by Jennifer Fitzenberger, University Communications
UC Irvine professor Francisco Ayala is in demand this year, speaking at events around the world marking Charles Darwin's 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species, which introduced his theory of evolution.
Ayala recently lectured at the Vatican and has appearances planned in Turkey, Poland, Spain, Portugal, Argentina and more than 20 U.S. locations.
His words carry weight. A National Medal of Science recipient who belongs to the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, Ayala is one of the world's leading evolutionary biologists and geneticists.
But he's also an ordained Dominican priest, putting him in the unique position of being able to speak authoritatively on both evolution and religion.
Q: Why are organizations worldwide observing Darwin's 200th birthday?
A: Darwin is one of the greatest scientists of all time. He made what may be the most important discovery ever: natural selection, which explains the evolution of organisms, diversity and adaptation. It explains why we have eyes to see and hands to grasp, why birds have wings to fly and fish have gills to breathe in water. The world wants to recognize such a significant discovery. Today, we know 100 times more about evolution than Darwin knew, but he's responsible for the most important 1 percent — the theory of natural selection.
Q: Can belief in evolution and God coexist?
A: Yes. A more precise way of putting it is that belief in God can coexist with scientific knowledge of evolution. We don't have belief in evolution; belief is accepting something for which we have no evidence. We have strong scientific evidence of evolution. So it's possible to accept evolution and have faith in God because science has nothing to say about that — you can't prove or disprove the existence of God. Science also can stimulate one to become religious, especially those who study and appreciate the beauty of nature.
Q: What interests you about the evolution/creationism debate?
A: I like to look for opportunities to educate people on both subjects. Evolution and religious faith definitely are compatible, but not when people leave their own territory — for example, if a religious person claims the Bible makes a scientific statement or a scientist says science proves God doesn't exist. The Bible was not written to be a book on biology, astronomy or physics. It's a book about religion, our relationship with God, and our relationships with each other. When a scientist says science disproves God's existence, it's a serious misstatement. Science has nothing to say about God.
Q: What do you say to UCI students who have religious objections to the theory of evolution?
A: When I taught introductory biology, students sometimes would approach me after class and say, "Professor Ayala, I will put in exams what you want, but I don't believe in evolution because I am Catholic," or something like that. I would tell them to ask their priest whether they could accept evolution. They would look at me skeptically. But then they would come to class the next week all surprised and say they were told it's OK. The Christian faith is not contrary to the theory of evolution. In their freshman year, they think they should not accept evolution. By their junior year, they think they should reject their religion. I think both of these are bad.
Q: How do you think President Obama's election will influence the teaching of science and religion in schools?
A: Obama has shown he's committed to education and science. The scientific team he's appointed could not be any better. He seems to understand that progress in this country depends on scientific advances. We need more scientific education. We also need more religious education. As I see it, the perceived conflict between science and religion is a problem of education on both sides. The schools don't do a very good job; the churches don't do a very good job; and the media do a horrible job. In this country, the press dedicates more space to horoscopes than to science.
Q: You are a renowned biologist, a Dominican priest and a wine-grape grower. Is there anything you feel you have not yet accomplished?
A: I am pleased with my life and what I have accomplished, but I believe I should continue improving myself by doing research, writing books and producing better wine grapes. I have a substantial art collection, and I like the ballet, opera and music. Would I expect to become a great musician? No. Would I expect to become a great singer? No, I don't have the aptitude for that. But I do aspire to be a good scientist, teacher, lecturer and wine-grape producer. At these things, I feel I've been successful.