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 Clinton’s 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
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 life’s 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 people’s lives. Apparent contradictions only emerge when
either the science or the beliefs, or often both, trespass their own
boundaries and wrongfully encroach upon one another’s 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
To some Christians, the theory of evolution seems to be incompatible
with their religious beliefs because it is inconsistent with the Bible’s
narrative of creation. The first chapters of the biblical book of
Genesis describe God’s 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 Darwin’s 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 God’s 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 jaw’s
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
Q: You have written that Darwin’s 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 Darwin’s
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 species—for example, the evolution of humans and chimps—from 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
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
believer—beyond his specific scientific work—and 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 don’t
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
Dobzhansky’s 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 world—whether it is the physical world or the living
world—which 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
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.