Francisco and Hana Ayala: “We Both Dare to Think Out of the Box”

Francisco J. and Hana Ayala
Francisco J. and Hana Ayala

Francisco J. Ayala is a world authority on evolution, a former Roman Catholic priest who has spoken out strongly in defense of teaching the subject to school children. Hana Ayala is a lifelong student of geography, and now is pursuing a visionary plan to make tourism, business and science partners in global conservation. Together, they are committed to understanding nature, and preserving it.

They are an archetypal high-impact science couple, with the synergy created in the relationship helping to nourish their individual projects. The Ayalas will come to AAAS in Washington, D.C., on 23 March for a salon-style evening of conversation, with discussion likely to range from the theological and scientific flaws of intelligent design and the undiscovered medical uses of plants to the extraordinary biodiversity of Fiji and Panama.

“I see two great synergies in our professional thinking,” Hana Ayala explained in a recent interview. “One is that we both dare to think out of the box. We are not necessarily satisfied with existing concepts. And the other similarity or synergy I see is that we both cut across disciplines in our thinking and our acting in professional work.

“Look at Francisco’s background—philosophy, theology, biology, business, all blending together,” she continued. Speaking of her own background in landscape ecology, she added: “It’s very much multi-disciplinary. Landscape ecology has taught me to look at the world asking: How do civilizations or human beings influence nature? What happens? What new relationships are established? [There are] new balances, new ecological relationships. And vice versa—how does a changed environment impact society?”

The 23 March conversation, free and open to the public, will be moderated by Alan I. Leshner, the chief executive officer of AAAS and the executive publisher of the journal Science. The event is scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m. [To RSVP, and for more information, click here.]

Francisco Ayala was born in Madrid, Spain, in 1934, and later was ordained a priest in the Dominican order of the Roman Catholic Church. He came to the United States in 1961. He served as a member of President Bill Clinton’s Committee of Advisers on Science and Technology. Ayala has a long history with AAAS. He served as president of the association in 1995 and chairman of the board in 1996; during his term as president, the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion was founded. He won the AAAS’s Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award in 1987 and its 150th Anniversary Leadership Medal in 1998. He has won numerous other awards and honorary degrees, including the National Medal of Science in 2001.

Today, he is a renowned scholar at the University of California-Irvine; his work has revolutionized evolution theory and led to new ways to prevent and treat diseases. He is University Professor; the Donald Bren Professor of Biological Sciences, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology; a professor of philosophy; and professor of logic and the philosophy of science. He frequently lectures in Latin America, Europe and the Far East.

Hana Ayala was born in Brno, now the second largest city in the Czech Republic. As a girl she pursued a love of faraway places, of maps and foreign languages. That love has blossomed into a fascination particularly with Fiji and Panama. Today, she has combined her scholarly knowledge of landscape ecology and a commitment to conservation into a grand vision for how these countries and others could encourage tourism that generates development while it sustains research and conservation.

She calls this vision Pangea World, named for the super-continent that eventually broke apart and drifted on tectonic tides to form the continents we know today. The conceptual engine is called Tourism for Conservation through Research, or TCR. The model sets up relationships between conservation, scientific research and economic development so that each feeds off the others in a way that creates financial incentives for conservation and encourages scientific research, while giving travelers the opportunity to immerse themselves in that scientific milieu.

She is working closely with Smithsonian researchers and with high-level government and business officials in Panama and Fiji to bring the vision to life. In 2003, Masaryk University in the Czech Republic awarded her its Gold Medal “in recognition and appreciation of extraordinary merits in advancing science, culture, and art.”

Last fall, the Ayalas hosted a forum on Pangea World that brought scientists and corporate executives to the Beckman Center of the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering (in Irvine, California) to meet with business and political leaders from Fiji and Panama for a day of discussion about how her model works and the progress that has been made in implementing it. Later, the Ayalas were interviewed at their home, a peaceful retreat filled with paintings and treasures gathered from their extensive travels.

In the interview, Francisco Ayala traced the roots of the U.S. evolution controversy to the 19th century, and views of divinity and nature that were jarred by Charles Darwin’s “Origins of the Species.” The intelligent design movement is just the latest permutation of the creationist impulse, he said. But it is a narrow view of nature, and of the origin of human life, it is a threat not only to science students, but to religion, he said.

The theological implications of intelligent design “are blasphemy,” he said. “And this is what I used to say timidly, and now I am saying it more explicitly. It is blasphemy because to the extent the intelligent designer is God, which is what they mean, they are saying that our God makes blunders, that God has directly created the dysfunctions, oddities, and cruelties of nature—the oddities of nature are so tremendous and so strange. If the living world has an intelligent designer, this designer has to have a very tortuous mind to have designed it this way. The designer would have to be a sadist. Who is going to create a parasite whose only function is to cause 2 or 3 million people to be blind every year in the tropics, not to speak of all the diseases and other parasites that attack us?

“Needless to say, the proponents do not intend that the religious implication is blasphemy. It’s just simply that they don’t know enough biology, or any biology, to realize that that is what the theory of intelligent design would imply. And that’s why I think we have to point it out, and even more so for the nice, gentle people who believe and go to church and think the theory of intelligent design is wonderful because it’s going to bring God to the school and therefore they will have better children. This is not going to produce better children because what we need is a better education, not a bad education, going back to the kind of teaching that was done centuries ago, before there was science.”

As a professor, Ayala said, he often meets biology students who, at the start of their studies, object to evolution on religious grounds. In many cases, he explained, they have been led to believe that religious faith and acceptance of evolution are mutually exclusive. But that is a false choice, he said, and as the students are exposed to science, their perspectives shift and eventually many end rejecting their religious beliefs by the end of their college years. The incompatibility between religion and evolution taught to them leads them to start their college education rejecting the theory of evolution. When over the years their scientific knowledge advances, they realize that evolution is beyond reasonable doubt and move to reject their religious beliefs. But this, he said, is unfortunate. “Being religious, from my point of view, is a good thing,” he said.

Hana Ayala traces her intellectual journey to the earliest years of her childhood, growing up in a Czechoslovakia that was landlocked and isolated by its communist regime. But her father helped to open the world to her.

“He instilled in me this love for geography, since I was a little girl,” she explained. “He was sharing with me books about Africa, about explorers. When I was about 13 years old, you could ask me a question about any river, about any capital city, of any country in the world, I would be able to tell you that. I lived surrounded by maps—that was my life. Around my bed, there were maps.”

Early on, she was fascinated by the South Seas and the Central American land-bridge between North and South America. Today, they are the focus of her work and of her busy travel itinerary.

The TCR model, she says, goes far beyond tourism, beyond even eco-tourism, to capitalize on and preserve a region’s full range of “heritage assets”—its land and waters, its landscape, the remnants of its ancient civilizations—even while encouraging the continued growth and development of its culture.

“We still continue with the traditional notion of tourism,” Ayala said. “Let’s take the leisure hotel industry. We keep improving the shell—the physical shell of a hotel, for example, the amenities, more sophisticated bathrooms, better spas, etcetera. But what really draws a person to South America or to Africa are increasingly the experiences of nature or culture. Our aspiration is to complement the spa for the body with the spa for the mind, so to speak, thus adding the half of the product’s value that is currently ignored or very little developed.”

“Each of our projects will become a catalyst of significant investments in advancing the frontiers of science in a way that will be adding economic value on the knowledge-rich reservoirs of natural and cultural riches that are currently protected on sentimental foundations.”

Put another way: Currently, the preservation of an endangered species might rest on the emotional response of notoriously fickle humans, and local economic incentives might encourage the destruction of its habitat. But, says Ayala, “we wish to completely reverse that and elevate conservation and science, and conservation through science, to pivotal economic forces.”

Here is one critical juncture where the synergy between Hana and Francisco Ayala is evident. Humans respond to nature emotionally, and that’s important, says Francisco Ayala. At the same time, there are tens of thousands of plants, thus far unstudied, that might someday provide medicines or other life-enhancing benefits.

“Biodiversity has three dimensions from the point of view of the reason why to keep it,” he said. “One is a very important one—aesthetic. There is something beautiful about the biodiversity that we have in the world, and every time we lose a species or an ecosystem, we lose some important art works, much like great buildings or collections of museums or the works of different artists.

“There is also an economic value. Conserving forests, and the complex relationships among organisms, contributes greatly to maintain the atmospheric balance, and in many other ways contributes to our welfare. We also have a reserve there for the future of mankind.

“There is also an ethical dimension there. I think that if one looks at life as having value—living things have value, so we have to respect them. We cannot just destroy them wantonly.”

[To see extended excerpts of the interview with Hana and Francisco J. Ayala, click here.]