Inquiry on Evolution & Human Nature

by Juliana Rosati

With its Request for Proposals receiving a strong response from scholars in theology, science and related fields, and the September 1–November 30 application period now closed, the Center of Theological Inquiry (CTI) in Princeton, New Jersey, is well on its way to assembling a resident team of theologians and scientists for its 2012–2013 “Inquiry on Evolution and Human Nature.”

As CTI considers applications for eight Research Fellowships of up to $70,000 and two Postdoctoral Fellowships of $40,000, provided with support from the John Templeton Foundation, the leaders of the year-long inquiry are looking forward to facilitating an interdisciplinary dialogue between top scholars to address questions of nature and nurture raised by the biological evolution of human beings. Applications were encouraged from scholars in evolutionary biology, psychology, and anthropology and other relevant disciplines, including theological anthropology, practical theology, psychology of religion, religious studies, and the history and philosophy of science.

“What we want is the very best possible scientists and the very best possible scholars in the humanities who are prepared to work alongside one another in conversations about how to move this field forward,” said University of Notre Dame theology professor Celia Deane-Drummond, who will co-lead the research year at CTI with Dominic Johnson of the University of Edinburgh.

With Deane-Drummond and Johnson conducting the inquiry as Senior Research Fellows, the project has at its helm two interdisciplinary scholars whose expertise spans biology, theology, and political science. Each holds two doctorates—Deane-Drummond in theology and plant physiology, and Johnson in evolutionary biology and political science.

“I think religion is one of the great remaining puzzles for science to address,” said Johnson, a reader in international relations at Edinburgh. “If it’s universal, if all cultures have religion, then what is it for? That’s the biological question, which all evolutionary biologists I think would have something to contribute to. Can we understand not only the common patterns in religions around the world, but also its incredible diversity?”

Alternating time spent alone writing and thinking with regular team conversations at the Resident Colloquium, the inquiry’s twelve scholars will work in a collaborative environment to produce major individual writing projects that explore how the explosion of new research in evolutionary biology, psychology, and anthropology is challenging and changing understandings of human nature and development, particularly in relation to religion and theological accounts of the human condition.

“One of the reasons I’m so excited about this project is that it does bring together a multidisciplinary team where we can learn to think in a different mindset and therefore raise questions that we might not have thought of within our own subject domain,” said Deane-Drummond, whose work seeks to bridge the gap between her two disciplines through volumes such as Genetics and Christian EthicsEcotheology, and Christ and Evolution. “Theological understandings need to face the challenge of science, but also within those theological traditions there is a wisdom that then has relevance to the way some of the sciences are developing. So in other words, it’s not just a one-way process of theology trying to come to terms with the explosion in scientific and biological knowledge; it’s also maybe what that theological perspective might have to say to the way the science is developing.”

Johnson likewise brings great enthusiasm to the conversation at CTI. From the perspective of his research on the evolution of religion, a topic on which he recently coordinated a three-year project, he was drawn to the opportunity to better understand religion. “It’s one thing for evolutionary biologists to start working on religion, but it’s a huge discipline in itself, and one worries that we might be missing something if we don’t work with theologians and religious scholars to really understand the phenomenon that we’re trying to understand,” he said. “Putting theologians together with evolutionary biologists I think will lead to lots of mutual benefits.”

The Inquiry on Evolution and Human Nature will benefit from not only the intellectual space opened up by an interdisciplinary approach, but also the physical space and time which the twelve-member team will have together as residents in Princeton for a year.

“Getting people together for a year in residence in Princeton is clearly one of the major attractions for me,” said Johnson. He and Deane-Drummond both have worked on other interdisciplinary projects and events that, unlike inquiry at CTI, involved geographically dispersed participants or took place for short periods of time. “The idea of working together every day with people on the same project suggests to me fantastic potential for progress and a big leap forward in understanding each other’s work,” Johnson said.

Each fellow will have an individual office in Luce Hall, conveniently located in Princeton’s historic center, next to the library of Princeton Theological Seminary and within a short walking distance of the Firestone Library of Princeton University. Three miles away, CTI’s Vella Handly Templeton Residences will provide fellows and accompanying families with a one-, two-, or three-bedroom fully furnished townhouse for a nominal housing fee plus utilities.

Fellows will also engage in wider discussions with leading scholars during the course of the year. The team’s research program will include international symposia and seminars with leading scholars, including author and anthropologist Melvin Konner, theologian Sarah Coakley, paleobiologist Simon Conway Morris, theologian Wentzel van Huyssteen, theologian Niels Henrik Gregersen, and historian of science Angela Creager.

The program aims not only to inspire scholars to provide fresh insights and questions about evolution and human nature though completed manuscripts, but also to energize them to carry forward the conversations begun at CTI when they return to their own academic institutions.

“The solidarity that you get through working as a team is very important,” said Deane-Drummond. “You build up a small community that then influences other communities in other parts of the world.”

The Inquiry on Evolution and Human Nature is the first installment in CTI’s major three-year research project, New Approaches in Theological Inquiry, which will offer eight Research Fellowships of up to $70,000 and two Postdoctoral Fellowships of $40,000 each year for proposals to explore one of three specific themes:

2012-2013 Evolution & Human Nature

2013-2014 Religious Experience & Moral Identity

2014-2015 Law & Religious Freedom

The Research Fellowships and Postdoctoral Fellowship being awarded in this project are supported by the John Templeton Foundation.

 About The Center of Theological Inquiry

Founded in 1978, the Center of Theological Inquiry is an independent research institution in Princeton, New Jersey, with a visiting scholar program. The Center advances theological research through interdisciplinary inquiry. We do so by promoting creative individual scholarship in a research environment in which critical reflection and close cooperation across disciplines yield genuine advances in understanding. The Center is a research institution without faculty or students, dedicated to visiting scholars who welcome our interdisciplinary approach and ecumenical ethos. Under the leadership of the Director, we devote all our resources to the work of our resident research teams and their conversation with the wider academy and public. They generate ideas with a global impact. That is our aim.