Grant Activity

Biocultural Evolution and Theological Anthropology


John Templeton Foundation, $206,000 USD, Grant #62619, 2022-2023.

Investigators: Michael Burdett (University of Nottingham, Victoria Lorrimar (University of Notre Dame Australia), Nathan Lyons (University of Notre Dame Australia, Megan Loumagne Ulishney (Gannon University)

This science-engaged theology project will use recent findings in evolutionary biology to clarify the “biocultural” character of human beings in theological anthropology. The primary investigators will examine three particular themes in this area — morality, purposiveness, and aesthetics — and will develop mentoring relationships with practicing scientists to support their investigations.

The project will draw on the latest research on niche construction, gene-culture coevolution, and cultural evolution (including, but not limited to, work done under the banner of the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis) to show the mutually constitutive interplay of biological and cultural processes in hominid evolution. Nature-culture continuities identified in this biology literature will be considered for each of the project’s three theological foci. The project will chart new pathways in science-engaged theological anthropology and contribute to bringing the field up to date in terms of its engagement with current evolutionary thinking.

A workshop and an open access journal special issue will bring a wider network of researchers into the project to treat themes in theological anthropology that are related to, but extend beyond, the three foci of the PIs. These additional themes will include topics such as rationality, language, sociality, domestication, religion, and co-creation. The PIs will also conduct a series of interviews with scientists working on biocultural evolution, which will be published online and will widen the public impact of the project.

Megan Loumagne Ulishney’s research with the grant

Current approaches to sexual selection in evolutionary biology emphasize the role of aesthetic perception in evolutionary dynamics over time, and they highlight the inextricable entanglement of nature and culture in shaping aesthetic perception. Beauty is present and exerts a causal force not only in human culture but also throughout nature and across evolutionary time. This emphasis on the natural standing of aesthetics, extending beyond human culture and including non-human organisms, holds promise for expanding approaches to theological aesthetics. Theological aesthetics has traditionally investigated beauty as a transcendental quality of the divine, and the appreciation of the beautiful as a uniquely human capacity. This project investigates the evolutionary origins of aesthetic appreciation and creativity and the ways in which non-human organisms express these capacities today. We anticipate this research producing a novel approach to theological aesthetics that prioritises the animal origins of aesthetics and moves beyond a nature/culture opposition.

Illuminating Theological Inquiry and Christian Ethics Through Training in Psychological Science (funded by John Templeton Foundation and organized by Baylor University)

My research as part of this project aims to develop a framework for theological aesthetics that is informed by the psychological sciences and that moves beyond some traditional approaches to theological aesthetics that have privileged the white male and the heterosexual toward more inclusive images of and symbols for the divine that will contribute to the flourishing of women, people of color, the poor, and sexual minorities. In conversation with insights from psychology, this project will also consider the ways in which aesthetic appreciation and creativity extend beyond the human realm to explore the ways in which non-human organisms—and even the environment itself—have a role to play in the production of the artistic and conceptions of the beautiful. It will integrate these insights into theology by investigating the roles that non-human organisms and environments can play in contributing to new symbolic approaches to the divine, experiences of the sacred, and theological approaches to aesthetics. A final goal of this project is to draw from insights in psychology to explore the potential role for ecological and environmental aesthetic experiences to be integrated into theological aesthetics and theological understandings of environmental ethics.   

Set Foundations Prize for Course Development

In June 2023, I received the SET Foundations Prize for Course Development. Sponsored by the SET Foundations Project at Loyola University Maryland and funded by the John Templeton Foundation, this grant ($25,000) has been awarded to Gannon University for the development of a course that integrates Theology and Philosophy of Science. 

Previous Grant Activity

2019-2022   John Templeton Foundation “God and the Book of Nature” Project                           

  • Full-time postdoctoral research grant to participate in a £2.44 million international project organized by the University of Edinburgh.

2021  Course Development Grant (University of St. Andrews and the John Templeton Foundation)

  • £2000 to develop a course entitled ‘Sexual ethics in science and religion’ 

2021  New Visions in Theological Anthropology Fellowship (University of St. Andrews and the John Templeton Foundation)

2021  SET Foundations Seminar Participant (Loyola University Maryland and the John Templeton Foundation)

2018-2019 Academic Coordinator for the Bridging the Two Cultures of Science and the Humanities II Project (funded by the John Templeton Foundation in partnership with Wycliffe Hall (SCIO), University of Oxford