"Does evolution explain human nature?"
That is the Big Question answered by twelve distinguished scientists and writers in the Templeton Foundation’s latest essay series, which has been advertised this spring in publications across the U.S. and the UK. Contributors include such leading evolutionary biologists as Francisco Ayala (University of California, Irvine); Lynn Margulis (University of Massachusetts, Amherst); Martin Nowak (Harvard); Joan Roughgarden (Stanford); and David Sloan Wilson (University of Binghamton), as well as Francis Collins, the former director of the Human Genome Project; Frans de Waal, a psychologist and primate specialist at Emory; and Robert Wright, author of The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are.
The essays are available online at www.templeton.org/evolution, where they can also be requested in a free printed booklet. Advertorials featuring the Big Question series have been appearing in the Atlantic, the Chronicle of Higher Education, Discover, the London Review of Books, New Scientist, the New Yorker, the New York Times, the New York Review of Books, Scientific American, and Seed, as well as online at the Guardian and the New York Times.
“For the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth,” explained Gary Rosen, the Templeton Foundation’s chief external affairs officer, “we wanted to highlight the breadth and sophistication of contemporary evolutionary theory. There are disagreements among the essayists, of course, but all of them are wrestling with very fundamental questions about what makes us human.”
As most of the essayists emphasize, recent advances in evolutionary biology and psychology help to explain a wide range of human emotions, behaviors, and capacities—and not just the stereotypically “selfish” ones. “The golden rule of Jesus, Confucius, and others is that we should not do to others what we would not want them to do to us,” writes Lynn Margulis. “Is this not a clear precept for the evolutionary perpetuation of specific cohesive groups in familiar habitats?” Frans de Waal stresses the continuity between human beings and our nearest animal relatives: “I interact daily with chimpanzees and bonobos, which are known as anthropoids precisely because of their human-like characteristics. Like us, they strive for power, enjoy sex, want security and affection, kill over territory, and value trust and cooperation.”
For his part, Francisco Ayala sees important limits to evolutionary explanations: “Science has nothing decisive to say about values, whether economic, aesthetic, or moral; nothing to say about the meaning of life and its purpose; and nothing to say about religious beliefs—except, of course, in those cases when these values and activities transcend their proper scope and make demonstrably false assertions about the natural world.” Martin Nowak expresses similar doubts, but in a more philosophical vein: “Evolution has led to a human brain that can gain access to a Platonic world of forms and ideas. This world is eternal and not the product of evolution, but it does affect human nature deeply. Therefore evolution cannot possibly explain all aspects of human nature.”
The new essay series on evolution and human nature is the fifth “Templeton conversation” on various Big Questions. The previous questions, which can be found on the Foundation’s website at www.templeton.org/bigquestions, include: “Does the universe have a purpose?”; “Will money solve Africa’s development problems?”; “Does science make belief in God obsolete?”; and “Does the free market corrode moral character?”
Darwin in Istanbul
The Darwin anniversary symposium in Istanbul, April 23-24, received widespread coverage in the Turkish press.
In late April, Istanbul hosted its first-ever international scientific meeting on the subject of evolution. Organized by the Faraday Institute of the University of Cambridge, with funding from the Templeton Foundation, the gathering consisted of a two-day scholarly symposium and a public event to mark the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species.
The symposium, which was attended mainly by biology faculty and graduate students from Turkish universities, focused on new developments in evolutionary biology and also the historical and present-day challenges of teaching evolution in Turkey. Erksin Gulec of Ahi Evran University and David Lordkipanidze of the Georgian National Museum surveyed recent hominid finds in Turkey and Georgia, respectively. Other talks included Barbara Drossel of Darmstadt University of Technology (Germany) on “The Evolution of Biological Complexity,” Ard Louis of Oxford University on “The Evolution of Self-Assembling Systems,” and Vidyanand Nanjundiah of the Indian Institute of Sciences (Bangalore) on “The Evolution of Cooperation.”
Sukru Hanioglu, professor of Near East Studies at Princeton University, was unable to attend the symposium but contributed a videotaped talk describing how evolutionary theory was conveyed to Ottoman society in the 19th century more as a philosophy than as a biological science. In fact, On the Origin of Species was not translated into Turkish until 1971. The theologian Huseyin Atay of Ankara University discussed the relationship between evolution and the Qu’ran, arguing that Islam must embrace scientific truth. And Sema Ergezen of Marmara University urged the inclusion of more instruction on evolutionary theory in the scientific curriculum in Turkey.
The public event, which was attended by over 400 Turkish students, began with a discussion of “Darwin the Man” by the Oxford historian of science John Hedley Brooke and also included a performance of Re:Design, a play based on the correspondence between Darwin and the American naturalist Asa Gray. The evening concluded with a panel discussion, featuring four well-known biologists, and a Q&A session with the students, all of which was recorded for broadcast on Turkish national television.
The conference received widespread coverage in the Turkish press, including the mass-circulation daily newspaper Hurriyet and the Turkish edition of Newsweek. A special website, in both Turkish and English, was created for the conference at www.Darwin200Istanbul.org to provide information about evolution and Darwin’s life.