Jane Goodall nabs the Templeton Prize

June 2, 2021 • 9:30 am

I was a bit queasy when I woke up this morning to see the announcement below.  It’s not that I don’t like Jane Goodall, for who doesn’t? She’s a respected primatologist, spent years finding out new stuff about chimps, and is also a conservationist and prolific publicizer of science, as well as founder of her eponymous institute. She’s also long-lasting, having turned 87 this year while remaining as active as ever (she says she travels 300 days per year!). Nor do I begrudge her the $1.5 million that the John Templeton Foundation hands out to the prizewinners, as Goodall will undoubtedly use it for good causes.

No, I was queasy because the prize was given, as it always is, to someone who conflates science and spirituality, promoting John Templeton’s accommodationist mission. Granted, the JTF’s giving it to more scientists these days (they used to give it to people like Alvin Plantinga, Rabbi Sacks, John Polkinghorne, Chuck Colson, Mother Teresa, and Billy Graham, but they’re realizing that they’d better “science up” the prize). The word “God” and “divine” has been downplayed, replaced by the eupheism “The Big Questions”.  As the Wikipedia entry on Sir John notes,

In an interview published in the Financial Intelligence Report in 2005, Templeton asserts that the purpose of the John Templeton Foundation is as follows:”We are trying to persuade people that no human has yet grasped 1% of what can be known about spiritual realities. So we are encouraging people to start using the same methods of science that have been so productive in other areas, in order to discover spiritual realities.”

If you know what “spiritual realities” are beyond something numinous and divine, please enlighten me. Were I to answer that, I’d use terms of neurology and emotion rather than anything external to the physical world.

And Goodall is really known for showing not human exceptionalism, which is what the Prize is about, but for showing our psychological and behavioral connections to our closest relatives. In other words, she’s showing that we’re part of an evolutionary continuum, and share many traits with other primates. Evolution is one Big Question that’s been answered to most people’s satisfaction. Another is that our closest living relative is the chimpanzee.

Click on the screenshot to read:

Here’s the announcement from Templeton, or part of it:

Dr. Jane Goodall, DBE, founder of the Jane Goodall Institute, UN Messenger of Peace and world-renowned ethologist and conservationist, whose groundbreaking discoveries changed humanity’s understanding of its role in the natural world, was announced today as the winner of the 2021 Templeton Prize. The Templeton Prize, valued at over $1.5 million, is one of the world’s largest annual individual awards. Established by the late global investor and philanthropist Sir John Templeton, it is given to honor those who harness the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it. Unlike Goodall’s past accolades, the Templeton Prize specifically celebrates her scientific and spiritual curiosity. The Prize rewards her unrelenting effort to connect humanity to a greater purpose and is the largest single award that Dr. Goodall has ever received.

“We are delighted and honored to award Dr. Jane Goodall this year, as her achievements go beyond the traditional parameters of scientific research to define our perception of what it means to be human,” said Heather Templeton Dill, president of the John Templeton Foundation. “Her discoveries have profoundly altered the world’s view of animal intelligence and enriched our understanding of humanity in a way that is both humbling and exalting. Ultimately, her work exemplifies the kind of humility, spiritual curiosity, and discovery that my grandfather, John Templeton, wrote and spoke about during his life.”

Investigating the “deepest questions”, Sir John’s original purpose in bestowing the Prize fund, was intended explicitly to show that the more we learned about science, the more we understood about God. Those are what Templeton calls “The Big Questions”, like “why are we here?” and “what does it mean to be human?”. (The ultimate question, which isn’t broached, is “What is God like?”)  As for Goodall’s efforts to “connect humanity to a greater purpose,” that’s just bogus. Sure, she’s shown evolutionary commonalities, but evolution is not a “purpose.” “Purpose” implies teleology, i.e., for Templeton, “God.”

Goodall’s work surely enriched our understanding of chimps far more than about humans, but did show that in many respects, such as tool-using, humans are not unique—not exceptional among the beasts of the field.  As for “humility”, I know nothing about that, though Goodall has a reputation for being nice and certainly was engaging the one time I heard her speak. But that’s not the kind of humility that Templeton means: they mean “humility” before the Great Unknown—the same way theologians are always bragging that they’re “humble”. (They’re not: they pretend to know things they don’t.)

What about Goodall? It does appear she has a spiritual side that helped her get the prize. Here’s another paragraph from the award description (my emphasis):

Dr. Goodall receives the 2021 Templeton Prize in celebration of her remarkable career, which arose from and was sustained by a keen scientific and spiritual curiosity. Raised Christian, she developed her own sense of spirituality in the forests of Tanzania, and has described her interactions with chimpanzees as reflecting the divine intelligence she believes lies at the heart of nature. In her bestselling memoir, A Reason for Hope, these observations reinforced her personal belief system—that all living things and the natural world they inhabit are connected and that the connective energy is a divine force transcending good and evil.

What? The “divine intelligence she believes lies at the heart of nature”? “A divine force connecting all living things in the natural world”? Indeed, the subtitle of her 1999 book is “A Spiritual Journey.” And I’ll readily admit that “spiritual” can be construed as “awe before Nature”. If that’s what spiritual can mean, than I am spiritual, and so is Richard Dawkins. But “divine”? That’s a different kettle of fish. And yet eleven years ago she abjured acceptance of the divine in Right Attitudes:

In the May-2008 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine, Jane Goodall discussed her spirituality: “amazing moments—when you seem to know something beyond what you know and to understand things you don’t understand—can’t be understood in this life.”

“Can’t be understood in this life.” That means it’s beyond empirical investigation. But I digress: there’s more:

When asked if she believes in God in an interview published in the Sep-2010 issue of Reader’s Digest, Jane Goodall said,

I don’t have any idea of who or what God is. But I do believe in some great spiritual power. I feel it particularly when I’m out in nature. It’s just something that’s bigger and stronger than what I am or what anybody is. I feel it. And it’s enough for me.

That could simply be “evolution” or “wonder”. So why, in 2021, is Templeton touting Goodall’s acceptance of a “divine intelligence in nature”? As usual, as with other scientists like Francisco Ayala, Templeton often bestows its Big Prize on scientists who don’t explicitly say they believe in God, but are sufficiently ambiguous or waffle-y about the concept that they can slip under Templeton’s radar. And of course there are the explicit religionists who get the prize: people like Francis Collins.

Well, judge for yourself from the 9½-minute video below, and, later, from the Templeton Lectures that Goodall has signed up for:

As the 2021 Templeton Prize laureate, Dr. Goodall filmed a reflection on her spiritual perspectives and aspirations for the world and an interview with Heather Templeton Dill to announce her award. She will participate in the 2021 Templeton Prize Lectures in the fall.

In the video she mentions the soul, the Bible, “powerful spirituality” and so on, and says that “even the trees have a spark of divine energy”. The interview is definitely infused with the numinous. Granted, she says some good stuff about ecology and conservation. One telling statement, “It is just a feel of spirituality, you know, it’s something so powerful and so much beyond what even the most scientific brilliant brain could have created.” What? Where does it come from, then?

At 8:35 she resorts to a form of the First Cause argument: “What created the big bang?”

Before you give me flak for dissing a much beloved scientist, I’ll assert again that Goodall’s scientific work is exemplary and helped change the paradigm of human exceptionalism that preceded her. I admire her a lot, and clearly her life has produced on balance a great good. But that’s not what Templeton is giving her the prize for! She gets her $1.5 million for banging on about spirituality.

No, Goodall’s probably not perfect in that she evinces a weakness for the numinous, but we all have her flaws, and given her accomplishments, that a trivial one. What burns my onions is that the JTF is roping her into their stable so they can parade her as another example of someone whose work helps bring us closer to the Divine.

You can’t not like and admire this woman. The problem is that Templeton saw an opportunity to use her, and seized it.

39 thoughts on “Jane Goodall nabs the Templeton Prize

  1. Every person has their faults. Mine is I cannot stand coconut. Does Jane Goodall see spirituality in the Apes or a close relative?

  2. “they’re realizing that they’d better “science up” the prize.”

    It occurs to me that there may be a chance for the prize to “evolve” (ha,ha), further toward an actual science prize, like the Nobel. One reason they have moved slightly in that direction is that they are confronted by the world slowly slipping further toward secularism and it forces them to want to be on the side of history. Also, in 20 years, the rational they use now, scientific investigation of the spiritual, may begin to sound stupid to the newly elected members of the board of directors. One can always hope.

  3. It is true, in a strict sense, that “the more we learned about science, the more we understood about God.” Specifically, we knew more and more just how unlikely such an entity appears to be…certainly as described or interpreted by ANY of the world’s extant or extinct religions. I suppose we could allow a sort of metaphorical, Einstein/Spinoza definition of God as the laws of nature/nature itself, but it’s hard to see that this adds anything to anyone’s life or understanding, unless perhaps it can redirect the common impulses to worship toward something more benign and at least real.

  4. I never knew Goodall was in the tank for at least the Christian god but wait not really but yeah I guess so sort of like a big feeling out there or something – some quotes from Wikipedia :

    “Of her later discovery of the atheism and agnosticism of many of her scientific colleagues, Goodall wrote that “[f]ortunately, by the time I got to Cambridge I was twenty-seven years old and my beliefs had already molded so that I was not influenced by these opinions.”[69]”

    ” When asked if she believes in God, Goodall said in September 2010: “I don’t have any idea of who or what God is. But I do believe in some great spiritual power. I feel it particularly when I’m out in nature. It’s just something that’s bigger and stronger than what I am or what anybody is. I feel it. And it’s enough for me.”[71] When asked in the same year if she still considers herself a Christian, Goodall told the Guardian “I suppose so; I was raised as a Christian.”[72]”

    “Source” : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jane_Goodall

    … it is disheartening to learn this – she has admitted to deliberately declining to update her beliefs given new information or argument – effectively, embracing an anti-Bayesian approach to life. And she should know what likelihood/Bayesian inference is and how valuable it is, in particular with how to explain wonderful, genuine feelings derived from her naturalistic studies by invoking an even bigger, inexplicable supernatural force.

    The Templeton Prize is indeed “prestigious” – prestigious for The Templeton Foundation. The nerve of it.

  5. Jane Goodall likely thinks more of the rest of Nature than of Homo superstitious. See this quote:

    “It’s our population growth that underlies just about every single one of the problems that we’ve inflicted on the planet. If there were just a few of us, then the nasty things we do wouldn’t really matter and Mother Nature would take care of it — but there are so many of us.”


  6. Jane Goodall has always been religious. She has some kooky ideas that I’ve had to reconcile with my respect for her as a primatologist and conservationist.

  7. Disappointing to learn of any connection between Dr. Goodall and JTF.

    She was nothing if not luminous in the 2017 documentary Jane, much of it incorporating restored old film, some of it shot in what cinematographers call the “magic hour” preceding sunset, by Baron Hugo van Lawick, the famed wildlife photographer who went to Tanzania on assignment to shoot her on location, fell in love, married her, and lived with her for years in Gombe Stream Reserve.

    1. Gotta disagree. While the JTF prize will always have some bogosity about it due to it’s focus, if you’re going to award a prize for “deep” or “big” questions, she’s a good candidate for it. I think it’s fair to say she revolutionized our thinking about not just our nearest cousins but the entire animal kingdom. Worth remembering that before her, the standard thought was that only humans could use tools, only humans could make tools, etc., etc. Now I’d like to think that those wrong ideas would’ve fallen eventually with or without her, but because of the ‘right time, right place’ work that she did, she was one of the architects of their fall.

      If we have to put up with a Templeton ‘big questions’ award, she’s as good a selection for it as anyone, and much better than most.

        1. Who would you rather see win it?

          Keeping in mind that both “nobody” and “a scientist answering the deep questions about spirituality and God with ‘there is none'” are both impractical answers, as the foundation would never do that.

  8. I had no idea about this aspect of Goodall – but so long as her delusional personal beliefs don’t undermine her scientific achievements, I suppose everything’s fine…

  9. The Goodall Farside comic is one of my favorites. I share PCC(E)’s feelings on the rest, however.

      1. That’s the one! I read somewhere (or heard, I can’t remember), that Larson doesn’t like people reproducing the comments on the web – so I try not too. But honestly, I don’t know if that is actually true.

  10. “Raised Christian, she developed her own sense of spirituality in the forests of Tanzania,…”

    This is the pro forma sop that “nice” people use to appease the religious. I suspect Goodall isn’t really religious but knows enough to be careful in marketing her brand not to alienate anyone. I mean that in the best possible way. She’s undoubtedly done good work and inspired many to an appreciation of chimps, nature, and science in general.

    1. Not alienating anyone is a very good marketing strategy, and it’s clearly the chimps she’s devoted to, not sky guy.

  11. [she] says that “even the trees have a spark of divine energy”.

    Only when illuminated by photons coming from the Great Fusion Nuclear Reactor In The Sky, mediated by a little quantum tunnelling between units of the chlorophyll molecule.
    And the energy isn’t measurably “divine”. Is it? I’m not sure how you’d measure that – a frequency shift in the photons? Occasional doubling of a photon (resulting in intensity increase)? It can’t be a phase difference, because if you keep on increasing the phase difference between specimen and reference, it eventually comes back into phase from the other side of the interference spectrum, and that is a message that sits really poorly with “heaven” and “hell”.
    I suspect I’m over-thinking this.
    Divinity as an expression of polarisation has the same problem as phase difference.

  12. … her personal belief system—that all living things and the natural world they inhabit are connected and that the connective energy is a divine force transcending good and evil.

    A “divine force transcending good and evil?” It’s God-like, but it has nothing to do with values, morals, beauty, and love? What the hell does it mean to “transcend” these things? Existing the same way gravity or photons or the mindless, indifferent laws of physics exist? That’s higher than good and evil, more refined-like.

    Uh huh. Either that’s atheism, or Goodall (or whoever is summing her up) is throwing around a lot of spiritual bafflegab without really considering what it means.

  13. Honestly, one of her responsibilities is to promote her understanding of nature, and it may help therein to coddle believers. I can’t fault her there and, hell, the prize doesn’t hurt.

      1. [D]o you recommend that I too coddle believers and talk about the “divine” and the “soul”?

        Yes, but only to the extent that they don’t exist… (the “divine” etc. not the believers, who are sadly all too real).

      2. No, I wouldn’t. Nor would I recommend that Jane Goodall do likewise. I’m just inclined to tolerate a degree of moral compromise in service to comity.

        I’m not sure why, but this discussion leads me to remember Canon Eric MacDonald, Anglican Church of Canada, retired. Not so many years ago (or maybe so many years ago!), we all admired Eric for his wickedly incisive reflections on Christian theology. But, at some point, Eric found himself inclined to embrace the tradition from which he had been alienated. I’m fine with that, as I am with Goodall’s weasling.

        1. It’s not clear to me, and I have never seen any evidence supporting it, that truckling to religion makes religious people accept evolution more readily. In fact, the abjecct failure of the BioLogos site, whose aim was precisely that, shows that, at least for evolution, “moral compromise” doesn’t bring comity. I also suspect that you don’t have any evidence that Goodall’s being soft on religion has helped her get her message accepted. This all sounds very good, but if you don’t have any evidence, then Hitchen’s razor applies: “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”

      3. For readers who aren’t acquainted with Eric MacDonald’s intellect.

        Yet in what sense is theology an “intellectual discipline”? The phrasing is significant, for Polkinghorne is past master at the art of misdirection. Astrology, for instance, or alchemy, could justly be called intellectual disciplines. Anything with an esoteric vocabulary, and transformation rules for using that vocabulary in well-formed expressions, is an intellectual discipline; and until someone asks whether the words actually refer to anything that can confirm the truth, or establish the falsity, of those expressions, it can seem as though participants in the language game are actually talking about important matters, when, in fact, the whole activity might be entirely self-contained, a very complex, intellectual jeu d’esprit in which many enjoyable hours may be spent. Religion is, in my view, such a language, and the question whether it can have any relationship to an intellectual discipline which actually confirms or disconfirms propositions on the basis of things external to the manipulation of expressions within the discipline is the point at issue.

    1. Her and Neil DeGrasse Tyson would fit in that scheme.

      How, precisely, would that scheme work?

  14. “Prestigious” or not, a Templeton Prize amounts to nothing compared to Jane Goodall’s immortalization in a very funny episode of “The Simpsons”, namely | Season 31 Ep. 5 | .

  15. Conversations about spirituality, God and, for example, the so-called “resurrection” remind me of the film and a discussion about the so-called “truth serum” from the movie .”Ant man and the wasp”

    This is a joke that is fully understandable only to cinema fans / geeks.

  16. Has anyone declined the Templeton Prize? Or donated it to an organization with an opposed agenda? Of course, they might sound out the candidates first to make sure that the Prize won’t be rejected or otherwise criticized by the recipient.

    1. I suspect that they do indeed approach potential recipients to gauge their response (just like the proposed recipients of British honours are checked out to avoid later embarrassment). Of course, it would be possible to accept and then later return an award as per the Beatles and their OBEs…

  17. I have interviewed Jane Goodall several times, and she’s never indicated the slightest belief in a sky god. Even had she done so, I wouldn’t much care; her remarkable research with chimps, her devotion to the conservation of the natural world and its creatures, her tireless efforts to involve young people, make her a secular saint in my books. Plus, she’s very engaging and has fine sense of humour. I’m sure she’ll use the prize money wisely. Oh, and she told me she has a form of prosopagnosia; she can recognize the faces of individual chimps — humans, not so much.

  18. “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake” –Napoleon Bonaparte

    Templeton Inc. is squandering its prize money here in a fashion that won’t help its cause. I’d advise you not to interrupt them, but criticism from Jerry Coyne probably just encourages them to do more of the same. So, keep up the good work!

    One more quote:
    “Either that’s atheism, or Goodall (or whoever is summing her up) is throwing around a lot of spiritual bafflegab without really considering what it means.” –Sastra

  19. “In her bestselling memoir, A Reason for Hope, these observations reinforced her personal belief system—that all living things and the natural world they inhabit are connected and that the connective energy is a divine force transcending good and evil.”

    That sounds more like Pantheism than Theism to me.

  20. John Templeton’s published writings frequently equate Nature with God, and given how smitten he was with the scientific method, his interest in knowing “God” doesn’t seem all that different from standard bench science. If one is primarily interested in scientific discovery and advancement, I don’t think Templeton is the threat that some people portray him as.

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