UC Irvine’s Francisco Ayala wins Templeton Prize

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As a young doctoral student in the 1960s, Francisco J. Ayala was surprised to learn that Darwin’s theory of evolution appeared to be less widely accepted in the United States than in his native Spain, then a profoundly conservative and religious country.

Ayala brought a unique sensibility to the topic, because he had been ordained as a Catholic priest before undertaking graduate studies in evolution and genetics. What he believed then, and has spent his career espousing, is that evolution is consistent with the Christian faith.

On Thursday, Ayala, an acclaimed researcher at UC Irvine, won the 2010 Templeton Prize, awarded annually in recognition of achievements in affirming spirituality. The prize is worth $1.6 million, which Ayala said he would give to charity.

In announcing the award, Dr. John M. Templeton Jr., president of the John Templeton Foundation, praised Ayala’s research, which has focused on evolutionary genetics, as well as his inquiries into fundamental questions of life.

“Ayala’s clear voice in matters of science and faith echoes the foundation’s belief that evolution of the mind and truly open-minded inquiry can lead to real spiritual progress in the world,” Templeton said.

In a telephone interview from Washington, where he was accepting the award, Ayala said he believed he was receiving it for his scientific work and for the “very important consequence of making people accept science, and making people accept evolution in particular.”

Ayala, 76, has been at the forefront of efforts to defend Darwin’s theory from attacks by Christian fundamentalists, many of whom favor the notion of intelligent design, which is consistent with a literal reading of the biblical creation story and holds that the world is too complex to have evolved without oversight by a supreme being.

He was the primary author of “Science, Evolution and Creationism,” a publication of the National Academy of Science that attempted to boil down the argument in favor of Darwin.

He also is the author of numerous other publications, including the book “Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion,” which expands on his pro-evolution argument and attempts to knock down intelligent design, which he says is either “bad science or not science at all.”

In the book, he says it “is possible to believe that God created the world while also accepting that the planets, mountains, plants and animals came about, after the initial creation, by natural processes.”

Evolution “is consistent with a religious belief in God, whereas creationism and intelligent design are not.” This, he said, is because intelligent design suggests that the deformities of the world are God’s design, whereas science shows them to be “a consequence of the clumsy ways of the evolutionary process.”

Ayala served as an expert witness in a landmark 1981 legal case that successfully challenged an Arkansas law requiring the “balanced” teaching of creationism alongside evolution in schools.

He also has called for greater understanding of religion by scientists.

Last fall, Ayala debated a prominent advocate for intelligent design, William Lane Craig, at Indiana University.

Various Internet accounts suggested that the evening was less than a triumph for Ayala. (“He got womped,” wrote one Ayala sympathizer.) Ayala said he hadn’t understood he would be debating and didn’t believe a debate was the proper way to resolve the dispute anyway.

In the interview with The Times, Ayala said he was taught evolution in Catholic schools in Francisco Franco’s Spain. Later, during study for the priesthood at a Dominican seminary, he learned Christian concepts dating to St. Augustine about interpreting the Bible metaphorically.

“The Bible is a book about religious truths; it is not how the Earth was made,” he said. He added that he rejects the idea that one can read the Bible “as if it were an elementary textbook of biology or physics.”

Ayala was ordained a priest in 1960 but chose to leave the priesthood to study genetics.

He has spent most of his scientific career at the University of California, first at Davis and since 1989 at Irvine, where he is a professor of both biology and philosophy. His research in recent years has focused on reconstructing the evolution of the parasitic protozoa responsible for malaria, with the hope of eventually laying the groundwork for a cure.

“He’s a major figure in the field,” said UC Irvine colleague John Avise, who was Ayala’s student during his own doctoral studies in the 1970s. “He was one of the early pioneers of molecular methods in population biology, so he got in sort of on the ground floor of the molecular revolution that took place back in the 1960s and early 1970s.”

Colleagues invariably describe Ayala as a Renaissance man, who not only excels at biology and theology but is also an avid opera lover and the owner of a large vineyard in Northern California, a remnant from his days at UC Davis. He continues to grow grapes for numerous wineries, as well as for his own small private label.

Whenever wine is served at a biology department function, said colleague Brandon Gaut, “his expertise comes into play.”

The Templeton Prize was founded by John Templeton Jr.’s father, John Templeton, a pioneer of the mutual fund industry who died in July 2008. The first prize was awarded to Mother Teresa in 1973, and later recipients have included the Rev. Billy Graham, Soviet dissident and writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn and a number of prominent scientists.