Evolving sentiments on hard questions

Francisco Ayala occupies some of the narrowest ground amid one of society’s most rancorous debates. After studying for five years to become a Dominican priest, Ayala turned to science. Since that pivotal moment he has accomplished a great deal in both realms. The Columbia University graduate is now University Professor and Donald Bren Professor of Biological Sciences, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of California at Irvine.

While biosciences are clearly his vocation, he has spent the last 30 years of proselytizing about evolution to Christian believers. Ayala firmly believes that the evolutionist versus creationist dichotomy is unhelpful and ultimately false.

To make his point, he often wades into shocking and controversial — but poignant — examples. He will tell audiences that one out of five pregnancies ends in spontaneous miscarriage. He follows by pointedly asking, as in a 2007 interview with U. S. Catholic magazine, “If God explicitly designed the human reproductive system, is God the biggest abortionist of them all?” Through such examples, he explains, “I want to turn around their arguments.”

What is even more interesting, he does not rely on the hyper-politicized position trumpeted by the so-called “intelligent design” lobby. He is similarly critical of scientists like Oxford University professor Richard Dawkins who callously deride religious faith.

Ayala says he would like believers to reconcile their faith with science and for scientists (without ceding empirical ground) to be less critical of the faithful. Ayala contends that nature is poorly designed. He cites things such as blind spots built into the human eye and an “excess of teeth jammed into our jaws.” He says “parasites are sadists and predators are cruel.” Ayala argues that natural selection can explain the ruthlessness of nature, and remove the “evil”— requiring an intentional act of free will — from the natural world. “Darwin solved the problem,” Ayala observes. In this conclusion, he makes reference to science-savvy Christian theologians who present an image of God as continuously engaged in the creative process through undirected natural selection. Ayala argues that by speaking to religious people on their own terms, he can offer a more complete and informed answer than intelligent design or creationism.

Ayala’s path to this position came through a moment of culture shock. In an interview with Scientific American, Ayala talks about his switch from monastery to microscope. By the time of his 1960 ordination, he had already decided to pursue science instead of a ministerial role. At the monastery, Darwinism was not regarded as an enemy of Christian faith. A year later, when Ayala moved to New York City to pursue a doctorate in genetics, the prevailing U.S. view of a natural hostility between evolution and religion came as a profound surprise.

Predictably, he has experienced push-back from both sides. Even so, the 2008 edition of Ayala’s book, Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Sciences, features statements by four religious denominations and three scientists on the compatibility of evolution with religious beliefs.

Ayala’s work has inspired other scientists to tackle the chasm of belief. In 2006, Stanford University evolutionary biologist Joan E. Roughgarden wrote what she terms a “religious book” that details ideas and examples of evolution written in the Bible. The daughter of Episcopalian missionaries, Roughgarden says she meets believers on their turf — and has even given sermons on evolution from the pulpit. According to Roughgarden, the center of the debate rests not in theological concepts like explaining evil, but in the pews.

Of course, much of this will come as anathema to many fundamentalist Christians who cling to a “literal” interpretation of scripture. Even so, the work of scholars like Ayala and Roughgarden merit consideration, if only for the sake of “knowing one’s enemy.”