Published on March 26, 2013 by Sean Flynt  
Samford University’s Center for Science and Religion has received a $170,000 research grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

The Templeton grant is one of ten to be awarded nationally through the foundation’s “Randomness and Divine Providence” initiative, based at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. The initiative promotes scholarly inquiry into questions of how God might work through intermediate processes.

Starting June 3 this year and continuing through June 30, 2015, Samford’s project–“Who Pulls the Random Strings in Neural Evolution?”–will address the question through computer-based evolutionary simulations.

Samford faculty members Steve Donaldson and Tom Woolley, and Eastern Kentucky University professor and Samford alumnus Josh Reeves, will serve as the project’s primary investigators. Samford professors Bruce Atkinson, George Keller and Wilton Bunch will serve as consultants. At least two Samford students per summer also will play a role.

Project leader Donaldson is a computer scientist focused on real and artificial cognition and relationships between science and religion. He led development of the simulation system at the heart of the project.

Woolley is a statistician with a long history of engagement with the questions addressed by the center and its new project. The 2003-2005 Templeton Fellow in Science and Religion at Oxford University specializes in the science of chance and randomness. Woolley, Donaldson, Keller (Biology and Environmental Sciences) and Bunch (Philosophy/University Fellows) co-founded the Center for Science and Religion in 2009.

Reeves is a theologian with an intense interest and growing publication history in the areas of science and religion.

Samford mathematics and computer science chair Atkinson, with an extensive background in probability theory, will lead the team’s search for formal mathematical relationships that characterize the empirical results.

“Constrained randomness” is a key aspect of Samford’s project. One can look out the window and see it shaping trees, clouds, animals and everything else. There is great diversity among people, but one won’t see a 20 foot tall human with purple skin and fins. The random aspects of our genetic code are constrained by chemistry and other forces. The order of the universe is not a matter of “anything goes,” Donaldson explained. “It’s happening within boundaries.”

In Samford’s evolutionary simulations, researchers will explore how constrained random processes can generate artificial neural architectures with predictable functionality. “That constitutes a kind of foreknowledge for the simulators,” Donaldson said, but the means to the desired end might come as a surprise. “If you were designing it by hand, you wouldn’t design it the way this evolutionary simulation system is going to design it, but it works,” he said.

Because the simulations last perhaps a few hours each, researchers can quickly create multiple generations of circuits and document how they develop. If this sounds like biological evolution, that’s the point. To put the experiments into that context, Donaldson described a very simple form of locomotion–a tail moving back and forth, operated by two neurons signaling in turn. He said the signals “that would power some slimy thing through some ooze” might be co-opted for memory and higher cognitive functions. The tantalizing problem is how to move up that evolutionary ladder. “How do you take something that already exists for one purpose and adapt it for another purpose?,” he asked. “That’s the evolutionary story, so what we want to do is to show how that can happen in a simulation.”

Beyond new scientific understanding, the researchers see possibilities for building bridges to those (both religious and not) who claim an inherent incompatibility between randomness and providence. “As Christians, we’re saying that, ultimately, God is behind things but, as scientists, we’re looking for the mechanism,” Donaldson said.

The Samford researchers understand that their work might be controversial in some scientific and religious corners, but Donaldson offered a thought for the consideration of all factions–“If you’re not afraid of the truth then you’re not afraid of exploring for it.”

Samford is a leading Christian university offering undergraduate programs grounded in the liberal arts with an array of nationally recognized graduate and professional schools. Founded in 1841, Samford is the 87th-oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. Samford enrolls 5,791 students from 49 states, Puerto Rico and 16 countries in its 10 academic schools: arts, arts and sciences, business, divinity, education, health professions, law, nursing, pharmacy and public health. Samford fields 17 athletic teams that compete in the tradition-rich Southern Conference and ranks 6th nationally for its Graduation Success Rate among all NCAA Division I schools.