Genetics researcher Francisco Ayala discusses his life, his work and creationism

(Chas Metivier/orange County Register From Templeton Foundation)
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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Evolutionary geneticist Francisco Ayala wasn't always attracted to life in the laboratory. As a young man in Spain, Ayala was ordained as a Dominican priest. Within a year, though, he gave up it up to study genetics at Columbia University. Since then, Ayala's research has focused on parasitic protozoans, tiny organisms that cause malaria and other diseases. But what this much-awarded scientist, now 76, may be best known for are his efforts to keep creationism and intelligent design theories out of the classroom. In 1981, he was as an expert witness in a federal case that overturned an Arkansas law mandating the teaching of creationism alongside evolution.

Today, Ayala says he lives "in heaven" in a house with a view of the Pacific Ocean just a mile from his office at the University of California at Irvine, where he is a professor of biology and philosophy. On May 5 he will be honored at Buckingham Palace when he receives the 2010 Templeton Prize for what the Templeton Foundation said was his "clear voice in matters of science and faith."

We spoke to Ayala on the phone about both those matters -- and about what he plans to do with the $1.5 million in prize money.

-- Rachel Saslow

Why did you leave the priesthood?

I became a priest out of idealism, is the best way I can describe it. I wanted to be a missionary and go to remote places like the Amazon. It was a slow, gradual process that culminated in the last two years of the five that I studied theology. I decided, "I don't want to live the life of a priest. . . . I want to become a scientist."

How did you decide on genetics?

I had studied science as an undergraduate at the University of Madrid, and I continued to be interested in it. When I was studying theology, I started to read much more about human evolution and genetics. In particular, "The Phenomenon of Man" by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. He was also a priest.

I studied genetics because it seemed to me that the best way to approach the evolution of humans was genetics.

Do you spend most of your time researching parasitic protozoans or talking about evolution and intelligent design issues?

My work is mostly doing science, not only in malaria, but genetics and evolutionary biology. And a good part of my time is spent teaching, which I enjoy.

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