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Hana and Francisco J. Ayala: Separate Careers, a Common Passion for Knowledge

Hana Ayala

The passions of Hana and Francisco J. Ayala range from the origins of the simplest life on earth to the preservation and study of nature in all its complex glory, and during a recent visit to AAAS, they covered much of that ground while offering some insight on married life for a multi-disciplinary scientific power couple.

During an evening conversation, one point emerged above all others: Both have a love of life and a love of knowledge—knowledge for its own sake, and for the benefits it brings to the well-being of humanity.

Francisco J. Ayala

The 90-minute salon-style event was held in the jammed AAAS auditorium on 23 March. It was moderated by Alan I. Leshner, chief executive officer of AAAS and executive publisher of the journal Science.

The evening offered a tour of exotic places like Fiji and Panama, where Hana Ayala is working to develop a visionary economic development model. She calls it 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.

Ayala described the lush tropical Bocas del Toro islands of Panama—”a true paradise,” she said. “But there is more than paradise—there are rocks that are filled with sediments, filled with fossils. You can trace there better than anywhere in the world the evolution of tropical life in the sea over the past 20 million years. Can you imagine the expedition you could take on those islands?

“I have believed and do believe more and more as I advance my work that this partnership [between the tourism and hotel industry and the science sector] may represent the greatest untapped reserve for funding an exposure to science, the greatest untapped resource for revolutionizing the business success and quality of the hotel industry, and thirdly, it is also the greatest untapped means of elevating conservation to a powerful economic force.”

The audience also heard deep insight from Francisco Ayala, a scholar in evolutionary genetics, theology and logic, on the U.S. communities where anti-evolution forces are working to undermine the teaching of sound science in public schools.

“Most mainstream theologians, and most people who have read the bible thoughtfully, realize that the Bible it is not an elementary book of biology, or an elementary book of cosmology or of physics,” said Ayala, a former Roman Catholic priest who received the National Medal of Science in 2001. “It amounts to blasphemy to try to understand the world of physics and biology by reading the Bible. That was not the purpose of the Bible. It is a travesty to interpret the Bible that way.

“We need to train our kids in science. We need to train them in evolution, because it is the only way they are going to learn biology and biotechnology and be ready for good jobs and also to understand the world in which we live, including bird flu and other diseases which are only understandable in the context of evolution.”

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.

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. Even at an early age, she was fascinated by the South Sea Islands and the slender isthmus that joined North and South America. Today, she has combined her scholarly knowledge of geography and ecology and her 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.

To bring the Pangea World concept to life, she is working closely with Smithsonian researchers and with high-level government and business officials in Panama and Fiji. 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.”

Among those who attended the Ayalas’ talk at AAAS was Don Fernando Eleta Almaran, a former minister of foreign affairs and of finance and treasury in Panama, a negotiator of Panama Canal treaty, a founding member of Inter-American Development Bank and founder of Panama’s national conservation association. Eleta has been a strong backer of the Pangea project in Panama. Also in the audience was Pangea Fellow Dr. Ceferino Sanchez, director of research at the University of Panama School of Medicine and a former national secretary of science, technology and innovation in the Panamanian government.

A Conversation with Hana and Francisco J. Ayala
To see an archived video of the Ayalas conversation at AAAS, click here.

To see related AAAS coverage of the Ayalas, click here.

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