A $5 Million Question: How'd We Become Human?

Which came first, our upright stance or our big brains? Are primates naturally prone to murderous aggression? These are the kinds of big questions the Templeton Foundation loves, which is why it has dropped $4.9 million on one research institute studying the origins of humanity. 

The three-year grant to Arizona State University’s Institute of Human Origins is the single largest any team has received for human origins research, which seeks to better understand when and how humans developed the unique capacities that make us dominant on the planet.

Templeton is known for making grants to issues it considers to be at the core of understanding humanity and reality, based on its founder’s optimism about acquiring “new spiritual information.” 

Related: Templeton Couldn’t Resist Granting $4.5M to Study Self-Control

Templeton makes some researchers uneasy with that kind of talk, along with its funding of certain theological issues. But the spectrum of work Templeton funds includes plenty of rock solid science, math, and physics. 

The ASU Insitute is a perfect match for the kind of projects the funder likes to back. This grant falls under the foundation’s grant theme, “The Evolutionary Foundations of Human Uniqueness.”  

Related - Templeton Foundation: Grants for Science Research

The IHO was founded at Berkeley by Donald Johanson, whose team in 1974 discovered the fossil skeleton of “Lucy,” an upright hominin that lived 3.2 million years ago, and delivered a flood of scientific discoveries about early bipedal primates. The discovery and future work made Johanson among the best-known paleoanthropologists in the world. Most recently, team member Joan Silk wrote an analysis piece for Nature, accompanying a high-profile University of Minnesota study on lethal aggression in primates.

Today, the center is housed at ASU with a team of nine and several outside collaborators. The work will span research in Africa, Europe, South America, Oceania, and the United States, and the grant funds 11 linked projects related to how humans developed cognition, culture, and cooperation. 

There’s also an educational component, with a $200,000 supplement to fund K-12 education work on human origins study and to build up the popular BecomingHuman.org website.