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Background to the Request for Proposals

In looking at the broad sweep of the history of the universe, and at the living world with all its rich variety that includes intelligence, one of the most compelling features is the phenomenon of emergence: the development of new things, new features, new properties, which are much more than the sum of their parts. Such phenomena excite our attention because of the way in which more fundamental building blocks are assembled in an apparently orderly way and with increasing complexity over time.

The emergence of stars and galaxies after the Big Bang and of solar systems with orbiting planets are examples familiar to astronomers, and ones that excite interest because of claims of fine tuning of physical parameters whereby small, even infinitesimal, changes may lead to radically different outcomes. Although these principles of fine tuning are still actively debated in the physical sciences, their potential applicability (or refutation) in the biological arena has hardly been started. Yet there are obvious questions. For example, what underlies the formation of complex molecules with the capacity for transmitting and hence perpetuating information? This is clearly a potential area for investigation, and leads to questions concerning the specificities and sensitivities of evolutionary pathways. On a broader scale the development of life in the sea and subsequently on land is another instance of emerging complexity, with increasing manifestations of what may be termed intelligence.

Similarly, the human story moves from the first appearance of bipedal primates, to the development of language, leading to the use of symbols, and the emergence of increasingly sophisticated religious and spiritual systems. This led on to the onset of sedentary life, of towns and then cities, of writing and finally the complex social organisations of the state society. For each of these points, we are entitled to enquire what determines this emergence and can we envisage alternative trajectories either to very similar or wildly different end-points?

The request for proposals is divided into three focus areas. Examples of topics that lie within the scope of the programme are listed below, grouped by focus area:

Biochemistry and Fine-Tuning: to what extent can arguments analogous to "fine tuning" in physics and cosmology be applied to chemistry and biochemistry?

The concept of "fine-tuning" - the idea that small changes in physical constants would lead to a universe devoid of life on earth - has become an important subject of research in physics and cosmology. By contrast, relatively little analogous inquiry has taken place in chemistry and biochemistry. This almost certainly reflects the complexity of many biochemical processes, and perhaps also differences in approach between research communities.

In this sub-programme we seek research proposals which will address the question of fine-tuning and its analogues in biochemistry and related scientific disciplines. The overall aim is to uncover whether or not "fine-tuning" could be a potentially fruitful vantage point from which to view the chemistry of life. Recognising that there is not yet a generally accepted definition of fine-tuning, as well as disagreement about its potential relevance, we also welcome applications for projects with strong philosophical or theological components.

To illustrate the broad scope of topics that might be considered, we list a few examples:

  • How optimal are life's nucleotide and amino-acid alphabets? How were these selected?
  • Do the properties of proteins or protein interaction networks show any evidence of fine-tuning?
  • Are there alternative solvents to water for the emergence and maintenance of life?
  • Are there evidences of fine tuning and convergence in biochemical pathways (such as the Krebs cycle)?
  • Does systems biology shed new light on the range of chemistries suited for the emergence of life?
  • What is the relationship between randomness at the molecular level and emergent biochemical properties?
  • Philosophical aspects and potential theological significance of biochemical fine tuning.

Evolutionary History and Contemporary Life: Evolution, Ecology, Ethology

Whilst the fact of organic evolution is incontestable, it is widely agreed that notwithstanding the neo-Darwinian paradigm, the discipline lacks an overall framework that can encompass areas as disparate as molecular biology and ethology. One response is that such a pursuit is fruitless. On the other hand there continue to be myriad attempts to reach such a synthesis, be it gene-based in the spirit of Richard Dawkins' reductionism or deriving from principles of Whewellian consilience (as actively promoted by E.O. Wilson), or via an attempt to see evolution in the context of multiple mechanisms and levels, as set forth by S.J. Gould. Such approaches attract both supporters (sometimes uncritically) and generate active debate. There is no sign at the moment, however, that any are on the way to providing a satisfactory synthesis - each suffers from significant problems.

In this sub-programme we seek research applications that will move outside, and perhaps beyond, some of the existing evolutionary paradigms. The overall aim, however, is to begin to determine whether there are any indications of a deeper structure to biology that might explain such evolutionary phenomena as trends and convergence. Conversely, applications will also be welcomed from groups who are interested in the roles of randomness and historical contingencies. Any area of biology may be investigated, and cross-disciplinary ventures will be especially welcome. In addition to mainstream science, applications that aim to consider thephilosophical or theological implications of this area may also be submitted.

Whilst there is no attempt to be proscriptive, the following topics are indicative of the potential range of topics.

  • What features in common do evolutionary trends show?
  • Is convergence of evolutionary importance?
  • How well do we understand evolutionary simplifications?
  • How can we define better the concept of character-complexes?
  • How similar are social systems in different groups of organisms?
  • How common are evolutionary reversals?
  • To what extent do differently constructed nervous systems: e.g. mammalian and molluscan, achieve similar mental capacities?
  • How similar are different modes of communication?

Becoming Fully Human: Social Complexity and Human Engagement with the Natural and Supernatural World

The story of the emergence of our species, Homo sapiens, and of the development of the societies which our species has created is still imperfectly understood. Crucial as components of those societies are the knowledge and belief systems, including the religious and spiritual systems which emerge.

How, in terms of contemporary anthropology and archaeology, are we to understand the processes that led from the first tool-making hominids of two million years ago to the development of modern humans over 100,000 years ago, with their (our) special capacity for speech and for thought? What factors favoured the development of those special forms of thought and behaviour that led to the remarkable cave paintings and small sculptures of the Upper Palaeolithic period in which we recognise today the first indications of human spirituality?

What factors prompted the sedentary revolution some 20,000 years later, with new forms of society, with indications of the first rituals and formalised belief systems, and with a range of new technologies? What circumstances in different parts of the world led to the very different social orders, world views and religious beliefs which we detect in Ancient Egypt, in early Mesopotamia, China, Mesoamerica and beyond? What was the relationship between the religious beliefs and the social forms of these societies? Why did great empires develop in some parts of the world - in South America or in Western Asia - but not in others?

The answers may come through detailed studies of particular features of the developmental processes rather than from any attempt at broad or sweeping synthesis.

This part of the programme will explore such topics as:

  • What is the nature and significance of convergences in cultural evolution (shamanism, the blossoming at certain times of monumental religious construction, sacrificial cults and potentiallymany others)?
  • Is the spiritual sense a human universal or perhaps even more broadly found among other hominids?
  • What does a study of the earliest symbolic cultures (as found at the Blombos cave site, for example) reveal about the connection of symbolism with being, spirit, and concepts of the transcendent?
  • How do archaeologists evaluate the "religion-drives-innovation" thesis that is more often proposed in other fields of study and with other kinds of data?
  • What do Neanderthal 'burials' imply about the evolution of a spiritual sense?
  • Can a study of prehistory contribute to the debate in the social sciences about the nature and importance of human agency and purpose? The fact that archaeology rarely reveals individuals never mind their intentions does not necessarily mean all of culture change is due to extrinsic factors such as climate, outside of any kind of 'purpose'. Has the field progressed to the point where we may be able to newly enter this territory?
  • How can we recognise the spiritual, the religious, and conceptions of the transcendent from archaeological data?
  • What can we know of the religious or spiritual experiences of early Homo sapiens?
  • What evidence is there for directionality in human asocial and technological development?

Links to related JTF initiatives

The John Templeton Foundation

Cosmology and Fine Tuning RFP

Biochemistry and Fine Tuning

Innovation in Material and Spiritual Cultures: Exploring the Conjectured Links Conference

Purpose in Evolution

Universe or Multiverse - Humble Approach Initiative

Foundational Questions In Physics and Cosmology

Water of Life Symposium