Fireworks. Photo by Erwan Hesry via Unsplash.

In early December, the John Templeton Foundation announced the winners of its Ideas Challenge, a funding opportunity that awards “bold thinking” that might “open new avenues for inquiry.” SFI Professors Chris Kempes and Michael Lachmann were both among this year’s 50 awardees, selected out of more than 250 total entries. The winners each receive $1,000 to support work “advancing the science of goal directedness” in one of ten topical areas, or tracks, in the Foundation’s Science of Purpose project.  

Kempes’ entry, awarded in the Macroevolution track, relates to his work identifying universal biological laws. It has been commonly assumed that the types of laws identified in, say, physics or chemistry can’t exist in biology. But that has proved untrue. In recent years, Kempes, SFI Shannan Distinguished Professor Geoffrey West, and others have observed scaling laws in biology, and have used physical theories to explain various biological scaling laws and evolutionary transitions. Developing a universal theory of life will be important for identifying where else in the Universe life might exist, what it might look like, and how life may have started on Earth.

Lachman’s winning idea was awarded in the Open track, a topical area that recognized diverse ideas around goal-directed outcomes in nature. “There are few places in natural sciences where asking teleological questions is allowed: one is in biology,” writes Lachmann. “Darwin’s theory of natural selection allows us to ask why grasshoppers are green – they are green because being green helped their ancestors survive better. By building a theory of selection in physics, we should extend the same type of causal relationship between past and present in physics as we see have in biology, and in those cases the use of functional terms could be justified there, too.”