A highly respected evolutionary biologist has received the 2010 Templeton Prize, an award issued each year by the John Templeton Foundation to a person “who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.”
This year’s winner, Francisco Ayala, is perhaps best known scientifically for his research into the evolutionary history of the parasite scientists have associated with malaria, with an eye toward developing a cure for the disease. He also pioneered the use of an organism’s genetic material as molecular clocks that help track and time its origins.
But for the past 30 years, he has been at the forefront of battles to keep creationism and its more-sophisticated offshoot, intelligent design, out of public-school biology classes, noting that they actually represent religion masked as natural science. At the same time, he has vigorously argued that religion is a vital pillar in American life.
The U.S. scientific enterprise is the envy of the world, he says, and the country is the most religious of any nation in the western world. “It is nothing short of tragic to see these two pillars of society are often seen as in contradiction with each other,” he said during the award’s presentation last week at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington.
“Properly understood, there can be no contradiction because they deal with different subjects,” he said.
Although he has been reluctant over the years to describe his own religious leanings, Ayala argues that religion and science are “different windows” for looking at the world. Only when each tries to make “assertions beyond their legitimate boundaries” do the two appear to clash.
“Science gives us an insight on reality which is very important; our technology is based on our science,” he says. “But at the end of the day, questions important to people, questions of meaning, purpose, moral values, and the like” are not answered through science.
Beyond championing the roles science and religion can play in their respective domains, he also has argued that “scientific knowledge, the theory of evolution in particular, is consistent with a religious belief in God, whereas the tenets of creationism and the so-called intelligent design are not.”
While intelligent-design advocates point to the complexity of many biological processes as too intricate to have emerged from a random evolutionary process, Ayala points to many of biology’s flawed designs as evidence of a lack of intelligence behind them.
“Any engineer who would have designed the human jaw bone would be fired the next day,” he says. Instead, he terms biology’s flawed products as “a consequence of the clumsy ways of nature and the evolutionary process.”
Ayala, a professor at the University of California at Irvine, began his dual journeys into science and religion during his formative years in Spain, where he graduated from college with a bachelors degree in physics. After graduation, he studied theology there, and five years later became an ordained priest.
But during his theological studies, two geneticists took him under their wing, and in 1961, Ayala moved to New York to take up graduate studies in evolutionary biology and genetics at Columbia University. And he left the priesthood.
Over the course of his career, he has won awards for his scientific work and has served on several high-level science advisory panels in the U.S. In 2001, President George W. Bush awarded Ayala the National Medal of Science.
In a prepared statement, John Templeton Jr., the president and chairman of the John Templeton Foundation said, “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.”
Ayala says he will donate the $1.42 million prize to charity.
Peter N. Spotts reports for the Christian Science Monitor.