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Theology Last Updated: Feb 8th, 2011 - 05:50:02


Templeton Prize winner Fr. Ayala: Christianity and evolution - not incompatible?
Anna Danilova
Sep 2, 2010, 11:37
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Francisco J. Ayala, has been called the Renaissance Man of Evolutionary Biology by the New York Times.  On 5 May 2010, he received from HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, the 2010 Templeton Prize at a private ceremony in Buckingham Palace. He donated the entire amount of the Prize (one million pounds sterling) to the University of California, Irvine, for graduate student fellowships in the biological sciences. On 12 June 2002, President George W. Bush awarded him the National Medal of Science at the White House. From 1994 to 2001, he was a member of President Clintons Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology. He has been President and Chairman of the Board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1993-1996), and President of Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society of the U.S (2004-2005).

Dr. Ayala has made significant and wide-ranging experimental and theoretical contributions to evolution theory. He has published more than 1,000 articles and is author or editor of 34 books.  His scientific research focuses on population and evolutionary genetics, the origin of species, the molecular clock of evolution, and the interface between religion and science.

Dr. Ayala is University Professor and the Donald Bren Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of California, Irvine (UCI). He is also Professor of Philosophy in the School of Humanities and Professor of Logic and Philosophy of Science in the School of Social Sciences at UCI.

Dr. Ayala has kindly agreed to answer the pravmir.com questions.

Q: You were recently awarded the 2010 Templeton Prize, valued at one million pounds sterling, presented to you by His Royal Highness, Prince Philip at Buckingham Palace in London. Could you tell me why you received this prize?

FJA: The Prize citation reads, Francisco José Ayala is awarded the 2010 Templeton Prize for his remarkable achievements as an evolutionary geneticist and molecular biologist and for his opposition to the entanglement of science ad religion whilst also calling for mutual respect between the two. Professor Ayala champions faith as a unique and important window to understanding matters of purpose, values and the meaning of life even as he cautions against religions infringement into science. The John Templeton Foundation pays homage to Francisco José Ayala for his lifes work in science and for speaking out about the rightful roles of both science and religion in fostering research and discovery for scientific and spiritual progress.

Q: You are an evolutionist, a prolific author of numerous books and even more numerous papers, do you think that the theory of evolution is compatible with religious faith?

FJA: Evolution and religious beliefs need not be in contradiction. Indeed, if science and religion are properly understood, they cannot be in contradiction because they concern different matters. Science and religion are like two different windows for looking at the world. The two windows look at the same world, but they show different aspects of that world. Science concerns the processes that account for the natural world: how planets move, the composition of matter and the atmosphere, the origin and adaptations of organisms. Religion concerns the meaning and purpose of the world and of human life, the proper relation of people to the Creator and to each other, the moral values that inspire and govern peoples lives. Apparent contradictions only emerge when either the science or the beliefs, or often both, trespass their own boundaries and wrongfully encroach upon one anothers subject matter.

Science is a way of knowing, but it is not the only way. Knowledge also derives from other sources. Common experience, imaginative literature, art, and history provide valid knowledge about the world; and so do revelation and religion for people of faith. The significance of the world and human life, as well as matters concerning moral or religious values, transcend science. Yet these matters are important; for most of us, they are at least as important as scientific knowledge per se.

To some Christians, the theory of evolution seems to be incompatible with their religious beliefs because it is inconsistent with the Bibles narrative of creation. The first chapters of the biblical book of Genesis describe Gods creation of the world, plants, animals, and human beings. A literal interpretation of Genesis seems incompatible with the gradual evolution of humans and other organisms by natural processes. But many Biblical scholars since the early centuries of Christianity, had stated that it is an egregious mistake to interpret the Bible as a textbook of astronomy, physics or biology.

Some Christian theologians, already in the nineteenth century shortly after Darwins publication of The Origin of Species, saw a solution to the apparent contradiction between evolution and creation in the argument that God operates through intermediate causes. The origin and motion of the planets could be explained by the law of gravity and other natural processes without denying Gods creation and providence. Similarly, evolution could be seen as the natural process through which God brought living beings into the existence and developed them according to his plan.

Q: How are evolution and the existence of evil possibly connected?

FJA: One difficulty with attributing the design of organisms to the Creator is that imperfections and defects pervade the living world. Consider the human eye. The visual nerve fibers in the eye converge to form the optic nerve, which crosses the retina (in order to reach the brain) and thus creates a blind spot, a minor imperfection, but an imperfection of design, nevertheless; squids and octopuses do not have this defect. Did the Creator have greater love for squids than for humans and, thus, exhibit greater care in designing their eyes than ours? Consider now the human jaw. We have too many teeth for the jaws size, so that wisdom teeth need to be removed and orthodontists can make a decent living straightening the others. Would we want to blame God for this blunder? A human engineer would have done better. Evolution gives a good account of these imperfections.

Examples of deficiencies and dysfunctions in all sorts of organisms can be endlessly multiplied. The world of organisms also abounds in characteristics that, as in the behavior of predators killing and devouring their prey, might be characterized as cruelties, an apposite qualifier if the cruel behaviors were designed outcomes of a being holding on to human or higher standards of morality. But the cruelties are only metaphorical cruelties when applied to the outcomes of natural selection or to the behavior of animals, because these lack moral status.

Q: You have written that Darwins theory of evolution helps religion. In what way?

FJA: If we claim that organisms and their parts have been specifically designed by God, we have to account for the incompetent design of the human jaw, the narrowness of the birth canal, and our poorly designed backbone, less than fittingly suited for walking upright. People of faith would do well to acknowledge Darwins revolution and accept natural selection as the process that accounts for the design of organisms, as well as for the dysfunctions, oddities, cruelties, and sadism that pervade the world of life. Evolution makes it possible to attribute these mishaps to natural processes (which have no moral implications) rather than attributing them to the direct creation or specific design of the Creator.

Before modern physical science came about, God, according to some religious views, caused rain, drought, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions to reward or punish people. This view entails that God would have caused the tsunami that killed 200,000 Indonesians a few years ago. That would seem incompatible with a benevolent God. However, we now know that tsunamis and other natural catastrophes come about by natural processes. Natural processes don't entail moral values. Critics might object that God could have created a different world, without catastrophes. Yes, according to some belief systems, God could have created a different world. But that would not be a creative universe, where galaxies form, stars and planetary systems come about, and continents drift. The world that we have is creative and more exciting than a static world.

Turn now to badly-designed human jaws, parasites that kill millions of children, and a poorly-designed human reproductive system that accounts for millions of miscarriages every year in the world. If these dreadful happenings come about by direct design by God, God would seem responsible for the consequences. If engineers design cars that explode when you turn on the ignition key, they are accountable. But if the dreadful happenings come about by evolution or other natural processes, there are no moral implications, because natural processes don't entail moral values. Some might object, once again, that God is ultimately responsible because God could have created a world without cruelties, parasites or dysfunctionalities. But a world of life with evolution is much more exciting; it is a creative world where new species arise, complex ecosystems come about, and humans have evolved.

Q: If evolution exists, are there any new species appearing now? Are there any observations that support this?

FJA: Scientists agree that the evolutionary origin of animals and plants is a scientific conclusion beyond reasonable doubt. They place it besides such established concepts as the roundness of the Earth, its revolution around the Sun, and the atomic composition of matter. That evolution has occurred is, in ordinary language, a fact, not just a theory.

An objection may now be raised. How can the factual claim that evolution has occurred be asserted, if no one has observed the evolution of speciesfor example, the evolution of humans and chimpsfrom a common ancestor, much less replicated it by experiment? Is it not true that science relies on observation, replication, and experimentation? This is indeed true, but what scientists observe and experiment with are not the concepts or general conclusions of theories, but their consequences.

Copernicus heliocentric theory affirms that the Earth revolves around the Sun. Scientists soon accepted this claim because of numerous confirmations of its predicted consequences, even though no one had yet observed the Earth revolving around the Sun. Even now, nobody has observed the annual revolution of the Earth around the Sun, not even astronauts. We accept that matter is made of a diversity of atoms, even if no one has seen the atoms, because of corroborating observations and experiments in physics and chemistry.

The theory of evolution also depends on immensely numerous observations and experiments that confirm the consequences of the theory. For example, the claim that humans and chimpanzees are more closely related to each other than they are to baboons, leads to the prediction that the DNA of humans and chimps is more similar than that of chimps and baboons. To test this prediction, scientists select a particular gene, examine its DNA structure in each species, and thus corroborate the inference. Experiments of this kind are replicated in a variety of ways to gain further confidence in the conclusion. And so it is for myriad predictions and inferences between all sorts of organisms.

The evolutionary origin of organisms is today a scientific conclusion established beyond reasonable doubt, endowed with the kind of certainty that scientists attribute to well-established scientific theories in physics, astronomy, chemistry, and molecular biology. This degree of certainty beyond reasonable doubt is, as stated above, what is implied when biologists say that evolution is a fact; the evolutionary origin of organisms is accepted by virtually every biologist.

The evidence for evolution in the past as well as now, including the origin of new species, is published every year in thousands and thousands of scientific articles appearing in hundreds of scientific journals. The study of biological evolution has transformed our understanding of life in the world. Biological evolution accounts for three fundamental features of the world around us: the similarities among living beings, the diversity of life, and the adaptations of organisms: why animals have eyes for vision, wings for flying, and gills for breathing in water. Evolution accounts for the appearance of humans on Earth and reveals our relationship with other living things. Evolution is now the central organizing principle that biologists use to understand the world. As Theodosius Dobzhansky, one of the greatest evolutionists of the twentieth century, put it, Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.

Q: You have mentioned Prof. Theodosius Dobzhansky, one of the scientific giants of the 20th century. He is said to have been a devout Orthodox Christian. He was also your mentor. Could you tell us about Dobzhansky as a thinker and a believerbeyond his specific scientific workand how he influenced you in these respects?

FJA: Professor Dobzhansky asserted that it is a practical mistake for religious people, for Christians, to see science as a crutch or an apology, or a foundation for religion. He thought that such a claim is ultimately damaging to religion. Some theologians and people of faith have tried to use scientific arguments to prove the existence of God. More often yet, some use current unknowns about the world and its origins as evidence of God's existence. This is a mistake from the point of view of religion. It is the God of the Gaps approach to justify religious beliefs.  There are events in the world whose causes we dont know and they conclude that, therefore, we must attribute them to God. Science can, in principle, provide a complete view of nature, within its own sphere.  The God of the Gaps approach leads to a continuous retreat as more and more natural phenomena become explained by science.  And this reduces the credibility of religion, in the eyes of many, as Dobzhansky would say.

But the questions that science asks are not the only questions of interest in trying to understand the world. Consider imaginative literature and the arts. They are completely outside of the scientific realm. Artistic experience is outside the way of knowing that science represents. And yet, the arts are a valid way of acquiring knowledge. Not just a valid kind of experience, but actually a valid way of acquiring knowledge. Dostoyevsky has a lot to say about human nature and our place in the world. This is knowledge, but it is not science. It is a different kind of knowledge. But it is valid. It is meaningful.

Dobzhanskys view was that the scientific description and understanding of the world tells something that is very valid and very important, especially for its technological and economic consequences. But in terms of fulfilling the human spirit, there is a lot to be said about the worldwhether it is the physical world or the living worldwhich remains outside the realm of science.  Religion and science address different realms of human experience. Religious experience gives us a different way of knowing, a different kind of knowledge, just as artistic experience gives us a different kind of knowledge.

A scientific and a religious view of the world do not overlap, but they concern different sources of knowledge. But I don't believe that they can be contradictory, that one can say that something is white and the other one say that that something is not white. They are just dealing with different dimensions of reality, different levels of experience.

I will end with an optimistic comment. I believe that in the last few years we are entering a new era in the dialogue between science and religion. Rather than warfare we seek mutual respect and understanding. Not just reconciliation, but mutual understanding.  The scientific and religious communities share some goals. We want the citizens of the United States, of Russia, and of course the world, to live full lives and mature lives. Scientific literacy contributes to it but there are other dimensions. The religious dimension is one.

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