December 14, 2020
Allen’s “Science of Purpose” Proposal Named a Winner of Prestigious Templeton Ideas Challenge

Does evolution imbue living organisms with a purpose? Associate Professor of Mathematics Benjamin Allen, Ph.D., explored that question in his award-winning proposal for this year’s Templeton Ideas Challenge.

According to the John Templeton Foundation website, “The Ideas Challenge is aimed at exploring novel theoretical, philosophical, or scientific ideas useful for advancing the study of goal-directed, goal-seeking, or goal-suited phenomena in nature. We invite bold thinking that asks how such exploration might open new avenues for inquiry.”

His Ideas Challenge entry, “Natural selection for purpose-driven cooperation in structured populations” was one of 50 chosen from a pool of more than 250 unique ideas for a $1000 prize. Within the Challenge’s “Models” track, which explores new investigative models on purposiveness or agency, Dr. Allen used the idea of a utility function to mathematically demonstrate how cooperative behaviors within population structures are purposeful—their purpose shaped by natural selection.  

His proposal states:

Organisms, from microbes, insects, and plants to humans, engage in complex, cooperative, synergistic behaviors. How do these collective behaviors arise from natural selection? Is there a purpose that these cooperative behaviors serve? If so, how is this purpose shaped by structures (kin relationships, social networks, spatial geography, mating pattern, etc.) within the evolving population?

A rigorous examination of these questions must operate simultaneously on two levels: gene and organism. Natural selection favors genes that behave as if to maximize the spread of their copies. Genes can do this by increasing the fitness of their own bearers, and also by acting in synergy with copies in other individuals. This naturally-selected purpose of genes (to maximize the spread of their copies) manifests itself in organismal behavior, potentially furnishing organisms with their own goals and purposes.

"I've always been fascinated by how living things come together to form cooperative societies,” said Dr. Allen. “And by creating and studying mathematical models, you can investigate these kind of ‘big questions’ using only a pencil and paper.”

Dr. Allen’s research focuses on evolutionary game theory and using mathematical modeling to help illuminate the organisms, patterns, and behaviors that emerge from evolution—including how the how the spatial or social structure of a population affects its evolution and how the genetic evolution of cancer as tumors grow and develop within an organism. His research has appeared in the prestigious multidisciplinary scientific journal Nature and its sub-journal Nature Communications, and was awarded, along with Associate Professor of Mathematics Dr. Christine Sample, a National Science Foundation grant, which propelled further investigation involving Emmanuel College undergraduates.

Ben Allen speaks to students, laptop on foreground Dr. Benjamin Allen

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