Once upon a time the World Science Festival featured substantial names in science, like Nobel laureates Paul Nurse and Jack Szostak, Steve Benner, Leonard Susskind, Dimitar Sasselov, among others. But this year’s program lists none of those names and relies instead on events like “We Will Be Martians” to draw an audience ($42 a ticket).
Part of the problem is the hand of one of WSF’s principal benefactors—John Templeton Foundation—known for funding fuzzy scientific investigations, often those that blur the line between science and religion.
A case in point is an event: “This View of Life,” featuring anthropologist/biologist David Sloan Wilson—a former Templeton advisor, Templeton Press book author and Templeton-funded project investigator, whose website—This View of Life—featuring a religion section, was also enabled by Templeton funding. Wilson’s WSF lecture is a promotion for his current book by the same name: This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution.
Wilson opens his latest book with this quote from Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species:
“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed laws of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
Later on Wilson writes:
“Unlike a snowflake, living physical processes have been shaped by natural selection over the course of billions of years to replicate with high fidelity—and the more one learns about the details, the more wondrous they become.”
The problem with Wilson’s perspective is that Darwin’s theory of natural selection has been discredited. Biology is no longer the descriptive science it once was. It is increasingly a quantitative science as a result of huge advancements in instrumentation.
Philosopher Jerry Fodor and biologist Eugene Koonin have each successfully argued that the problem with Darwinian selection is that it requires a selector, and said Koonin, “the evolutionary process is very different in nature where nothing is there to actually select.”
Koonin has said further:
“No one in the mainstream scientific community now takes selection literally.”
The matter of natural selection was dealt with publicly at the Royal Society evolution summit in 2016 as well, with Pat Bateson, one of the organizers, cautioning event presenters on stage to limit the use of the term natural selection because it is merely metaphorical.
And Richard Lewontin has written in the New York Review of Books:
“Not to be misunderstood, perhaps biologists should stop referring to “natural selection”.”
Nevertheless, in his latest book (two previous books concerned religion) David Sloan Wilson—-curiously one of the Altenberg 16 scientists—-continues the futile attempt to validate natural selection and his own thinking that there is group selection. He references the work of ISSOL president Niles Lehman, another Templeton grantee, who is now collaborating with British theologian Christopher Southgate to find purposeful RNA fragments that agree to cooperate.
Wilson expresses the following in a recent letter to one of the organizers of the Altenberg 16 meeting:
“On the question of whether the study of human cultural evolution is unduly speculative and adaptationist, consider evolutionary religious studies, which I helped to pioneer at the turn of the 21st century. The central puzzle of religion is that it seems so non-utilitarian. Why do people believe in supernatural agents who command them to do such costly things, such as Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son to his God? There are two broad potential answers to this question. First, religious beliefs and practices might be just as non-utilitarian as they seem, in which case some sort of non-utilitarian explanation is required (which need not be evolutionary). Second, despite appearances, religious beliefs and practices might have “secular utility” after all, as Emile Durkheim put it. His utilitarian definition of religion is “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things…which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.””
Wilson seems unaware of the mechanobiology movement in science, that biology is becoming the new condensed matter physics—as Carl Woese, Nigel Goldenfeld, and Eugene Koonin predicted.
Indeed, Wilson is calling for public policy to further embrace Darwinian science, to make Darwinian science our cultural cement.
He says this in a chapter called: “The Problem of Goodness”:
“The problem is to explain how the behaviors that people associate with goodness, which typically benefit others and society as a whole, can evolve by a Darwinian process.”
That the World Science Festival organizers and sponsors are allowing such musings to pass for science and to take NYU Kimmel Center stage reflects a dishonesty that diminishes science as well as further erodes public confidence in the scientific establishment.