ISSOL’s Niles Lehman & Templeton Cash Cow

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“If you still want to chat, and can stick to a scientific agenda, check back in a couple of weeks when I have a bit more time. . . .I think everything regarding the JTF project(s) is above board.  Please tell me if I’m wrong.”—Niles Lehman, March 2013 email to me

It’s like a madcap scene from the Marx Brothers’ A Night in Casablanca, where to the dismay of the Nazis the trunk that’s packed for the getaway is empty because the clothes keep walking away.  Templeton continues to pour millions of dollars into origin and evolution of life projects that result in fiasco: (1) the 2013 origins conference at CERN; (2) funding of religious scholars by NASA & Templeton to investigate how the religious community would respond to the discovery of life in outer space; (3) the dig through 18 levels of civilization for religious evidence at 10,000-year-old Çatalhöyük—to cite just a few.  But science is not being compromised for big laughs, it’s being compromised by greedy academics and their university money managers who, with a wink, look the other way while Templeton’s Big Creep mission blurs the lines between science and religion.

One of the stickiest origins projects Templeton has recently funded is “Cooperation and Interpretation in the Emergence of Life,” which looks to find purposeful RNA fragments that agree to cooperate.  Six hundred thirty thousand dollars ($630,000) has been awarded for said project to the team of Christopher Southgate-–a British theologian/biochemist, and Portland State University chemistry professor Niles Lehman.

Lehman was recently elected president of the nonprofit origin of life society “ISSOL” replacing Sandra Pizzarello.  As ISSOL president, Lehman will now also be majorly soliciting funds, including more from Templeton.

Lehman and Dave Deamer, who served as ISSOL president from 2011-2014, were both Lonsdale origins research darlings.  But with philanthropist Harry Lonsdale now gone. . .

I decided it was time to request an interview with Niles Lehman. So I emailed him a week or so ago. But Lehman was defensive about a conversation and dictated terms.  He would not agree to questions about the politics of science, for example, only about science—despite the fact that he is a publicly funded scientist and is now looking for public investment in ISSOL.

I never did interview Niles Lehman for my first book on origin of life.  Lehman’s embrace of autocatalytic sets, and Nobel laureate Jack Szostak’s dismissal of the concept, which follows, gave me pause:

“Autocatalytic sets is one of those concepts where the people who came up with the original idea, like Stuart Kauffman, rather than admit being wrong kept changing their story until it was basically the same concept everybody was already working on.

The original idea was that there would be large numbers of compounds where one would help another to replicate, and that one could help some other one to replicate, and that somehow out of this huge population of interacting molecules autocatalytic replication would emerge.

In my opinion that was never chemically realistic.  Now you see people talking about non-enzymatic RNA replication and calling that autocatalytic sets.  If that’s what you want to call it, that’s fine.  But it seems like the concept has lost all meaning.”

However, I did interview Lehman’s former graduate student, Nilesh Vaidya, who told me in January 2013 at the Princeton origins conference that the secret to making RNA fragments come together in his 2012 experiment with Lehman was simply adding magnesium.  Similarly, Georgia Tech chemist Nick Hud commented in a 2013 videotaped review of Lehman’s research funded by Harry Lonsdale that the aggregation of RNA shown on Lehman’s slide was likely due to manganese in the mix.    

“I didn’t think that I could sneak that past you.,” Lehman responded to Hud’s observation.   “I wasn’t trying to do that.”

The bottom line is that the stitching together of RNA in Lehman’s experiment was not due to smart RNA. 

But Lehman, now partnering with Christopher Southgate (Certificate in Theology—University of Exeter, and General Ministry Certificate—Church of England), in this his second grant from the John Templeton Foundation, is pursuing just that angle—purpose “all the way down” to single RNA molecules.

Meanwhile, Southgate, per his online CV, has been engaged by Templeton numerous times over the last two decades, (1) to develop a course on science and religion; (2) to develop a textbook on science and religion; (3) as a contributor to a “high-level Templeton Colloquium on Deep Incarnation”; and  (4) as grant assessor for both the John Templeton Foundation and Templeton World Charities Foundation.  It is unclear how much money has changed hands.

Southgate’s forthcoming book from Cambridge University Press is Glory and Longing, in  which he proposes “a new way of understanding the glory of God in Christian theology, based on glory as a sign.”

Southgate has done six interviews on science and theology for the PBS television program Closer To Truth, which is funded by Templeton.  He’s currently teaching such university courses as: “God, Humanity and the Cosmos” and “Evolution, God and Gaia.”

Furthermore, Lehman and Southgate cling to discredited Darwinian theory in their Templeton-funded project, despite the following voices of reason:

“Sometimes when I’m in a mildly bitter mood I think, look the trouble with Darwin is he believes in Intelligent Design. He never really got it clear to himself that there really isn’t a designer. So it’s questionable whether you can take artificial selection as a model for natural selection the way he did. When you try to do that you can’t work it out.”—Jerry Fodor talking to me in 2008

“Perhaps making all these parallels between natural selection and artificial selection, the way Darwin does in his book, could be somewhat dangerous because in artificial selection there is someone who is selecting, even if unconsciously. In that respect, the evolutionary process is very different in nature where nothing is there to actually select. . . . No one in the mainstream scientific community now takes selection literally.”—Eugene Koonin in conversation with me in 2017

“The circulation of the proof copy of What Darwin Got Wrong, the product of a noted philosopher and a prominent student of linguistics and cognitive science, has resulted in a volume of critical comment from biologists and philosophers that has not been seen since 1859. . . . Not to be misunderstood, perhaps biologists should stop referring to “natural selection,” and instead talk about differential rates of survival and reproduction.”—-Richard Lewontin, New York Review of Books, 2010

And while I don’t see eye-to-eye with University of Chicago’s Jerry Coyne on his enthusiasm for Darwinian natural selection, I do find his dissection of the Templeton threat to science right on the money (even if he did try to claim my NASA-Templeton report as his). Following are Coyne’s blog comments regarding the recent lecture by philosopher Orestis Palermos, part of a University of Edinburgh Coursera course that Templeton bankrolled:

“In the end, this whole course seems like a Templeton-funded endeavor to cast doubt on evolution—and perhaps on science as a whole.  That, of course, comports perfectly with the John Templeton Foundation’s agenda to blur the boundaries between faith and science, making both seem like faith-based enterprises that, taken together, can tell us “spiritual truths” and answer “the Big Questions”.  (That was, after all, Sir John’s purpose in creating the Foundation.)  Let nobody say that Templeton has decided to abandon religion and cast its lot fully with science.  It may pretend to do that, but behind the scenes it’s still funding courses like this one.”

We have a wall between church and state in America, but in recent years we’ve seen attempts to destabilize that wall.  The 2015-2017 $3M funding by NASA & Templeton to two dozen religious scholars was one of them.  The Freedom From Religion Foundation took action filing a Freedom of Information Act request for documents regarding the matter, which should have led to housecleaning of NASA personnel. But how much the Trump administration cares about maintaining this particular wall is questionable.

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