Twelve million dollars!

Martin Nowak has written a peculiar paper, recently published in Nature, in which he basically dismisses the entire concept of inclusive fitness and instead promotes a kind of group selectionist model. It’s an “analysis” paper, and so it’s rather weak on the evidence, but it also seems mostly committed to trashing the idea that inclusive fitness models are the whole of selection theory, which is a bit weird since no one argues that. Jerry Coyne and others will be publishing a critique next week, which should be fun.

I would like to draw your attention to a different kind of critique, though. Nowak is also a fellow of the Templeton Foundation, and he’s been using his work on the biology of cooperation to promote Jesus, because as we all know, Christianity over the past two millennia has been a paragon of altruism and gentle loving persuasion — just ask the Arians and the Albigensians! Oh, you can’t. They’re all dead. OK, so just ask the Jews!

Anyway, it turns out that being cozy with the Templeton Foundation reaps great rewards. Nowak has both served on Templeton advisory boards and been the recipient of large awards. How large?

  • A grant from Templeton to Nowak on “The Evolution and Theology of Cooperation: The Emergence of Altruistic Behavior, Forgiveness and Unselfish Love in the Context of Biological, Ethical and Theological Implications.” Amount: $2 million (work conducted at Harvard University).

  • A grant from Templeton on “Foundational questions in Evolutionary Biology”, which runs from 2009-2013. Nowak is the leader of this project at Harvard, and the amount is $10,500,000 (!)

The second one is to a group, and superficially doesn’t sound anywhere near as silly as the first, but still, $10 million dollars…wow. That’s a nice bucket of money. Of course, if you look at Templeton’s promo for that grant, you can see what appeals to them: part of the research is into “teleology and ultimate purpose in the context of evolutionary biology” (really?), and is touted as “directly relevant to a wide range of philosophical and theological discussions and debates.” Nowak himself uses “the language of god” rhetoric in a video at the Templeton, and talks about an “unchanging reality” beneath the changing patterns of evolution.

But that first grant only looks small in comparison to the second. Two million dollars to study the “theology of cooperation”, whatever that is, is an astonishing sum of money for what looks like a humanities project. Maybe I should mention to my colleagues on the other side of campus that they, as individuals, could get a grant that would put the entire science division at my small university to shame, if only they suck up to Jesus enough.

Don’t try to tell me that Templeton influence doesn’t have the potential to greatly distort and poison academic research. When they’re throwing millions at fluff, it’s going to twist attention to more fluff.