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Hana and Francisco J. Ayala: Excerpts from an Interview

Francisco J. and Hana Ayala

[Hana Ayala is the founder, president and chief executive officer of Pangea World. Its principal goal is to enrich and blend two major sectors of the world's economy — hospitality and science — by bringing them into a mutually reinforcing relationship that yields benefits for both. A landscape and social ecologist and former professor at the University of California-Irvine, she created a model for development that is both financially lucrative and ecologically sensitive for resource-rich countries.

[Francisco J. Ayala is a biologist, philosopher and prolific scholar at the University of California-Irvine. He served as president and then chairman of AAAS in 1995-1996. He also served as a member of President Bill Clinton's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology. In 2001, he was awarded the U.S. National Medal of Science.

[The following are excerpts from an interview with Francisco and Hana Ayala that took place on 24 September 2005 at their home in Irvine, Calif. The interview was conducted by AAAS Senior Writer Edward W. Lempinen.]

Francisco J. Ayala: On biodiversity

Biodiversity has three dimensions from the point of view of the reason why to keep it. 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 clearly an aesthetic value there.

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. I?m thinking at the moment of plants—you know, at least 250,000 species of plants have been discovered. Certainly much less than 10 percent of those—between 5 and 10 percent—have been used in one way or another for the benefit of mankind. They?ve been used for the production of crops, or extraction and production of medicaments. Now as we develop various technologies related to the production and investigation of natural products, the opportunity is there for discovering more and more natural products that can be useful to mankind in many ways.

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.

Hana Ayala: On the synergy resulting from their marriage:

I see two great synergies in our professional thinking: One is that we both dare to think out of the box. We are not necessarily satisfied with existing concepts. And it is always a trial and error, but we don’t mind charting new ways. We dare to think differently. 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.

My background is in landscape ecology. In the United States, when you say landscape ecology, you think more about landscape design, and that is usually confusing to people. Shortly after I first started to mention landscape ecology, I stopped doing so. Landscape ecology in the Central European tradition is more like cultural geography. It’s very much multi-disciplinary. It has taught me to look at the world asking—how do civilizations or human beings influence nature? What happens? What new relationships are established? New balances, new ecological relationships. And vice versa—how does a changed environment impact society?

Francisco J. Ayala: On research using animals

I take a position on animals, as opposed to plants, which is different from some extreme positions, one associated particularly with Peter Singer, a philosopher whom I know very well from Australia, and who is now at Princeton. He thinks that animals have rights, as we have rights. To me, that leads to a dead end, concerning our relations to animals. I asked him long ago on what basis he established these rights. He said that it’s on the basis that they are sentient beings, they have perceptions of the outside. Well, plants have perceptions—they sense the outside. They sense gravity, they sense light, they sense moisture, and they react to them. So on those grounds he should not be eating plants, either.

If one looks at life in terms of its value, then that allows for a much more sophisticated ethics related to nature. A chimpanzee has a different kind of value than a fly, or a worm or a snake. All of them have value. It’s a matter of degree. And it’s not determined by the species. Think of a sequoia. Talking about ethical and moral value, a value in itself that calls for ethical respect, a sapling of a sequoia that is one month old is still a sequoia, but it doesn’t have the same value as a 300-year-old sequoia.

Hana Ayala: On preserving hotspots of biodiversity:

Well, the word hotspot sometimes is also subjected to discussion. Very recently the New York Times had an article suggesting that by focusing purely on hotspots of biodiversity, one might be losing sight of other areas which are equally valuable and important. I very strongly feel that we need to look at two things—not solely the biologically richest areas but also the relationships that tie these areas with a broader geographical context. I think this is really a dimension we are missing in large part. Relationships—ecological, cultural, geological, historical—among multiple places, including among multiple hotspots of biodiversity. It is my strong belief that these relationships are as important as the reservoirs of biodiversity they interlink and that they hold the key to valuing and strengthening these precious assets in a combined scientific-conservation-economic perspective.

Hana Ayala: On her model of melding conservation, science and tourism:

Imagine if you were to design a foundation for a sustainable valuation of a nation’s natural and cultural riches, i.e., heritage riches, as we did in Panama. We developed a platform of heritage themes that captured not only the most important heritage sites but also their relationships that underscore the unique dynamics—geological, ecological, cultural—of Panama, as the bridge of the world. We created a platform on which you could master-plan, proactively rather than reactively, a national conservation system in which each new protected area would enhance the value of the overall system, because it would add additional ecological or geological elements that complement the overall complexity and dynamics unique to Panama’s heritage reserves. And this is just from the conservation perspective.

This themed approach gives you a proactive tool to master plan conservation systems where each area adds value—not only conservation value but also scientific value, and, very importantly, economic value. If you use such a platform as a basis for master-planning quality tourism development, you can create itineraries with high narrative value, fascinating routes of discovery taking you across space or, on the wings of fossil records, millions of years back in time.

Francisco Ayala on the significance of Fiji:

There are many island groups in the Pacific and island nations that consist of many islands. They have a lot of biological and geological diversity. Fiji is extreme. There are 300 different islands that represent so many formations, from volcanic to sedimentary to coral reef islands, and also of many different ages and stages of development. Fiji is very unique. Many other island groups approximate that, but none is as interesting, in the Western Pacific. Hawaii of course is a different kind of group of islands. They are large islands with a very defined history. But Fiji is much more unique, because it’s a much more complex archipelago, with islands that are very heterogeneous geologically and biologically.

Hana Ayala on the significance of Fiji:

Fiji uniquely showcases island evolution and all the main types of islands. It features high volcanic islands, old and young; limestone islands; composite ones, of limestone and volcanic rock; and coral atolls. There are islands that are rising and islands that are subsiding. Fiji?s mind-boggling geological diversity in turn accounts for remarkable diversities of climate and biodiversity. And the reefs—it is absolutely extraordinary. Fiji Islands are located in the region with the highest coral reef diversity in the world. Across the archipelago, you can detect various stages of the evolution of the coral reef ecosystem. There are fossil records.

Hana Ayala: On how a Pangea World destination might look in Fiji or Panama:

First of all, the master plan, including its architectural component, would look different than the existing ones for leisure destinations. It would blend—from the planning stage through architecture and design—both the hospitality and the knowledge-management elements. A destination by Pangea will never give the visitor the experience of only its particular geographical context. It will link the location?s heritage assets to other assets elsewhere in the world that share some relationships—geological or ecological or other—thus enhancing the uniqueness, the complexity, and the value of the experience?

We will be continually diversifying the experience. A guest will become a return guest not because the hotel has refurbished the rooms and created a more luxurious product in terms of physical comforts. The guest will come a year later to a Pangea destination and will be able to experience a totally new product, a totally new experience, because a lot of new knowledge will have been channeled into that product’s capacity to pamper and nurture the traveler’s mind while advancing conservation and scientific exploration far beyond the Pangea World destination.

Francisco Ayala: On the aspirations of the intelligence design movement:

At the core, it is trying to introduce in the schools the teaching of the notion that everything was created by God. Not only in some general way and at the beginning, but also as it were in the details, that the individual species had to be created by God. The proponents of intelligent design interpret the creation of the world [according to] the first and sometimes the first and second chapters of Genesis. But the first and second chapters of Genesis are contradictory to each other in their description of how the world was created. But most people who defend this literal Biblical description of the creation of the world don’t seem to have read the Bible.

Francisco Ayala: On why intelligent design isn’t science—and isn’t intelligent:

It doesn’t have scientific content. It isn’t a hypothesis or a theory that we can test. Because all it says is that there is this intelligent designer that has the capacity to create complex things. And you immediately start to point out problems with that—there is no intelligent design in the world, it is incompetent design. Everything is quite incompetently done, to the point that if any corporation hired an engineer to design organisms, if the organisms were designed the way they are, that engineer would be fired. Take an example that’s easy to understand, take the human jaw: The human jaw is not big enough for the teeth. So we have to have the wisdom teeth pulled, and very often we have to have the rest of the teeth straightened, because they are crooked. Imagine any engineer who would design a jaw which is not big enough for the teeth. He surely would be fired. That’s one reason why I say living organisms are incompetently designed, just as you would expect from natural selection, but not as expected from an intelligent designer.

Francisco Ayala: On the theological implications of intelligent design:

The implications theologically are blasphemy. 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.

Francisco Ayala: On how opposition to evolution hurts religion:

This is what these people are doing to the students, these preachers who preach that evolution is incompatible with religious beliefs. They [the students] come with all these reservations against the theory of evolution. But then, for the next three or four years they study science, biology, evolution, and gradually they come to accept it, because of the overwhelming evidence for evolution. As a consequence, at the end, they reject their religion. And they reject their religion because preachers are making it very clear: If you accept evolution, you cannot be a Christian. So they are doing harm, at the end, to these kids.

Being religious, from my point of view, is a good thing.

Francisco Ayala: On the chances of constructive dialogue between scientists and evolution opponents:

It would be very difficult. The [intelligent design] leaders who know something about science, who write about these matters, are just about five or six individuals. You can engage the conversation with them, and we do. There’s a book that has just been published, with two editors—one is a philosopher of biology, and the other is William Dembski, one of the proponents of intelligent design, but who is not a biologist. I have written a chapter for it. There are chapters by both sides, but very few chapters by the defenders of intelligent design, because they are not many. They’re just not there. We’re talking about five or six—and none of them has published articles in scientific journals justifying their position. They write books, and they sell books, and they sell well. And this is a little bit of a cynical view, but I think part of the reason why they keep pushing these ideas is that the books sell very well.

I think the proponents of intelligent design have their own objectives; they are not listening. They probably say we are not listening either, but you know, we have thousands of journals and tens of thousands of articles in scientific journals being published, and they don’t have any.

Francisco Ayala: On the spiritual component of science:

As humans, we are all looking for meaning. What is the meaning of the world, what is the meaning of life? The meaning, I meant in this case, of one person’s life. I think we can see meaning and purpose precisely in our relationship to nature, and to the sacredness of nature and the value of nature. That adds meaning to my life, it adds value to my life, having this relationship to nature and contributing to it in some way, I guess, with scientific research and to some extent with scientific education.

Hana Ayala: On the spiritual component of science:

Let’s take an example of tourists who come to see a tropical rainforest. Looking at the rainforest, what do they see? Trees. Is that a quality experience? Is that an enriching experience? It’s not. What could make it enriching? Knowledge, information—learning about the fascinating qualities and properties of the rainforest ecosystem creates shifts in awareness, enhances the ability to see more than just trees, to appreciate the magnificence and significance of this intricate ecological system. The enrichment through knowledge-mediated discovery augments the restorative power of nature. And that discovery gives you something you will never forget.