March 21, 2022
Allen Awarded Templeton Foundation Grant in Unique Interdisciplinary "Science of Purpose" Initiative

In fall 2021, Associate Professor of Mathematics Ben Allen was selected for a three-year $240,000 award from the John Templeton Foundation for a project entitled "Natural Selection for Collective Purpose.”

The project, Allen says, “seeks to mathematically model collective, cooperative purpose as is widely exhibited in living systems from microbes to metazoans. In particular, it builds off of kin selection, multilevel selection and evolutionary game theory to introduce a novel conceptual framework to explain how the evolution of collective, purposeful, synergistic cooperation can emerge from natural selection.

“A key output of this work will be a new modeling framework that is generally applicable to diverse biological scenarios and helps to unify existing theoretical resources for the evolution of agential features in living systems.”

Allen, whose work explores the evolutionary dynamics of social or collective behavior, and how this is affected by spatial or social network structure within the evolving population, will serve as principal investigator on this project, which is a subaward of a nearly $15 million grant from the Templeton Foundation’s “Science of Purpose” initiative. The larger project, Agency, Directionality and Function,” is being led by Dr. Alan Love, a professor of philosophy in the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota, and director of the Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science.

According to the Templeton Foundation’s website, this Science of Purpose Funding Initiative 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. For proposals, the Foundation invited “bold thinking that asks how such exploration might open new avenues for inquiry.” 

The larger project, which runs through August 2024, includes more than 24 sub-projects from across the globe, spanning a wide range of disciplines, including biology, philosophy, computer science, earth science, math, physics, psychology and anthropology.

“The project emerges from the recognition that we’re missing the intersection of the philosophical, theoretical, and experimental work,” Love noted in a University of Minnesota news article. “Rather than dancing around the edges or avoiding questions relating to purpose, it aims to dive right into the middle of it on a large scale. To do that, it must be interdisciplinary.”

The 24 projects—which include more than 75 people—are organized into seven themed clusters, each under the leadership of a coordinator who will facilitate collaborative activities in the cluster. In this model, researchers will be able to interact across domains and disciplines, nudging projects outside what might be their natural boundaries.

The project’s work can be tracked on its website, where Allen was featured in a Q&A, in which he talks about the possibilities of researching the role of collective behavior on evolution. “This would have implications not only for biology, but also for human society as we grapple with multiple global challenges,” Allen said.

Allen was previously named a winner of the Templeton Foundation’s “Ideas Challenge,” when his 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 in late 2020. 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.  

Allen also recently co-authored co-authored a paper on “Evolution of cooperation with asymmetric social interactions” in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Associate Professor of Mathematics Dr. Ben Allen

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