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Interview with Francisco J. Ayala

We ask this priest-turned-scientist about evolution, religion and teenage wine tasting.

science-medal-nation-nati
Ayala was the recipient of the National Medal of Science, the nation's highest science prize, in 2001.
PAUL RODRIGUEZ/ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

If you equate evolving with smarts, Francisco J. Ayala might be one of the most evolved guys you’ll ever know. It’s safe to say that this 78-year-old Spanish-American biologist, evolutionist and philosopher is usually the smartest guy in any room he graces. And he’s dedicated those smarts to the pursuit of knowledge for most of his life, in the areas of biology, philosophy and especially the evolution of species, as a professor at UC Irvine.

And while his 950 scientific publications, 30 books and innumerable accolades cannot be listed here, a few stand out, even in his high-IQ bracket. In 2001, for instance, Ayala was awarded the National Medal of Science by President George Bush. He’s a member of the National Academy of Sciences, along with the Academy of Sciences in at least five other countries, and in 2010, in a ceremony at Buckingham Palace, Prince Philip honored him with the Templeton Prize, worth $1.6 million – which he donated to UCI for student fellowships. Oh, and the science library at UCI is named after him.

Of course, if you thought that the only thing Ayala was good at – or enjoyed – was tinkering with genetic samples in a sterile lab – and receiving big honors – you’d be very wrong. Ayala has interests as diverse as the species he studies.

In fact, as a young man he was ordained as a priest in Spain, but that niggling curiosity about evolution won out over his religious side, and he left the priesthood the same year he was ordained. A Ph.D., U.S. citizenship and a life in science followed.
 
As did a winery.

Yes, just for fun, Ayala turned a defunct 100-acre Davis vineyard on land no one thought could grow good grapes into a profitable winery. How profitable?

Well, last year, Ayala made a $10 million gift to, of all places, his employer, UCI. That right there made us want to pepper this man with questions.

So we asked him about everything from why he thinks intelligent design is anything but intelligent to why evolution might explain evil in the natural world and why a few glasses of red wine might just add a bunch of years to your own personal evolution.

What was your childhood like in Spain?
I grew up in a family of six children, and my family was fairly religious; we’d go to Mass every Sunday. My father was a successful businessman in Madrid. We were a happy family and reasonably well-to-do. We were fortunate, because those were hard days in Spain, after the civil war.

At 21, you decided to study for the priesthood. Why? Is that what your parents wanted?
I joined the priesthood, but it wasn’t anything my parents wanted or expected. It was an idealistic approach to the world, to do something good for humankind. By the time I was going to be ordained five years later, I was already disillusioned. I spoke to my superiors and we agreed that I would be ordained, but I would not practice as a priest.

Why were you disillusioned?
At the time, I was interested in science, genetics and evolution. I was very interested in the origins of our species and the like. That’s why I came to the U.S. in 1961 to be a graduate student at Columbia University.

And you stayed and became a citizen. Why?
The sciences in the universities of Spain at the time were not in very good shape. They are now, but not in my time, so my professors recommended I go abroad, particularly to go to work with a very distinguished evolutionist by the name of Theodosius Grygorovych Dobzhansky, who was one of the most distinguished evolutionists in the 20th century. I got my Ph.D. three years later and he and my other professors convinced me not to go back to Spain on the grounds that scientific conditions would not allow me to do my work.

Are science and religion incompatible?
No. Science and religion are two different ways of looking at the world. Science deals with the constitution of matter and the expansion of the galaxies and the origin of species and adaptation. Religion has to do with a belief in a supreme being and our values and how we should relate to one another. So they deal with different matters, which are definitely compatible in principle.
 
You have said that intelligent design is not consistent with a religious belief in God. What do you mean?
The reason intelligent design is not compatible with a benevolent God is because we, and everything in the world, are so badly designed. Start with human beings. Here’s an obvious example: Our jaw is not big enough for our teeth. So we have to remove the wisdom teeth. An engineer who designed the human jaw would be fired the next day.

In a more extreme example, you have used spontaneous abortion to prove your point. Can you elaborate?
At least 20% of all human pregnancies end in a spontaneous abortion because our reproductive system is so badly designed. This means the sperm and egg more than 20% of the time have an uneven number of chromosomes, so the embryo and fetus dies early on. If God had designed the human reproductive system, God would be the greatest abortionist in the world – more than 20 million abortions per year. Implicitly, [the intelligent design advocates] are blaming God for that. They are not doing it explicitly because they don’t understand it, but it makes it clear that intelligent design is not compatible with a belief in a benevolent God.

Intelligent design was itself designed to circumvent the constitutional separation of church and state and calls itself “an evidence-based scientific theory about life’s origins.” Why, in your opinion, is intelligent design not science? How does it fall short?
There is nothing to test, nothing that can be tested. There are no experiments or observations that would support it other than the nasty assertions that evolution cannot account for organisms and adaptations, which is of course wrong. Intelligent design [proponents] have not been able to provide any hypothesis to test, or any experiments with results published in scientific journals. In 1998, early on in the proposition of intelligent design, one of the leading proponents said, “Give us five years and you will see results that evolutionists have never dreamed of.” Five years went by, 10 years went by, 15 years are going by. And not one single result. It’s not science.

You have also said that evolution provides a possible answer to why evil exists. How so?
I am not talking about evil in the moral sense. But the reason evolution provides an explanation for why physical evil exists in the world – the cruelty of predators and the deficiencies [in design] we spoke about earlier and many, many more – is because evolution proceeds by trial and error. Mutations come, most of them are harmful, those that are beneficial get multiplied by the process of survival and reproduction. Organisms that have better adaptation survive better and reproduce. It’s just a natural process but it’s not a directed natural process.

Malaria is a leading killer in the third world. Your molecular and evolution research might help scientists change that one day. Are you hopeful of that?
Yes, I hope my research on malaria can provide some understanding and therefore be helpful in the design of new medicines and vaccines. Malaria is a leading killer in the world. More than one million children die every year from malaria. By the way, the economic development of many countries in the tropics is affected greatly by malaria as well. Think about African tropical countries, for instance. Sub-Saharan Africa has a total population of 600-700 million. It is estimated that about 400 million cases of malaria per year occur there. So think about how many people are sick with high fever at least once a year. Considering that, I’m surprised that more growth hasn’t happened politically for the serious handicap malaria is for people living in those countries.

You’ve also spoken out on the need for stem cell research. Why is lifting the federal ban on funding for stem cell research so important?
Because so many good things could be done with this research. Let me tell you why I don’t think there’s a serious reason to not fund it, and why there is a problem just baffles me. Nobody’s proposing producing new embryos for research. What the scientists want to do is use embryos that have already been produced, in many cases for use in artificial insemination. We have about 500 million embryos in liquid nitrogen in the U.S. alone. These are embryos that will never be used. So [scientists would use] embryos that are to be discarded. In addition, what is being proposed is not to even use full embryos, but to take one or two cells from an embryo, which typically has about 120 cells. Scientists can remove a few cells and do their research. If one would want to have a baby develop from that embryo later, it would be perfectly possible to have a normal embryo. So we are creating difficulties and problems where there should be none. Of course, California has been a leader here since, as you know, in California we voted for $3 billion of that research.

On a less controversial note, you built and oversee a very successful vineyard. Why?
I spent many years in Davis, which is in the middle of the Central Valley. Nothing very exciting around it. So I just wanted a place to go for weekends with my children and perhaps in the summer. A real estate agent discovered what he thought was a beautiful vineyard. As he put it, “just like from a set in Hollywood.” I thought it sounded terrific. He was talking about five or six acres. It turned out to be 100. And it was losing money. Somehow, I turned it into a very successful vineyard.

When did your love of wine begin?
Slowly, from the age of 14 or so.

Isn’t that a little young?
Not in Spain. When I was a child, my family always had dinner together – six children and my parents – and there would always be wine in the middle of the table. And as is typical in Spain, we would taste the wine. The typical way one gets initiated into wine in Spain and Italy and other European countries is you serve a little wine with water because straight wine does not taste good to a child. As time goes by, you lessen the water and by 17 or 18, you drink it straight. But just small amounts during dinner. This is what’s good about learning to drink with the meal; you learn moderation.

You’re a big advocate for the health benefits of wine. Can you explain?
Sure. There are literally hundreds of research papers showing the health benefits of wine. Almost all conditions that involve the circulatory or heart system are benefited by wine. Macular degeneration of the eyes is helped by wine. Wine lowers the risk for most forms of cancer, most notably, colon cancer. Not breast cancer, however; the jury’s still out on that one, with research on both sides.
 
How about studies involving longevity?
They are very interesting, especially one local study. Nearly 20 years ago, a study was done at Leisure World, studying 5,000 men and 5,000 women, half typically drinking two glasses of red wine per day and the other half not drinking. The average longevity of those who drank wine, [when they followed up] 15 years or more later, was 40% longer. So it’s worth drinking wine if you want to live long. The evidence is overwhelming.
 
What are you working on now?
Trying to convince you that evolution is a very important subject. No, in all seriousness, I continue to research parasitic diseases like malaria. I do it from the point of view of basic knowledge, not applied or medical research. I continue to work in basic genetic issues related to evolution. How genes are changed, how new species arise, and so on.

Why is evolution so important?
Because knowledge about the origin of our species helps us understand the world. I learned about evolution when I was in high school in Spain and became interested in trying to understand it. The most exciting things in the world are its organisms. Look at the diversity of the species, the animals and plants, and microorganisms. It’s a very exciting world. I enjoy it so much I would be willing to pay to do the research and teach it. Don’t tell my dean that though.

I think he knows, considering your multi-million-dollar gifts.
Maybe. But I wake up every morning anxious to get to my laboratory and to my classrooms. I love knowledge.


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