UCI News

A good life

In the work of evolutionary biologist and ordained priest Francisco Ayala, science and religion have found a peaceful coexistence

by Gordy Slack | August 29, 2002
A good life

Walking the corridors of Steinhaus Hall past all the small, practical offices, it is hard to imagine a scientist of Francisco J. Ayala’s stature in one of them.

And though his gray door looks like all the others, behind it is a suite that belies the building’s concrete, utilitarian architecture. Ayala’s office is large and meticulously organized and decorated: the polar opposite of the archetypal scientist’s chaotic quarters crammed with teetering towers of papers, books and biological specimens.

There are many books (15 of which are by Ayala himself), but they are carefully indexed and shelved in a personal library off of the main office. There are research papers (680-plus of which Ayala has written over the past 40 years), but they are kept in perfect order and tucked away in the file cabinets.

The walls display well-framed and evenly hung photographs representing the various phases and aspects of Ayala’s life: in the Oval Office advising Bill Clinton on scientific priorities, with Spain’s Queen Sofia, with the researchers in his genetics lab, with his wife and sons. There is a portrait of Vice President Al Gore with a thank-you note scrawled on it. And there are enough honorary degrees (he’s got seven), medals and awards to decorate the ample wall space to a point just this side of overcrowding.

There also are biological specimens: not stacked and stuck here and there, but fastidiously mounted and hung or placed like objects d’art on otherwise clear tables and counters. The most salient of these are colorful birds, collected in Amazonia, where, early in his career, Ayala also collected and studied a fly that was to remain a lifelong friend.

Forty years ago, when Ayala still lived in Spain, he was introduced to Drosophila (a genus of fruit fly that reproduces so fast and abundantly that it makes an ideal tool for observing the mechanisms of evolution) by a professor of genetics at the University of Salamanca.

Ayala had been spending as much time in the lab at Salamanca as his other passion would allow. For although Ayala was enthralled by Drosophila, by biology, and by the story of the evolution of life on Earth, he was enrolled nearby at the Pontifical University, where he was studying theology and preparing for the Catholic priesthood.

Science and religion have been competing for Ayala’s attention ever since. But, for the most part, it has been a friendly competition – on occasion even a collaboration.

From priest to preeminent biologist
Ayala was ordained a Dominican priest in 1960, but by later that year he had met the pioneering Columbia University geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky, and by 1961 he had moved to New York City and was on the fast track to a doctorate in genetic biology.

His first job out of Columbia was a postdoctoral position across town at Rockefeller University. The techniques of molecular biology had just become available and he was using them to shed light on the genetics of speciation (or how new species evolve from older ones) and to measure genetic variation within populations.

“Before Ayala,” says Andrei Tatarenkov, a researcher in Ayala’s lab, “theories about the origin of the species were mostly based on mathematical models. The early work of Ayala and Dobzhansky was really the first experimental work. It confirmed some of the mathematical predictions, but also raised some surprises. For instance, Ayala found a lot more genetic polymorphism, or variation, within populations than theories had predicted.”

Since genetic polymorphism is the engine of natural selection, this was a “critical discovery,” says Tatarenkov.

New York City thrilled Ayala, the young European intellectual who loved art, music and good food. But when he and his first wife had children, they agreed that the city was not the best place to raise them. So, in 1971, he took an associate professorship in the Department of Genetics at UC Davis.

“Davis is a good university and wonderful place to raise children,” Ayala says, “but the area lacks the range and quality of cultural activities that exist here. As soon as my children went to college I came to Irvine.”

Ayala might shrug off those Davis years, but during them (with the help of his Drosophila), he made a name for himself as one of the world’s preeminent genetic biologists.

Though working on theoretical issues, Ayala also began to study problems with concrete human ramifications. He studied the population genetics of Trypanosoma cruzi, the agent that causes Chagas, one of the most destructive diseases in South America. (And, incidentally, the disease thought by many to be responsible for Charles Darwin’s chronic illness.)

Ayala’s former professor, Dobzhansky, also moved to Davis and they co-authored a textbook that became a staple in the field: Evolution. During those years Ayala also wrote three other important books about evolutionary biology: Evolving, Molecular Evolution, and Modern Genetics.

“The abilities to both do and describe science make a rare and valuable combination, one that has made Ayala a popular lecturer and author,” says Tatarenkov, whose first exposure to Ayala was through a Russian translation of Modern Genetics.

In defense of rationality
In 1980 he was inducted into the prestigious National Academy of Sciences for his work on population genetics. And in 1981, Ayala joined Harvard evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould on the front pages of America’s newspapers when he testified for the defense in McLean vs. Arkansas Board of Education. Arkansas had just passed the so-called balanced-treatment law, requiring schools in the state to give equal time in science classes to both evolution and creationism.

“Frank Press, the newly elected president of the National Academy of Sciences, asked me whether I thought the academy should get involved,” says Ayala. “I said it should. What was at stake was not a particular branch of science, but the survival of rationality in this country. If we allowed the Book of Genesis to be taught as science, that would be as bad for science as it would be for religion.”

Another byproduct of his Davis years is the ranch Ayala owns and often visits, near Sacramento, where he grows the grapes he uses in making his own label of California wine and where he takes refuge from his busy professional life.

The move to Irvine in 1987 was a welcome one. Now, Ayala says, he has access to “an embarrassment of cultural riches.” As if to make up for lost time, he subscribes to the symphony, the opera, the ballet, and he dines out three or four times a week.”The arts are tremendously important,” he says. “If you listen to good music, read good books, watch great dance, and eat good food, it is hard to be a bad person.”

“By temperament,” Ayala says, he longed to be part of a university that was “expanding and improving” and one that was “taking its responsibility to the sciences, and to molecular biology in particular, very seriously. This was such a place,” he says. In the twelve years that he has been at UCI, he has watched it grow and rise through the ranks of other schools, emerging as one of America’s finest universities.

Ayala, who is now UCI’s Bren Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, was offered a professorship in the Department of Philosophy as well. He jumped at this opportunity to combine his interests in religion, metaphysics, and the philosophy of science with his scientific research. He has written a book on teleology, or purposefulness in the universe, another book titled Studies in the Philosophy of Biology: Reduction and Related Problems, and many papers on the philosophy of science. He currently co-teaches a popular undergraduate class at UCI on the philosophy of biology.

In addition to its academic attractions, Ayala says, UCI has another ingredient crucial to his lifestyle: easy access to a good airport. While Ayala boasts that he is one of the only mature professionals he knows who has always lived within walking distance of his office, he later mentions that he spends about half his time away from home, lecturing around the country and abroad and attending conferences and meetings.

Since 1992, Ayala has served on President Clinton’s Scientific Advisory Committee. This, combined with his work on the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (an organization over which he presided in the mid-1990s), takes him to Washington, D.C. nearly every other week. With John Wayne Airport nearby, he can leave his lab early in the afternoon and be sitting in the Oval Office that evening.

Ayala continues his work making sense of the genetic mechanisms by which new species evolve. Along with the dozen or so researchers in his lab, Ayala has nearly succeeded in creating new species of flies by accelerating the process of natural selection among Drosophila. Once the speciation process is complete, he hopes to find out how many genes – and which ones – have changed in these new “species.”

The same phenomenon can be studied in nature by observing species that have either evolved in the recent past or that are just now evolving in the wild. Ayala’s search for such situations has led to long-term studies of various animal groups in tropical South America and, more recently, in Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

“The concept of the molecular clock has revolutionized the field of evolutionary studies,” says Ayala.

By studying DNA and proteins, Ayala and his colleagues are able to reconstruct aspects of evolutionary history and shed new light on the timing of past evolutionary events. The “clocks” are hardly perfect, and can easily be misleading if wrongly applied, Ayala warns. But they can yield reliable, interesting and important information.

Recently Ayala has been employing his old friend Drosophila and the molecular clock concept to study the genetic history of the parasites that cause malignant malaria, a disease responsible for as many as 1.5 million deaths each year.

Ayala’s study revealed the astonishing fact that each of the malarial parasites alive in the world today (each person with malaria hosts millions of the parasites and at least 300 million humans are affected by malaria today) is a virtually identical descendant of a single individual parasite living only a few thousand years ago.

Not only does this discovery demonstrate how frighteningly fast a new species of organism can flourish and undercut human welfare, but also, Ayala says, it may lead to the development of new drugs and vaccines for treating and/or preventing this devastating disease.

In characteristic understatement, Michael Ghiselin, an evolutionary biologist at the California Academy of Sciences, MacArthur Award winner, and author of Metaphysics and the Origin of Species, says, “Ayala has contributed a lot of good, steady work to the field of evolutionary genetics. His applications of molecular dating techniques are innovative and productive.”

Reconciling knowledge and faith
Asked if he is still a priest, Ayala says: “Once a priest, always a priest! But I do not in any way live or act accordingly.” Maybe not, but religion has certainly remained central to Ayala’s life and his work.

“Religion plays such an important role in the lives of people,” says Ayala, “that any satisfactory and fulfilling view of the world must include a religious view. My own concerns and activities are primarily centered on a scientific view of the world. I find science rewarding and enlightening and fulfilling, but I don’t believe for a moment that science tells us all that is worth saying about the world.”

The tragic truth, Ayala says, is that so many Americans see science and religion as being locked in mortal combat, each making claims about the world that are incompatible with the claims of the other.

It is a kind of cultural schizophrenia: On the one hand we revere scientists and the technology and knowledge they produce. On the other hand, because science’s description of the world does not mirror Genesis or other ancient holy texts, many religious people conclude that science must be fundamentally wrong. And this distrust of science promotes scientific illiteracy. “Illiteracy of any kind is evil,” says Ayala. “And education is good. I have to confess my prejudice there.”

“Here at Irvine,” Ayala says, “we get the best high school students in California; we only accept the top 12 percent, so one would expect them to be better representatives of science education than the average. Yet, when I teach introductory biology to over 1,000 students a year, the majority of them arrive persuaded that if they were to accept what I am teaching – evolution in particular – they would have to reject their religious beliefs. Gradually, through their years in college, they come to accept science. But to do this they often conclude they must reject their religious beliefs.

“I just had lunch with an undergraduate in her third or fourth year,” Ayala continues. “She is very religious, but she said that she thought that science proved her religious beliefs untenable. “I want to show students like her that these are two different realms of human experience. Scientific knowledge is one way of knowing, and religious knowledge is another. There is not necessarily a conflict between them.”

There is nothing evangelical about Ayala’s religious behavior. In fact, he refuses to say even whether or not he believes in God and whether, or in what ways, he worships these days. He is evangelical, however, about promoting the philosophical compatibility of scientific knowledge and methods and religious faith.

He compares religious insights to artistic ones. Suggesting that religion is unscientific or anti-scientific is, he says, “like saying that studying the humanities, or becoming sophisticated in art appreciation, would work against science.

“Shakespeare has a lot to say about the world … but it is not science. It is a different kind of knowledge. Say that in a sonnet Shakespeare refers to his beloved as a rose. Scientists could say, ‘This guy is an idiot. A woman is not a rose.’ Of course the idiot would be the scientist who made that comment. Shakespeare knows she is not a rose! But that doesn’t mean that describing his beloved as a rose is not telling the world a lot about what he thinks about her and what she is like, and what love is like.”

The eclectic and harmonious organization of Ayala’s office viewed in this light may represent something most unusual and inspiring: a scientist who has made steady and profound progress in the study of a specialized field, but who remains committed to a vision of himself as a complete person.

And at a time when science embodies – to borrow Albert Einstein’s phrase – “the human race between enlightenment and global annihilation,” it is reassuring to know that a scientific advisor to the President is as serious about ethics and aesthetics as he is about describing the arrangement of molecules in the DNA of fruit flies.