Templeton wastes $11 million in attempt to change evolutionary biology

April 8, 2016 • 9:45 am

For some time, a group of biologists have been promoting the idea that the Modern Synthetic Theory of Evolution (which they call “Standard Evolutionary Theory,” or SET) is incomplete in major ways, and needs a reboot. Their main contention is that the SET is too “gene-centric”, and ignores environmental factors—like non-genetic developmental plasticity, epigenetic modification,  and ‘niche construction’ (the selective pressures that impinge on an organism after it’s changed its niche through behavioral alteration)—that can play an important evolutionary role. Indeed, these are supposed to have the potential to change our view of evolution.

A different group of biologists have argued that these factors have already being taken into consideration, but haven’t yet proved their worth as  areas of substantive progress (I agree). The two sides argued their cases in short dueling papers in Nature in 2014, “Does evolutionary theory need a rethink?” The main “challenge” to SET posed by the “yes” side, whose first author was Kevin Laland of the University of St Andrews, can be summarized in these words:

In our view, this ‘gene-centric’ focus fails to capture the full gamut of processes that direct evolution. Missing pieces include how physical development influences the generation of variation (developmental bias); how the environment directly shapes organisms’ traits (plasticity); how organisms modify environments (niche construction); and how organisms transmit more than genes across generations (extra-genetic inheritance). For SET, these phenomena are just outcomes of evolution. For the EES, they are also causes.

(The first author of the “no” paper, arguing that there are many phenomena besides the above that should also be studied, but shouldn’t yet be touted as genuine “extensions” of SET without more empirical evidence, was Greg Wray of Duke.)

Most of the phenomena that were supposed to reboot the SET were described in a series of papers that came from the well known “Altenberg 16” conference in 2008, papers collected in a book published two years later: Evolution, The Extended Synthesis, edited by Massimo Pigliucci and Gerd Müller. I was asked to review that book, but declined after I read it. It was almost completely devoid of real biological examples, and was heavily larded with complex speculation, so the value of the “extensions” was not demonstrated. For example, Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb presented their tired thesis that environmentally-induced epigenetic changes could strongly change the way we think about evolution (in a neo-Lamarckian way), but there are still no credible examples of that kind of modification having an effect on evolution. Yet the proponents continue to churn out paper after tedious paper.

I declined to review the book because I wasn’t in the mood to be hypercritical then, and many of the papers were convoluted and poorly written. Writing a review would have been a herculean task, one that would have taken too much time and occupied too much space. I decided to wait and see if these new approaches could cause a sea change in our view of evolution.

They still haven’t, and, like Hoekstra et al., I predict that they won’t. Despite all the calls for an “extended evolutionary synthesis” (EES), ideas like niche construction, developmental plasticity that is not genetically conditioned, and epigenetic modification caused by the environment have not produced any substantive advances (niche construction is in fact an old idea that’s touted as new). Yet their proponents, like Laland, continue to churn out papers saying that big advances are just around the corner.

Apparently, the John Templeton Foundation agrees with them, for it’s just awarded £7.7 million (nearly 11 million dollars) to a consortium of 50 “world renowned figures” (that’s an annoying exaggeration) headed by Laland—all with the aim of producing an EES. Besides St Andrews, the institutional recipients of the grant are the University of Southampton, Indiana University, Clark University, and the Santa Fe Institute.

You can see the grant announcement on Davis Sloan Wilson’s “This View of Life” website (which includes a breathy interview of Laland by Wilson) and on the St Andrews website. The latter site describes the project’s goals this way:

The work will centre on what has become known as the “extended evolutionary synthesis” in which the genome does not have privileged control over development and heredity. In addition to genetic influences, the organism plays active, constructive roles in its own development as well as that of its descendants. This imposes directionality in evolution that is not accounted for by natural selection, and allows for multiple routes to the adaptive fit between organisms and environment.

From the University of Southampton’s blurb:

Project leader Professor Kevin Laland at the University of St Andrews said: “The main difference from traditional perspectives is that the extended evolutionary synthesis includes a greater set of causes of evolution. This shifts the burden of explanation for adaptation and diversification; away from a one-sided focus on natural selection and towards the constructive processes of development.”

For example, in the EES, a number of complex biological phenomena are recognised not merely as products of evolution, but as playing a key role in shaping the direction and rate of evolution. For example, in evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo), the evolution of developmental organisation changes the variation that selection can act on; and in evolutionary ecology (evo-eco), the evolution of ecological organisation changes the selective pressures that act on that variation.

I’ve criticized these approaches at length—not because they’re conceptually flawed, but because people have been working on them for years, and we have yet to see any important or interesting results—as in the epigenetics and developmental-plasticity cases. (I have to add that evo-devo hasn’t fulfilled its avowed promise to revolutionize evolution, either. It’s given us some really lovely and unexpected results, like the phylogenetic pervasiveness of some “control genes” (like Pax6) that act across diverse taxa, but not really any deeper understanding of evolutionary processes.)

The processes touted by EES-ers may operate in isolated instances, but, so far, they hardly seem sufficiently ubiquitous to warrant an $11 million grant.  I’m not sure what Templeton was thinking when it funded this, except that it has a lot of money and was somehow convinced by the “we’re-gonna-reform-SET” palaver. One possibility that crossed my mind is that the new project directly attacks the “gene-centric” view of evolution. That could be seen as reductionist, and the “EES” as more inclusive and (if you squint hard) more numinous. Or, as a reader suggests below, perhaps the view of “organism as agent in its own evolution” is tantalizingly close to “intelligent designer as agent in evolution.”

As one of several people who sent me the links noted,

The John Templeton Foundation has just given the most muddled biologists on the planet $10m. With all the knock-on effects, this could set the field back decades. Think of all the thousands of student hours that will be wasted pursuing, discussing, promoting this stuff… !  If the JTF’s goal is to muddy the waters, and retard progress in evolutionary biology, they could hardly have found a better way.

Well, there are biologists more muddled than these, and some of the folks on the grant are good biologists; I’d call them instead “largely misguided”. But I agree that directing the $11 million in this way is a big mistake. The annual budget of the National Science Foundation for evolutionary biology is only about $7.5 million, and the Templeton funding far exceeds that. I can only imagine how much more progress we’d see if that $11 million were given to the NSF instead of to a group of self-promoting researchers who will spend it and—or so I predict—not find much of interest.

So be it.  These people have their money now. It’s time for them to put up or shut up. Let’s see if they can produce some real progress in understanding evolution over the next few years.

75 thoughts on “Templeton wastes $11 million in attempt to change evolutionary biology

  1. I think Templeton is trying a “if you can’t beat ’em, confuse ’em” strategy. Didn’t Dawkins show how niche construction is consistent with a “gene-centric” POV in The Extended Phenotype?

    1. I believe so. If I remember correctly the phrase “The Extended Phenotype” is pretty much equivalent to the phrase “niche construction.”

      Though niche construction is a very cool concept and undoubtedly can be a factor I’ve never understood how or why anyone would claim that it somehow negatively impacts the gene-centric POV. And the fact that a population of organisms can affect their environment and that those environmental changes can then affect the organism’s evolution just should not be surprising at all. It is self evident.

        1. Thanks, I’ll take a look.

          I don’t understand why certain people think NC would change anything fundamental about our understanding of evolution. Not for lack of trying to understand proponents explanations’, the explanations just aren’t convincing.

          NC seems to fall rather directly out from the most basic aspects of evolution. If you accept a reasonable conception of what “environment” means and accept natural selection then . . .?

          1. As we point out in that article, NC is defined, *by its own advocates* to include any and all changes an organism makes to its environment. So when an organism dies, it keeps niche constructing, because as it decays it changes the decomposition of the soil around it. The idea that this sort of thing is a new process of evolution seems absurd to me.

            1. I Agree. I see now what you meant about NC and EP being very different. It is in the claimed implications of the proponents of the concepts that there are major differences. That should have been obvious to me.

              I suppose what I was remembering was that when you get down to a basic description of the phenomena, prior to rationalizing implications, they are very similar.

              Reading the article it seemed a little bit like the pro NC side were rationalizing towards a prior commitment.

  2. I would add that “elite ethics” is just trendy synonym for gene regulation, a subject studied in an evolutionary context at least since the 1970s, including most of my work 30 years up until retirement in 2002.

  3. This morning, “The results of these attempts are hard to justify, and the project seems to result from the amenability of the group selection hypothesis to the practice of abstruse mathematics, unarticulated to any but the most blurred variables (a behaviour is an example), which look impressive on the page. This heavily funded school of obfuscation also allows a large measure of promiscuous teleology to be disguised in mathematical formulae, and thus leaves space, for this seems to be at heart a religious venture, for Intelligent Design.”
    What can I have been thinking of? I think you give the answer.

  4. This is one of those posts where I don’t know enough about evolution to understand what they’re trying to accomplish from reading the St. Andrew’s or Southampton’s blurbs.
    Going to have to read WEIT again.

    1. That might not help. Try searching for “epigenetics” on this site and read a few of those posts: that’s one area of this proposal that you can probably fathom–and, I hope, understand its problems.

      1. Just to say that whilst this post is way beyond my paygrade, and I’m never going to be able to contribute to the comments, I have nonetheless read it and found it interesting (to the extent that I understand it). Most of my comments on this site are frivolous, but I read every single post and most of the comments, regardless of the subject. Please keep up the good work.

        1. It’s way outside my area of knowledge too, but I’ve always felt that this stuff just doesn’t make sense. I don’t like to say it because I’m fairly ignorant on the subject and I’m probably proving myself to be a fool, but I’ve always felt that it’s just not logical that this can change the status quo in any significant way.

      2. Thanks, I read through some of the post from 2010 and I think it helps a little. They’re talking about characteristics that are not passed through DNA. Still confused as to how you can pass on something that isn’t part of your DNA, but I’ll keep reading.
        The mouse color was interesting, but if it’s only for a generation or two, it’s not really evolution. It’s not like they’ve created a new breed of yellow mice.

        1. I think *you’ve* understood it! Yes — at best it only lasts a generation or two.

          ….But hypothetically it might for some reason or other last longer and influence evolution and be far more widespread than anyone thought and Templeton was right and Darwin was wrong and the authors of the paper will be famous and be remembered for eternity by all the religious scholars who will be forever indebted to them and there will never be any wars any more because aggressive Darwinism will have been ideologically defeated…… Perhaps…..

        2. “They’re talking about characteristics that are not passed through DNA. Still confused as to how you can pass on something that isn’t part of your DNA, but I’ll keep reading.”

          I can make an uninformed guess based on my own observations while trying to riddle genetic inheritance. The modern cell relies on exaptation of pre-existing physical processes, often 4 billion years old such. An easy example is that proteins are self folding after ribosome translation of mRNA genes into polypeptide chains.

          But the trick is that the exaptation is selected for, and that selection is encoded in the genes. I.e. the polypeptide chains that are incapable of self folding are the ones selected against.

          So while self folding is not passed through DNA but through physics, the use of self folding is passed through DNA and not through physics at large.

          Potato, potatoe – except that the fuzzification allows for pomo/religious mumbling of ‘non-genetic inheritance’/'[magic] agency’.

          Sad, really.

        3. Some of the epigenetic inheritance crowd have confused “genes” and “DNA sequence”. Genetics is about inheritance. The only confirmed source of hereditary information is DNA sequence (or its products), hence genes = DNA. There is no reason why genetic information cannot also be encoded in other stuff, including “epigenetic” chemical modifications on the DNA – indeed, it is in differentiating cells and a handful of “imprinted” loci. The issue is that epigenetic modification is “reset” in the early embryo (I think – somewhere during reproduction, anyway -) so these modifications are (generally) not inherited. The pseudoagouti mouse scenario is interesting but seems to be a fairly unique scenario of a partially silenced transposon. (Although people seem to use it as a “model”, which I am not convinced it is.)

          Even if epigenetic inheritance were shown to occur widely, I don’t think it would destroy Darwinism – it would just expand our understanding of how our “genes” are encoded.

          The fuss is that some epigenetic marks are altered in response to environment. Well,so what? Either a given epigenetic state is (1) stably inherited and NOT subject to environmental whim, in which case it is just genetic information, or (2) it is environmentally influenced, in which case it is part of (genetically programmed) gene regulation, and NOT evolution. I don’t see how the people who want it to be both can make a coherent argument for having their cake and eating it.

  5. This is why I come to this site. What was it the radio announcer Paul Harvey use to say…And Now the Rest of the Story.

              1. We need another one word code, like “sub” but meaning clicked into and commented on to get the page view and comment counts up.

              2. May I suggest a new word (rather like “sub”) as per the suggestion by Steve Gerrard. I propose “RID”, as in “read and inwardly digested”; “I rid [read] it”.
                This is of course derived form the following almost accurate quote from the Cranmer Book of Common Prayer “Blessed PCC, who caused all science posts to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed lesson”.

      1. I read these scientific posts on evolution and the comments as well. Free education! Thank you, Jerry.

  6. The word “niche” reminds me of biologist Kenneth Miller. His big theological problem is that he needs the appearance of humans to be inevitable. He needs an evolutionary niche for humans. Otherwise it would be very hard to argue that the universe was created with humans in mind. And the cool thing about Kevin Laland’s ‘niche construction’ is that it adds agency to the evolutionary process.

    Put both theories together in a bowl, stir it up a bit and voilá: an evolutionary niche for humans, constructed by an intelligent agent. And the word agent ofcourse means God, specifically the Christian one.

  7. Very interesting.

    I was wondering where evo-devo (which I really do not know much about, tho I am currently reading Sean B. Carroll’s book on it) came into this. Then you answered my question.

    Since David Sloan Wilson is involved in this, I suppose it concerns the idea of group selection too. You have expressed yourself already — and well — on that subject.

    1. I don’t want to come off as a stringent critic of evo-devo: I’ve admired a lot of the work that has come from that field, and some pretty nice findings. All I wanted to say is that some of its proponents implied that development is a key missing element of the modern theory of evolution, and once we incorporated it the whole endeavor would change in a significant way. But what happened is that we use conventional genetics and developmental biology, and there’s really not a new paradigm.

      1. For me, the key contribution of evo/devo was the suggestion by Alan Wilson and colleagues (about 1972?) that changes in gene regulation are at least as important for evolution as changes in protein structure. I think Sean Carroll supports and develops that proposition. But, of course, that’s all still DNA: genes encoding regulatory factors and the cis-acting sequences to which they bind to influence gene expression. No mystical non-genetic factors.

  8. Don’t you think the heart of the issue is (to quote from your quote), the assertion that “the organism plays active, constructive roles in its own development as well as that of its descendants”. I understand the nature of the arguments for epigenetics, niche construction and the rest, although it’s unclear to me that they challenge the primacy of the genome as the operand of natural selection, genetic drift, etc. This seems to me to be a somewhat pseudoscientific way to introduce squishy religious-ish ideas into the discussion.

      1. I think it was the Soviet communists who plumbed for Lamarkian evolution over Darwinian evolution purely on the aesthetic grounds of which they would prefer to be true.

        (And ended up with much worse grain harvests than the West.)

        The Templeton Foundation seem to be doing the same.

        1. That reminds me of an old soviet joke.

          A soviet commissar visits a farm to inspect the harvest. He asks the farmer: “How big was the harvest this year?” The farmer replies: “With great thanks to our comrade Stalin, the harvest is so big that it reaches heaven!” “But surely you know heaven doesn’t exist?” the commissar asks. “I do.” answers the farmer. “There is no harvest either.”

    1. I don’t think we should get too distracted by the Templeton/religious aspect when it comes to these guys and people pushing ESS. My take on it is that they just have a very naive view of “SET” that EVERYTHING is explained by changes in allele frequency and direct action of gene products – as if we haven’t been studying gene regulation for years. The current epigenetics fad is largely about the role of “non-coding” (non-protein-producing) DNA and fighting the precedence given to transcription factors (proteins) in gene regulation. None of it challenges SET but they often have a narrow biochemist textbook view of DNA -> RNA -> Protein, where the only thing that matters in “traditional” evolutionary theory is changes to protein sequences. I think it’s naivety and ignorance, rather than something more sinister. Proponents often have quite a poor understanding of molecular evolution.

      That “the organism plays active, constructive roles in its own development as well as that of its descendants” is just a way of saying that organisms sense and respond to the environment as they develop – and as their gametes or offspring develop. I suspect that ESS advocates feel that these responses are not adequately considered when modelling changes in response to environmental change, for example. SET supporters (including me) would argue otherwise.

      I still can’t decide whether there is anything more to ESS than attaching specific labelS to things that are already implIcitly incorporated into SET. That makes me welcome initiatives like this, if not the Templeton involvement. Formalising the arguments will make it easier to understand and counter them.

      Either way, I’d be surprised if many of those funded know about Templeton’s wider agenda – and even more surprised if they were positively motivated by it. I’d certainly never heard of it outside this website. Maybe it’s British naivety but If someone serious invited me to be part of a multi-million pound grant about evolution, it probably would not even occur to me to look for religious or pseudoscientific motives with the funding source.

  9. The reason why Templeton granted this funding might be a very simple tribalistic way of backing up the “camp” of biologist who are more soft on religion and usually criticize the biologists who are more hard on religion.
    Think of it as Templeton viewing some band of biologists forming a certain sports team, and they want them to win over the other guys.
    Templeton doesn’t care about the ideas, as long as it’s a way to smuggle their faith in they will work with it.

  10. I was also trying to imagine the scale of importance with a budget of 7.5 million. Any of the campaigns probably spend that much a week.

  11. I look forward to seeing them up-end the gravity-centric explanation for things falling down.

    If epigenetics were a true fact, then the radiation-induced changes that produced Godzilla, Gamera, and the other Japanese monsters would have resulted in a second and possibly third generation of these “monsters” by now. Gamera produced a baby that is smaller, which proves that epigenetic changes do not persist for generations:

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0467923/plotsummary?ref_=tt_ov_pl

  12. It’s sort of money that is spent with the attraction of trying something different, of course, with the hope that faith exposes a truth about the Christian agenda that Templeton would like to see in science. This is unlikely to succeed.

    High energy physics has some similar ideas, like existence is a hologram or a simulation. Or maybe efforts to quantize time or electromagnetic fields. The difference is that these are based on concepts we are familiar with and they do not possess a religious agenda.

    From Krauss’ last debate (WEIT: God vs. physics: Krauss debates Meyer and Lamoureaux) I get the sense that he would be willing to let Christian do the right thing. Krauss concedes that most scientist do not even start with a novel scientific claim. But the alternative is child abuse. And if Templeton is willing to skip what everyone does that is basically paid-for-child-abuse.

    If Templeton workers follow these rules, I am ok with it:

    1. Make a Novel Scientific Claim (maybe endorsed by some Christian idea…go for it)

    2. Research (This might stop most Templeton agendas)

    3. Peer Review (This most certainly should frighten the money grabbers)

    4. Scientific Consensus

    5. Classroom & Textbook

    Note that steps 4 & 5 have no agenda…it is humans working pragmatically with ideas and those ideas match reality as best as we can do right now.

    Templeton, there is the recipe you must follow; there is no other way.

  13. In addition to genetic influences, the organism plays active, constructive roles in its own development as well as that of its descendants. This imposes directionality in evolution that is not accounted for by natural selection, and allows for multiple routes to the adaptive fit between organisms and environment.

    Wow, I feel so empowered! I can act ON evolution and send it in new directions through my choices! I play an active, constructive role in the mechanisms of evolution.

    Overly simplistic, yes, but don’t overestimate how much it takes for the average PuffHo reader to find validation for their cosmic significance.

    “Organization as agent in its own evolution” sounds less like Intelligent Design and more like Deepak Chopra. We are all aspects of God. This is Spirituality, and Templeton seems eager to embrace anything that makes us higher.

    1. Once you allow agency in evolution – as niche construction does – then it just becomes a question who the agent is. Religious people will go nuts.

      I’m not a biologist, but it seems to me that niche construction is dependent upon the environment. An organism can only create a niche for himself as far as the environment allows.

  14. I can’t pretend to be an expert, but this line suggests to me that the EES crowd is seriously misguided:

    “For SET, these phenomena [e.g. niche construction, extra-genetic inheritance] are just outcomes of evolution. For the EES, they are also causes.”

    Of course things like niche construction can alter an environment sufficiently to create one where certain genes will be favoured over others. But the causal agent of evolution is still a genetic one in every instance.

    I agree it can make sense to talk about, say, a species’ culture driving its evolution, but that cause is always mediated by gene flow. Remove the extra-genetic inheritance, and you will still see evolution via genetic dynamics; but remove the concept of genes, and there is no way to explain these EES phenomena and their apparent causal consequences.

    1. Niche construction sounds like a feedback loop where changes in environment change bodies and behavior which changes the environment once more. The beaver evolving to build dams. The beaver shapes the environment directly by doing work on the trees and stream.
      In a predator-prey relationship the two organisms influence the body and behavior of each other, and they each form part of the environment(niche) of the other. Lion and antelope for example. This is a similar feedback loop except the later is indirect “construction” since one organism only shift the gene pool of the other.

    2. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. I think that the main difference between ESS and SET is that ESS folks don’t appreciate that the “active roles” they are invoking (like epigenetics) are themselves ultimately under genetic control. I think it’s an argument against pure reductionism – that the whole can be understood purely by understanding its parts – in favour of taking a higher level (complex system) view. The bit that confuses me is why they don’t think that SET already does this.

  15. Yesterday, in response to the article “May be I should stop posting about science”, I (among many) asked you to please keep posting about evolutionary biology and this article is a great example of what I (and I believe many others) enjoy very much: the latest developments in the field and a reference and source of inspiration for further reading. Thank you.
    As for the claim for a need to give extra weight to developmental plasticity, epigenetic modification, niche construction, etc. in the mechanism of evolution, I believe there is a particular example in evolution that is quite ubiquitous and extremely powerful, productive and effective that clearly shows there is no need for some indeterminate neo-Lamarckian ‘directionality’. And it’s a phenomenon often illustrated precisely on this site: mimicry. I believe it may be one of the best arguments against any attempt to resusitate Lamarckism. It seems to me inconceivable there could be a physical method or pathway (whether internal or external) that would actively direct the acquisition of a trait such as “likeness to an object or organism” and that would later be integrated to an inheritance system to future generations.

  16. “The work will centre on what has become known as the “extended evolutionary synthesis” in which the genome does not have privileged control over development and heredity. In addition to genetic influences, the organism plays active, constructive roles in its own development as well as that of its descendants. This imposes directionality in evolution that is not accounted for by natural selection, and allows for multiple routes to the adaptive fit between organisms and environment.”

    Could this be an attempt to make a case for free will?

  17. I agree with your take on “ESS” and the predicted lack of success of this endeavour but the tone of this piece disappoints me. Templeton-funding aside – and one wonders what THEY get out of it – (at least some of) these are serious people at proper institutions and “big ideas” deserve some scrutiny, even if they turn out to be wrong.

    Taking a charitable rather than hostile read of the Southampton press release*, one should note that the title of the grant is:

    “Putting the extended evolutionary synthesis to the test”

    Absence of evidence is only evidence of absence if one should expect that evidence, i.e. there has been a concerted effort to find such evidence. So far, this is somewhat lacking for ESS as something truly different from SET but we should welcome formal testing of this.

    Objective 2, for example: “To conduct critical empirical tests of key predictions that distinguish traditional and EES standpoints, and thereby evaluate the EES as a generative conceptual framework;”

    One problem with ESS is that it is too woolly and theoretical and (to my knowledge) has failed to make testable predictions. After this, there will be no excuse for this.

    We rule out plausible but wrong ideas by investigating and testing them. Calling such investigations a “waste of money” just because there is currently little supporting evidence smacks of dogmatism. (Even if, as I said, I agree!)

    My only concern is the involvement of Templeton and wonder what they get out of it. If you read Richard Watson’s stuff, it is clear that the “intelligence” he is talking about has nothing to do with Intelligent Design. He is simply talking about evolved organisms “learning” to be better at evolution. This has precedent in suggestions of “evolving evolvability” and “clade competition” – Watson’t contributions are to formalise it and make links with learning algorithms (neural nets etc.) that learn to have predictive abilities. I am not convinced that what he attributes to learning does not have simpler explanations, such as system robustness. (Improved adaptive potential is purely a by-product of regular “SET” processes.) But, even as a hard-core gene-centrist, we cannot rule out contributions of higher level processes until they have been adequately modelled. (I still think it will all come back ultimately to genes, once the assumptions of those models are properly deconstructed.)

    *COI declaration: I used to be at U. Southampton and know Richard Watson. He is a computer scientist, not a biologist, but that should not count against him as many of the great evolutionary minds of the past were modellers.

  18. On the subject of niches, one reads often in works on paleontology that when one species (say, dinosaurs) died out, they left a niche free for another (such as mammals) to occupy. It sounds a bit like the mammals all said, “Hot damn — a free niche!” and dived in. It can’t have been that simple, can it?

    1. Yes and no. Except in the broadest sense, the mammals would not have been filling the same niche as the dinosaurs. However, the removal of competition from highly adapted dinosaur species would have enabled mammals to start exploiting lifestyles (niches) that were previously closed to them. It’s akin to a major transition like ocean to land: at first, you can be pretty rubbish and still thrive because no one else is better.

  19. The group selection type arguments seem to me to add extra layers to and unnecessarily complicate the explanation of evolution when there are already simpler explanations, whilst the arguments that hint at design explain nothing. I also resent the supposed moral argument in group selection – if the selfishness of human history is due to social evolution theres no hope for us, and individual gene theory is not determinist about human social cooperation. By allocating funds in an attempt to skew science towards religion friendly explanations the Templeton foundation is a blight on the scientific landscape

  20. This does indeed sound like a misguided research effort, and I totally agree that more progress would probably have been made had those funds been dispersed through NSF to study evolutionary processes. My feeling is that in most cases, dispersing moderately sized grants across more researchers ends up being more productive than a few large grants to a select few. Contrast the moderately funded Hubbard Brook Ecosystem Study in NH vs the IBP Program (or NEON now). Dollar for dollar, Hubbard Brook has been much more productive than those larger funded efforts.

  21. Think of the Templeton Foundation as a funding source for a political campaign. The funding source hopes to change people’s minds so that their candidate / political platform gets elected.
    The Templeton Foundation tries to do that with science.
    Of course, ultimately that won’t work with science, because it is the empirical data that votes.
    But, the Templeton Foundation can sure muddy the waters, and, spend a lot of $$ that could otherwise have been used more productively for real science.
    What a waste.

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