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Dr. Francisco Ayala: Donald Bren Professor, Biological Sciences; Professor of Philosophy; and Professor of Logic and the Philosophy of Science, University of California, Irvine (Part One)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2014/06/15


In the following comprehensive interview with Dr. Francisco Ayala, Donald Bren Professor of Biological Sciences at University of California, Irvine, he discusses: geographic, cultural, and linguistic background; youth and early interest in the natural world; pivotal moments motivating an interest in biology; early study and investigation of biology and evolution; mentoring of Theodosius Dobzhansky; Dobzhansky’s influence on Dr. Ayala; Ph.D. thesis work withDrosophilaflies; Dobzhansky’s essay entitledNothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution(1973);  Charles Darwin, William Paley,Natural Theology(1802), and the antecedents to the design arguments for biological organisms’ functionality and complexity; his 2007 book entitledDarwin’s Gift to Science and Religion; Dr. William Dembski’sSpecified Complexityand Dr. Michael Behe’sIrreducible Complexity; predictions of intelligent design theoretic explanations of biological organisms; thoughts on climate change with caveats of the field not being his area of expertise; responsibility of academics and researchers; conception of God in a world of material processes; responsibilities to earning numerous awards such as theNational Medal of Sciencein 2002 and theTempleton Prize; personal influences; and projects in the coming years.

Keywords: Academics, Basque, Biological Sciences, Biology, Columbia University, Darwin, Dr. Francisco J. Ayala, Evolution, God, Irreducible Complexity, Irvine, Madrid, Physics, Spain, Specified Complexity, Templeton, Theodosius Dobzhansky, University of California.

1. In terms of geography, culture, and language, where does your family background reside?  How do you find this influencing your development? 

I was born in Madrid, Spain.  My family is of Basque origin.  Basque Provinces are in northern Spain. Although, they do not speak the language.  I was educated in Madrid, Spain.  The dictatorship of General Franco was a political environment felt very restricted. Although, you would have noticed it in the later-day activities.   I went to Catholic schools, private schools, in Spain.  All the schools in Spain were Catholic and run by priests or nuns.  Priests for men.  Nuns for women.

2. How was your youth?  What motivated an interest in science and the natural world?

When I was 20 years old, I had the first science class, which was called natural science.  Much of it was the descriptive natural science, natural biology.  However, they had a bit of physics and chemistry.  The teacher of that class I found it tremendously inspiring.  It inspired my interest in science.  I began to read science, but I only started to study science professionally at the university-level several years later.

3. Do you recall pivotal moments motivating your trajectory into the study of biology?

Well, I remember my interest was in evolution.  In particular, human evolution was an interest.  It was in 1955, when I had just read a book, which had just been published by a French paleontologist and Jesuit Priest called Teilhard de Chardin.  I found the book fascinating.  The issues that he raised about the meaning and origin of life, human life.  It was the first book that stimulated me to study evolution – particularly, human evolution.  From there on, in the second part of the ’50s, I read a lot about genetics and evolution in Spanish translations.

4. How did you find your early study and investigation into the discipline of biology and human evolution? 

Fascinating, I came to the United States of America to Columbia University in New York, where I studied introductory biology with a career in physics.  In my first year, I had to take an introductory course in biology.  They required that we had to do some lab exercises.  Rather than doing them in the regular classroom, I went into the lab of a geneticist called Fernando Galán.  I asked him if I could do experiments in his lab as part of the requirement for my one-year class in biology.  He allowed me to do that.  I learned to do some genetics with drosophila – so-called ‘fruit flies’.  Several years later, when I became very interested in evolution, he, and the person who had been his mentor – another distinguished Spanish geneticist called de Antonio de Zulueta, he recommended to explore several alternatives and to go abroad.  Biology and evolution in the advanced stages was not very good in Spain at the time.  With Franco’s dictatorship, mand of the great Spanish scientists left Spain at the end of the civil war.  I decided the best place to go was Columbia University.  Where there was a very, very distinguished evolutionist, one of the four or five giants of evolutionary biology of the 20th century called Theodosius Dobzhansky.  He accepted me as his graduate student.  So I came to New York.  In three years, I earned my M.A. degree and then my Ph.D.  I found the university fascinating in all relevant respects.  First, all of the professors were distinguished scientists.  Second, all of the students were close to one another and friendly.  Third, I enjoyed New York and cultural aspects of New York.  I was always interested in sculpture, art, classical music, and poetry.  There was no better place to find those things at that time.

5. In terms of Theodosius Dobzhansky’s mentoring style, what did you notice?  What style did he bring to other students and you?

He was very much a mentor rather than a professor.  He had written to me.  The moment I arrived in New York to call him to get in touch.  So I arrived in New York around 10 or 11 o’clock.  He says, “Yes, come to Columbia University today.  At 4 o’clock, there is going to be a seminar by a professor from Cornell University.  My former student called Bruce Wallace.  Afterwards, I will take you and two, or three, graduate students to my house for dinner.”  Well (laughs), this was an unbelievable shock.  In Spain, there were not particularly eminent or distinguished scientists, but always very distant.  Here I come to these great scientists, and he invites me to his home.  So the effect, as you may imagine!  We became friends.  He was very interested in my career as a geneticist, evolutionary geneticist– and even as a person.  We remained friends until he died in 1975.

6. How did this influence your form of mentoring?

It influenced me very much so.  I was always on very close terms with my graduate students, post-doctoral students, and visiting scientists.  To the extent that they approach me – or I approach them in the classroom.  I am very friendly in the classroom.  I follow a policy that, but I do not make it explicit in my labs and graduate classes, but my secretary knows it very well.  I have office hours on Wednesdays from 1-3, but if any student would come here from one of my classes – even from a different university, comes to see me.  I immediately receive the student.  I do not do that with scientists or faculty members.  I usually ask them to get an appointment first.  So the students always have more access.  As well, the personalization is primarily with graduate students and post-docs.  I, as I said, become very much personally involved and really like to help with my involvement.  Again, it is mentoring rather than teaching.

7. I consider this crucial to development.  In the last couple years, I understand at a deeper level the importance of mentoring for development of a student.  Under the mentoring by Dobzhansky, your doctoral work focused onDrosophilaFlies.  What kind of work did you conduct for you Ph.D. thesis?

I was very lucky.  You could say very wise – probably both.  In the first year and classes at Columbia University, when I was still stumbling with my English and the like – I had to learn biology because my training was in physics, other than the one general course in biology.  In the second semester, in addition to the classes, we had lab exercises.  The way Dobzhansky planned it for 10 or 12 students.  The way Dobzhansky planned the lab with 12 or 15 small projects, which allowed each one of us to choose whatever we wanted to work on.  Then we would have the whole semester to do it.  I had just read a paper written by Dobzhansky and other great evolutionists such as a student of his called Richard Lewontin.  As well as another great scientist called girch, the three of them published a paper on evolution, where they started work of Drosophila from Australia, New Guinea, and other areas nearby.  They found a problem with their behavior.  It was very strange.  At the genetic level, they had these strange mating behaviors in these Drosophila flies from these different localities.  I decided to study them to see if I could find out the reason for this strange behavior.  Much to my surprise, I discovered they had combined samples from two different species.  In one of them, I discovered they had combined samples from two different species.  In one of them, they had combined two species in one sample.  There was only one species.  After one course and a second course of studying the genitalia of the males, I was able to classify them in different species.  That, of course, resolved the issue.  Now, I continued that work and I started the second semester.  We had ended in the January, but I continued on through the summer, maybe the early fall.  But I do not remember the exact length.  He said, “You could use this as a Ph.D. thesis – a dissertation.”  Columbia had a minimum of three years.  However, I had planned to go back to Spain.  So with their minimum requirement of three years, I decided not to publish it.  I began a new project with the sample of flies that I had from Australia, New Guinea, and so on. I began work on something called population dynamics to measure fitness.  Not only differences between genotypes, but among these populations.  That is what I published in my third year.  But at the same time, I published the other paper in a dissertation for parts of it journals such as Genetics. By the time I finished the experiments in the third year, I saw that I had, in addition to the descriptions of the two species that I named, all the components of the work to be published in other journals such as Ecology or The American Naturalist.  Dobzhansky did not want me to go to Spain because Spain was in a miserable condition for science.  We were talking about 1964.  So Dobzhansky offered me a post-doctoral fellowship at Rockefeller University.  Then without me applying for anything, he appointed me as an associate professor there.  This was two or three years later.  I decided to stay in the US by Dobzhansky and other mentors that I could not pursue a good scientific career out in Spain.  However, I could pursue it in the US.  Therefore, first became a permanent resident and then a full citizen.

8. Of those biology textbooks that I have seen, they often quote Dobzhansky (1973) from the title of an essay:Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution.

A Philosopher called Michael Ruse says, “Nothing makes sense except in light of evolution.”  Yes, however, Dobzhansky talked about ‘nothing in biologymakes sense except in the light of evolution.’  That was the title of an address and to the future of teachers.  It was the title of an article in American Scholar mostly for teachers. I have, myself, quoted this in many places.  Including in the text that we published together called Evolution.  By the time this book appeared with four authors, I helped Dobzhansky and was very much in charge of the project.  I decided to put this as the theme for the whole book.

9. Prior to Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, Priest William Paley in the 19thcentury argued in his book,Natural Theology(1802), he provided an analogy of the watch and watchmaker to reason by analogy for the existence of a designer.  In your book from 2007,Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion, you discuss some of the larger theological aspects related to the some modern biological debates, especially those relating to modern creationist and intelligent design theory.  In it, you argue against creationism and intelligent design as scientific explanations.  Dobzhansky makes note of this in his 1973 essay.  He argues science and theology do not conflict.  In that, science on the one half; theology on the other half.  They deal with different subject-matter.  Could you discuss some of the larger, brief historical aspects of the design arguments that have come around?  In particular, how did they come to the fore?

Yes, the sign of design in nature.  Obviously, I have the eyes to see, hands can manipulate, and leaves can photosynthesize, and on and on.  Organisms give evidence of being designed.  That tended to be explored in classical Greece among the great philosophers of the 5th and 4th century BCE.  They were looking at the signs this way.  These signs were attributed to the gods, but not in the modern sense of a modern God – not a universal god.  This was very much taken up in the Greek tradition.  That organisms were designed because there seemed no other way you explain such design.  Thomas Aquinas, a great Christian theologian in the opinion of many people, he used this as one of five arguments that God exists.  Since the organism is designed, animals and plants, only a universal creator could explain it.  That tradition continues.  There are very important works including books written about it.  The most complete elaboration of the argument was written by William Paley, published in 1802.  He was an author of several books of Christian theology.  Also, he was known in the latter part of the 18th and 19th centuries.  You may have read this in the book.  He was known mostly as a public speaker for abolitionism.  He was fighting against slavery.  He had to give up his public speaking career.  Instead, he decided to study biology.  He produced his book Natural Theology, which is the most complete book on the argument for design.   He provides the most complete argument about design in organisms in nature such as plants and animals.  It is a beautiful book, 350 pages or so. There was no other argument until Darwin came with the Origins of Species (1859).  Well, first of all with the two earlier long essays written by him.  However, the 1859 book was the greatest contribution to science and one of the most important discoveries of science was being able to provide a scientific explanation of the design of organisms.  Because everything else, we have the Copernican revolution with Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton, and others in chemistry, but the design of organisms seemed impossible to explain in terms of science.  In terms of natural causes, the great contribution of Darwin was to provide the scientific explanations of design, which makes it one of the great scientific revolutions of all-time.

10. Some have concepts such asIrreducible Complexityof Dr. Michael Behe andSpecified Complexityof Dr. William Dembski to argue against Darwinian evolution.  Do these hold any merit to you?

You see, they provide arguments.  I mean, Michael Behe and other proponents of intelligent design are known not to be correct.  Behe, he is the only serious biologist among those proponents of intelligent design.  He is a professor of biochemistry at a university.  He provides these molecular examples that he claims are so complex that they require all parts for them to function.  It is the same argument as Paley in terms of design for the human eye and other organs.  He claims, therefore, they could not have arisen by steps, but rather were designed.  Evolution produces things step-by-step.  He argues, if you cannot produce things step-by-step, then you need to have the cornea, lens, retina, optic nerve, and they could not have come one step at a time.  Dr. Behe’s examples have been shown to be wrong. As to the terminology of Dembki used in mathematics, by and the way, Dr. Dembski quotes two mathematicians that have published themselves saying the way William Dembski quotes them is wrong.  In fact, I use his argument to show that Dembski does not exist.  His argument goes as follows: take a protein, one that has, say, 100 amino acids.  There are twenty possible amino acids.  The probability of having the right one in each position in 1 in 20.  So 1 In 10 multiplied a 100 times.  Something like that, a number smaller than the number of atoms in the universe, and therefore it cannot arise by chance.  Of course, it does not arise by chance.  It arises by natural selection, which I explain in many ways.  I explained for other purposes a moment ago.  It makes, the highly probably, the necessary outcome doing one step at a time.  What I have done playfully, is taking William Dembski’s father, each ejaculation produced about 1012 sperm, genetically all different.  Only one of which that had the genetic combination to give rise to Dembski.  Now, his mother produced in her life only 1,000 eggs, which had the sperm entering it that produced Dembski.  So you have 10-3*10-12.  The probability that Dembski exists, a priori– which is how he does the calculations, is 10-15.  But that is only the beginning.  He could only have the genetic makeup his father had, but his father had 10-15 chance of having his genetic combination, but so did his mother.  Therefore, once you go to the grandparents, you can see the calculation.  This is the calculation that he uses for Specified Complexity.   It is the completely wrong way of arguing.  Of course he exists, but doing his calculations it would be impossible that he exists.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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