Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Thoughts on the Templeton Foundation

It’s no secret that many atheists don’t much like the John Templeton Foundation (hereafter just ‘Templeton’), and have a pretty low opinion of people who accept Templeton funding and financial support. This theme cropped up in two recent blog posts – one by Jerry Coyne, the other by PZ Myers – and I want to make a few comments about both.

Coyne’s post was a response to a new website to be launched by Templeton, Big Questions Online. Coyne starts in characteristic style:
“Are you one of those indigent freelance writers, scrabbling hard to earn a pittance? Sick of magazines and newspapers that pay you jack? Well, your troubles are over—at least if you’re willing to churn out accommodationist pap. The John Templeton Foundation, through its credential-bending director of publications Rod Dreher, has announced that, if you’re willing to toe the party line, Templeton has big simoleons for writers.”
The details of the ‘pap’ writers will have to produce are provided by Dreher:
“[T]he Web publication the John Templeton Foundation will soon launch, Big Questions Online, will be paying good money for essays. We're interested in smart, insightful pieces on science, religion, markets, morals, and any combination of the four.”
Myers’ post is a long response to an essay by Ron Rosenbaum, who was one of this year’s Templeton Science and Religion Journalism Fellows. At the end, Myers writes:
“I'm not going to try to take apart every word in Rosenbaum's disjointed agglomeration of poorly thought out nonsense. But I will leave you with one little phrase from the article that tells you everything you need to know: “Having recently spent two weeks in Cambridge (the one in the United Kingdom) on a Templeton-Cambridge Fellowship…” Goodnight, Ron Rosenbaum.”
I don’t think I’m misreading Myers’ comment when I say that the implication is that anyone who has anything to do with Templeton is inherently untrustworthy (intellectually) and their views can be dismissed simply by virtue of that association.

Coyne’s short post admits of two possible readings. On one, he could be taken to be saying that writing about science, religion, markets or morals is to inevitably churn out accommodationist pap (otherwise it doesn’t make sense to cite the scope of the articles Templeton are interested in as evidence that putative contributors will be required to do so). But that would be crazy talk. Joseph Henrich, for example, is one of the world’s leading anthropologists, and uses a combination of ethnographic observation, mathematical modelling and experimentation to tease apart the basic factors shaping human behaviour (I haven’t done justice to his research with this summary; check his website out for more details).

A recent paper of Henrich and colleagues, published in Science, was entitled, ‘Markets, religion, community size, and the evolution of fairness and punishment’. The abstract reads as follows:
Large-scale societies in which strangers regularly engage in mutually beneficial transactions are puzzling. The evolutionary mechanisms associated with kinship and reciprocity, which underpin much of primate sociality, do not readily extend to large unrelated groups. Theory suggests that the evolution of such societies may have required norms and institutions that sustain fairness in ephemeral exchanges. If that is true, then engagement in larger-scale institutions, such as markets and world religions, should be associated with greater fairness, and larger communities should punish unfairness more. Using three behavioral experiments administered across 15 diverse populations, we show that market integration (measured as the percentage of purchased calories) positively covaries with fairness while community size positively covaries with punishment. Participation in a world religion is associated with fairness, although not across all measures. These results suggest that modern prosociality is not solely the product of an innate psychology, but also reflects norms and institutions that have emerged over the course of human history.
Is this accommodationist pap, junk research that is of no interest to anyone but the devout wishing to reconcile science with religion? Of course not. Would I be producing worthless accommodationist garbage if I wrote a story about this sort of work for, say, Science or Nature? Again, of course not. So would it automatically become accommodationist pap if I wrote exactly the same thing for Big Questions Online? And what does writing about science, religion, markets and morals have to do with arguments about accommodationism? Indeed, Coyne seems to have moved away from principled arguments about accommodationism to simply smearing everything and anyone that has anything to do with Templeton (though as we’ll see below, his targeting of people is actually a bit selective). And if writing about science, religion, markets and morals – even for Templeton – is not intrinsically pap-worthy, then why does Coyne say, in response to calls for essays on these topics, that writers must be willing to “churn out accommodationist pap” or be “willing to toe the party line”? And finally, just what is the Templeton party line when it comes to science, religion, markets and morals? I’m genuinely interested to hear answers to these reasonable questions.

Of course, the real issue here is the Templeton Foundation – what it does, and what it’s about. The big sticking point, for writers such as Coyne and Myers, seems to be not merely the fact that many folk at Templeton hold religious beliefs, but that they argue for a compatibility between science and religion that Coyne, Myers and many others do not accept*. Richard Dawkins has criticised the organisation for trying to ride on the coat-tails of science, but I get the impression that the issue is really much deeper: that Templeton poses a threat to the conduct of science and the integrity of researchers who benefit from their funding. On the Edge website, Coyne wrote:
I absolutely agree ... that the Templeton Foundation corrupts science. It does this in two ways. First, it involves us in a dialogue that is designed to have a predetermined result: the reconciliation of science and religion. But when doing our own research, we are not committed to a specific outcome. Thus, if you're one of the many scientists who doesn't think that such a reconciliation is possible — at least not without mendacity, self-delusion, or cognitive dissonance — then it is unethical to take money from the Foundation. That is like taking money to attend a conference aimed at reconciling evolution with Intelligent Design, even if you do not think that they're compatible. (IDers think that they are.)

Second, it leads, as George Johnson has noted, to the appearance of a conflict of interest, even if the beneficiary is convinced that none exists. Even if a US Senator is predetermined by his own opinions to vote in favor of, say, drilling for oil in Alaska, it is nevertheless illegal and unethical for him to take personal money from the oil industry, and it looks bad to take campaign money from the oil industry. Scientists should be purer than Senators because it is our business to promulgate the truth, and all we have is our reputations as unsullied truth-seekers.

I am appalled at the Templeton Foundation dangling large sums of money in front of scientists. Why so much money? This can only serve, I think, to bend those people motivated by the prospect of gaining a million-plus dollars toward the will of the Foundation.
You’d have to be a bit of a moron to fail to see why someone might hold these concerns. But I think they may be a bit over-blown, and I’ll try to explain why. The first point, that anyone who doesn’t believe in a fundamental compatibility of scientific knowledge and religious belief is behaving unethically if they accept money from the Templeton, seems to go a bit far, for a number of reasons.

First, not everyone who receives Templeton funding does so in relation to work that is aimed at establishing this compatibility. Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia, for instance, is a leading social and cultural psychologist, and one of his research interests is in the long-neglected positive emotions. Hadit has received Templeton funding into positive psychology, but the published work that has arisen from this has nothing to do with reconciling science and religion, or even arguing for accommodationism.

Second, even if you disagree with Templeton about accommodationism or the fundamental harmony between science and religion, it does not strike me as unethical to work with Templeton. Here’s a parallel. Jerry Coyne, like me, has written for Science magazine – and the official line of its publisher, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, is accommodationist. Yet that didn’t prevent either Coyne or me for writing for them, and quite rightly. The purist attitude evident in refusing to accept money from someone with whom you do not entirely agree with is commendable to a degree, but I think it needs to be kept in perspective. I wouldn’t write for a racist publication or organisation, for instance – my ethical stance against racism would make me an unethical hypocrite if I did. Yet does it follow from that example that I shouldn’t write for anyone with whom I disagree on some point, whether it be foreign policy or domestic politics? Obviously not, otherwise I wouldn’t write for anybody. Similarly, if you only maintained friendships with people with whom you agreed 100%, you’d probably be pretty lonely.

So it clearly matters what the disagreement is about. A disagreement about whether some races are inherently superior to others is very deep moral disagreement, one that cannot be glossed over while conversation focuses on other things. But is a disagreement of whether science and religion can be reconciled a similarly profound moral issue, as opposed to an intellectual/epistemological issue? Is it the case that if someone believes in accommodationism, and you don’t, then that person’s is, like the racist, beyond the moral pale, and should therefore be avoided? This seems a little hard to swallow, but I’d be interested in arguments to show I’m wrong.

Coyne’s second point, that accepting Templeton funding creates the perception of conflict of interests, even where none really exists, also seems to be less significant in practice. In the case of the oil company and the senator, the oil company wants to pursue drilling and the senator is advocating drilling. But this one-to-one mapping of interests is not always, or perhaps even frequently, evident when it comes to Templeton funding: it’s not like Templeton has a single goal of arguing for accommodationism and only funds people who argue likewise. Haidt’s work on the positive emotions, for instance, is not a call for accommodationism, nor is it offered as proof of “spiritual realities” – it’s just basic psychological research.

The final point, about the temptations created by the prospect of large sums of money, calls into question the integrity of those who accept it. Yet I’m not really sure that Coyne or Myers want to go on the record and question the research and motivations of people such as Haidt, or Dacher Keltner (another researcher in positive psychology), or evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson who have received Templeton funding – or researchers such as Herb Gintis (a leading game theorist and behavioural economist) and Michael Gazzaniga (one of the world’s most famous neuroscientists), who have participated in Templeton projects. (I accept that the quality of their work and their fame is no guarantee that they do not bend their views to get Templeton money, or that they don’t hold bizarre views in other domains, but I’ve seen no evidence to support either assertion.) Of course, if Templeton was an inherently immoral organisation, then there would be cause for censure of these academics – but what evidence supports such an argument?

I want to return to the issue of the scope of Templeton’s funding interests, which I’ve already suggested go beyond simply giving people money to spout an accommodationist position. The organisation funds research into many areas that are part of standard academic research. For instance, the highly respected evolutionary biologist Gunter Wagner of Yale University was awarded a grant to study “genetics and the origins of organismal complexity” (a topic that should be right up Myers’ and Coyne’s street – and mine too, as you can see in this article). This sort of work is essential for understanding the topic of ‘evolvability’, a central issue in evolutionary-developmental biology. Wagner’s published work – which I heartily commend to you – has nothing to do with promoting a reconciliation between science and religion. It’s just good science, and we should be grateful that it’s being funded. Would Coyne be prepared to say that Wagner (or Haidt, or Keltner) has in some way acted unethically or been corrupted by accepting this grant? Has science lost out, or gained, by the availability of Templeton funding in this case? And if this case is beyond reproach, then why the blanket dismissal and ridicule of all Templeton-related activities? What about behavioural geneticist Robert Plomin of Kings College London receiving money to look into the genetics of high cognitive abilities? Or Paul Zak receiving funding to study the effects of oxytocin on social behaviour? Are all these researchers obligated to churn out accommodationist pap because they’ve received money from Templeton? And if not, then why does that logic apply to writers contributing to the Big Questions Online?

So I come back to the starting point. Why does Coyne suggest that doing anything related to the Templeton’s activities automatically imply that you have to write accommodationist pap, or toe a part line? Why does Myers think that the mere fact that someone has had something to do with Templeton mean that they can be written off? I understand that neither of these writers likes the idea of science and religion being compatible in a deep sense (i.e., not just that one mind can hold both scientific and religious beliefs), but I struggle to see how this translates into such vitriol against Templeton and its affiliates: remember, Coyne described the Templeton Fellowships as a "bribe" (Coyne did later say he didn’t really mean bribe – though it’s it not quite clear what he meant other than to smear the organisation), and Russell Blackford called Chris Mooney a "disgusting traitor" for accepting one such Fellowship.

I must be missing something. Perhaps Coyne and Myers will suggest I’m a mental defective who simply can’t see what’s really going on. Or perhaps they know things I don’t about how corrupting Templeton is on researchers, writers and science at large. I hope, however, that if they reply, they can refrain from the obvious temptation to attack me at my deepest integrity by suggesting that I’m simply auditioning for Templeton money. We need the debates to get beyond the ad hominems.

*I’m also an atheist who doesn’t believe that science and religion are fundamentally compatible: if you accept that the way we find out about the world is through observation and experiment, and that explanations must be couched in naturalistic terms that can be assessed empirically, then faith, revelation and authority seem to be off the cards. But it doesn’t follow from this position that I should be hostile to the work of Templeton, the researchers it funds, or the writers it supports.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Evolution of Biological Innovation

The theory evolution by natural selection, boiled down to its bare bones, is pretty simple. All it requires is that a few conditions be met among a population of animals or plants (or any other organism for that matter): competition for resources; variation in survival and reproductive success; and a system of heredity that ensures that some of this variation is passed on from generation to generation. We now know what Darwin didn’t, that genes underlie the transmission of much of the variation seen among organisms that affects how well they thrive, and whether they pass on their genes or not.

And so natural selection can be cast as an essentially algorithmic process: when there is genetic variation in a population of organisms, and some of this variation affects how well they get on in life, the population will evolve. As new genetic variants with beneficial effects arise, their bearers will do better, pass more copies of these genes on, and after a while most or all members of the population will carry the new genetic variant and its associated benefits.

So when thinking about if and when a population will evolve, genetic variation is a crucial issue. If there is none, then there is now raw material for natural selection to work on. Although there may be variation in the outward form or behaviour of the individuals in the population, and some of this may affect whether they stay alive and fecund, it won’t be passed on to future generations — thus short-circuiting the cumulative power of natural selection.

So the extent of genetic variation in a species or population is a crucial determinant of whether it will evolve, and how it will respond to new selective pressures. To capture this in a word, we might say that genetic variation drives the ‘evolvability’ of a species of population.

‘Evolvability’ was coined, perhaps surprisingly, as recently as 1987, by Richard Dawkins, the arch-phrasemaker who also brought us the ‘selfish gene’, ‘extended phenotypes’ and ‘memes’. And while it has sometimes been used to reflect the capacity for evolutionary change under the pressures of natural selection described above, it is nowadays more commonly used to mean something more subtle, perhaps more fundamental.

Evolvability, in its modern sense, generally refers to the capacity for genetic changes to produce adaptive changes in how organisms are built and behave — their phenotypes, in the biologists’ lexicon. The issue here is not the extent of genetic variation per se, but how this genetic variation maps onto phenotypic variation — that is, whether genetic variants produce phenotypic variants that are beneficial and can be passed on to offspring. This is the key to evolutionary innovation, and the emergence of new organismal designs. So rather than focusing on how much genetic variation is knocking around, researchers interested in understanding evolvability are increasingly looking to the factors that determine the ‘genotype–phenotype map’: for it is changes in the mapping functions that determine the relevance of whatever genetic variation is present.

This is all pretty abstract and theoretical, but I put some flesh on these ideas in a piece for New Scientist this week. It’s currently available to read in all its glory here. Check it out.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Oh what a lovely molecule!

The continuing adventures with the astonishing hormone oxytocin

Oxytocin is small but remarkable molecule. It clocks in at just nine amino acids — compared to 524 for our blood’s oxygen carrier, haemoglobin — yet it packs a powerful punch. And where haemoglobin is tasked only with the relatively simple job of ferrying oxygen around the blood, the effects of oxytocin reach into some the deepest recesses of the human condition.

Oxytocin acts as both a hormone that circulates around the body and a neurotransmitter that regulates brain activity. Over the past 10 years, oxytocin has been implicated in some of the most fundamental aspects of social relationships, such as romantic love, trust and bonding: it helps create the strong bond between infants and mothers, reduces maternal stress, increases trust in economic games, and ameliorates anxiety.

Many studies have stressed the importance of tactile contact in regulating the effects of oxytocin. Touch is an important means of social communication for many mammals, and is frequently deployed to convey emotional states, such as friendliness and anxiety. And studies on rodents have suggested that direct tactile contact is indeed essential for activating the oxytocin system.
Yet along with physical contact, vocalisations — such as the squeaks of mice — are also an important means of social communication in a range of mammals. And oxytocin plays a key role here, too. Mice genetically engineered to lack the oxytocin gene produce fewer social vocalisations, show profound social deficits, and have higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

This led Leslie Seltzer, Toni Ziegler and Seth Pollak from the University of Wisconsin-Madison to wonder whether such vocalisations could boost oxytocin levels. And while rats might be quite vocal, humans have taken this skill to an extreme. So the team looked at whether human speech alone could affect oxytocin levels.

Comforting words
Seltzer and colleagues enlisted more than 60 mother-daughter pairs for their study. All daughters were prepubescent but old enough to understand the experiment, and the experiment was limited to females to ensure the greatest degree of similarity and comparability between subjects, and also to connect their results to earlier work, most of which has focused on females. To test the hypothesis that the spoken word could cause the release of oxytocin, each poor kid had to speak and solve maths puzzles in front of an audience, a task well known to induce stress and the release of cortisol.

Then the kids were split up into three groups. One group was then reunited with their mothers for 15 minutes, who comforted them with hugs and soothing words; this comprised the ‘complete contact’ condition. Another group received a telephone call of the same length from their mothers (‘talk only’); the final third (the control group) watched an emotionally neutral film for 75 minutes (the other girls watched 60 minutes of the film after seeing or speaking with their moms, so that the effects of the film could be subtracted out of the analysis).

Their results — reported a few weeks back in Proceedings of the Royal Society B — support British Telecom’s slogan from the 1990s that “It’s good to talk”. In all the stressed-out kids, cortisol levels spiked, as to be expected. Yet in both the complete-contact and talk-only groups, cortisol levels returned to normal more rapidly than in controls. This was accompanied, in the experimental groups, with elevated urinary levels of oxytocin, whereas controls showed no rise in the hormone. And although the magnitude of these effects was greater with complete contact compared with a call alone, cortisol levels in both groups were statistically indistinguishable after an hour. In the absence of a comforting hug, a few words of support may do the trick in soothing a stressed-out soul.

To tend and defend
Another study on oxytocin, published in today’s issue of Science, explores its effects in males — and not as an anti-stress hormone but as the source of social solidarity. Humans are the social species par excellence. Yes, ants and bees and many other species in huge groups, but none cooperates with genetically unrelated individuals to the same extent as humans. This capacity for large-scale cooperation, and the altruism it is built on, is the key to the global success of humans over the past 50,000 years.

Yet altruism isn’t cast about indiscriminately. It is directed more towards members of variously defined in-groups (only a small percentage of whom will be relatives), and selectively withdrawn from perceived out-groups. This ‘parochial altruism’ may have emerged through the process of cultural group selection, in which groups fostering prosocial norms towards the rest of our group, and antagonism towards out-groups, led to greater success in inter-group competition.

Such cultural selection can also have effects on biology — a phenomenon biologists call gene–culture co-evolution. As famous example is dairy farming: among those populations that picked up the cultural habit of keeping cattle and using their milk, genes for digesting lactose beyond childhood became more valuable and spread, so we now see high levels of lactose tolerance in societies with a history of dairy farming, and low levels elsewhere. In the case of altruism, in-group amity and out-group enmity, a cultural milieu favouring in-group love could have placed a premium on biological mechanisms that promote this feeling.

So Cartsen De Dreu and colleagues decided to see whether oxytocin played any role in modulating parochial altruism. Their experiments, like so may that investigate altruism and inter-group cooperative dynamics, used simple economic games — and in this case, only males were included. The games they played went as follows. Each player was assigned to a three-person group (their in-group), which was paired up with another three-person group (the out-group). Each player was given 10 Euros, which they could either keep to themselves, or contribute to one of two common pools — a ‘within group’ pool and a ‘between group’ pool — after which the pooled money was to be split among members of each group.

These allocation options came with different economic payoffs for the parties involved. For every Euro contributed to the within-group pool, an additional 50 cents were given to each member of the player’s in-group, and so contributions to this pool measured ‘in-group love’ (a purely selfish player would keep all their money to themselves while hoping to free-ride on the contributions of their group members, of which they would get a share when the post was divvied up). Paying into the between-group pool also generated an extra 50 cents for each fellow in-group member, while also decreasing the money in the out-group by 50 cents per player, and so provided a measure of out-group hate.

Before playing this game, some participants received a shot of oxytocin, administered as a nasal spray. (This method has been used in previous studies, where it was shown to increase feelings of trust.) This hormonal boost had the effect of increasing in-group love, but had no consequences for out-group hate. 52% of players in the placebo condition behaved selfishly and did not contribute to the within-group pool, and only 20% showed in-group love. The single shot of oxytocin, however, switched this patter, and now only 17% of players acted selfishly, with 58% evincing in-group love. (Out-group haters comprised 28% of players in the placebo condition, and 25% in the oxytocin arm.) This warm glow of in-group love also moved those who scored more highly as selfish on questionnaires to contribute more to the in-group, so it’s the case that only those primed to cooperate respond to oxytocin in this way.

Other experiments suggest that the in-group love is driven less by hatred of the out-group and more by a desires to protect the in-group. Players played similar economic games, but this time the rules were manipulated so that in some conditions players could do particularly well by cooperating with their teammates, which is this case meant contributing a decent share of their endowment (this was the ‘greed’ situation). At the same time, the rules also allowed for the possibility that players would do particularly badly if they failed to work together cooperatively, while the out-group would gain a significant edge (the ‘fear’ condition). So some games were in greed and fear, other high in one and not the other, and some low in both. This enabled the effects of greed and fear on cooperation, and this interacted with oxytocin.

As expected, those given oxytocin showed more in-group love than those receiving placebo. But this effect was greatest when players were in a high fear situation — that is, when the possibility that their group would lose out heavily was salient. Meanwhile, no effect of greed was seen.

It needn’t have been this way. Parochial altruism could promote in-group love and, simultaneously, fuel aggression towards out-groups. But in these experiments at least, parochial altruism emerged as a ‘tend and defend’ philosophy: look after your own and protect them, but don’t go all out to get at out-groups. And as social philosophies go, it’s not the worst starting point in the world.