suffers no fools when it comes to evolutionary theory) looking at the adaptive logic of religious belief ($876,639);
- Support for work establishing the role that religion plays in human societies, including work on religion and human capital by Robert Putnam ($1,179,846), “religious psychotherapy” ($1,220,386), a workshop series on science and faith ($2,028,238), and a study of religion’s role in power and property at the Çatalhöyük site in Turkey ($2,353,250);
- Support for work that explores human altruism, including neurobiological work by Paul Zak ($1,487,740), a project on forgiveness ($91,509), and a book helping behavior ($36,000);
- Support for work considering other features of human uniqueness, such as the neuroscience of creativity ($600,770), a conference on the emergence of the human mind ($198,000), the meaning of play and death ($275,580), human nature/human potential ($2,252,204), free will ($328,397), the role of “place” in human evolution ($507,967), and an institute for research on “unlimited love” ($8,210,000);
- Support for other work in evolutionary biology, including foundational questions in evolutionary biology ($10,500,000), the emergence of biological complexity ($3,584,147), and evolutionary convergence ($983,253).
My search was not comprehensive (although I did actually look at the funding list and try to characterize it, which is more than I can say for Barash), so there may be additional relevant funded projects that I did not list above. But even if my sample is incomplete, a clear message emerges from my crude analysis: none of this stuff is really crazy or unduly biased. There is a coherent focus, certainly, but it is hard to argue that the funding of the above work is going to somehow lead to a bunch of neoliberal capitalist pseudoscience. If anything, this work is likely to fill in a number of large gaps in existing research and education. The defining quality of the work funded as a whole is that it represents minority — or even marginalized — areas of research. I think this, far and above any worry about right-wing influence, is what scares many mainstream evolutionary biologists about the Templeton Foundation. What this work has the potential to do is to question some of the dominant paradigms of evolutionary biology, including the ideas that the gene or individual are the fundamental units of selection, that religion has no adaptive value, and that relatedness alone can explain all forms of cooperation. Will all this funded work turn out to be valuable? Probably not, and that is what happens when you take risks and fund marginalized ideas. But some of this stuff might turn out to be quite valuable, and if Templeton is not funding it, who is?
I am really curious about the sort of values Barash thinks that he is protecting by warning others against the potentially-tainted funding coming from the Templeton Foundation. Because as I look at the research in evolutionary biology that is supported by mainstream scientific funding agencies, two clear biases emerge favoring research that either: 1) is biomedical in nature and therefore can be translated into new medical products; or 2) reinforces traditional “new synthesis” evolutionary biology that relies entirely on a very distinct approach to population genetics. The first bias is logical, as we would all hope that evolutionary biology would help us improve healthcare. But the second bias is highly problematic in that it excludes research into a lot of very relevant biological phenomena.
Cooperation, in particular human cooperation, is one of these neglected phenomena. Sure, there is plenty of work into cooperation that is funded, but the vast majority of this work takes the approach of “new synthesis” evolutionary biology. Work that considers the role of cultural evolution or group selection receives far less support, and so it is not the least bit surprising that scientists who wish to do work in these areas would seek out alternative forms of funding. Human cooperation is particularly important for us to understand as our species heads into difficult ecological times, and studying human cooperation requires working with social scientists; this kind of work is harder to get funded.
Here is the irony in Barash’s argument against Templeton: while he establishes that Templeton has a “right-wing” and pro-free-enterprise bias, he does nothing to really unpack the impacts the research they fund might have on our understanding of free enterprise. The last time that I checked, the message out of mainstream evolutionary biology was dominated by two prevailing narratives: unfettered individual competition and blatant nepotism. If the Templeton Foundation‘s aim was to steer evolutionary biology more towards their capitalistic bias, they would do well to leave mainstream evolutionary biology alone. Or, rather than funding some of the projects listed above, they ought to just fund the hell out of my favorite capitalist evolutionary biologist Matt Ridley [1, 2, 3], a silver-spoon scholar who in his spare time presided over the collapse of a major British bank (how’s that for primary research on the tragedy of the commons?).
According to Barash’s logic, Richard Dawkins must really confuse the Templeton Foundation. On the one hand, his book The Selfish Gene (Dawkins 1976) might just be one of the most important distortions of evolutionary biology to ever fall into the clutches of a free market capitalist. On the other hand, Dawkins is one of the most vehement of the so-called “new atheists”, and has set up his own foundation aimed at creating an exclusively secular world. How confusing that the man whose scientific work is most aligned with the “invisible hand” of Adam Smith would also be against religion, period.
The truth is far more complex than Barash portrays it. Should we worry about bias in funding? Sure we should, and from all sources. I cannot believe that the folks dishing out the big grants down at the Templeton Foundation are really so uninformed as to not see that some of their supported research may partially erode the rhetorical foundation of capitalism, and so apparently whatever free enterprise bias they might harbor has not caused them to avoid serious consideration of cooperation. This stands in stark contrast to mainstream evolutionary biology, which has been largely unable to extricate itself from the individual-based narrative since the field of population genetics was invented.
I do not think that the bias we need to watch out for from the Templeton Foundation is capitalistic. Their bias is to fund research that is potentially sympathetic to religion and religious world views. Although I myself harbor no spiritual allegiances, I can put myself in their shoes: most evolutionary biologists appear to be pretty antagonistic towards religion, both in their politics and their science. I can see religion as a complex entity, but I do think that it deserves to be studied, and hypotheses about the role of religion should be neither exclusively critical nor exclusively laudatory of religion’s role in human societies.
While there is a fair amount of scientific corruption being committed (usually through data fabrication) in these days of high-competition science, most ‘scientific bias’ comes not in the form of out-and-out fraud but in the limits we place on what questions we will ask and what hypotheses we will test. Given that each scientist or lab can only investigate a few things at once, we are all likely to be pretty biased in what we investigate. The trick then is to have a diversity of researchers asking a variety of questions by testing a multitude of hypotheses. My only worry for Templeton-funded researchers is that they will be pressured to consider only questions and hypotheses that flatter the role of religion in society. But, with that said, I still also have faith in science, and it is hard for me to imagine that the excellent scientists they have funded will all just tow the party line. There are too many people like Barash watching, and diverse, transparent science is all we need to get the real story on the role of religion in human evolution. In this light, Barash’s closing words make perfect sense:
It remains to be seen whether recipients of Templeton’s largesse have, in the process, compromised their scientific or intellectual integrity. But regardless, don’t expect any “breakthrough discoveries” in “human progress” to be disconnected from Templeton’s political and theological goals.
Just like I do not expect breakthrough discoveries to occur in other areas of evolutionary biology with a different set of biases! Through a pluralistic approach we can explore all.