- The Washington Times - Friday, March 26, 2010

In Pablo Picasso’s painting “Guernica,” a woman’s pained face is turned upward as she wails over a dead child in her lap. Various other faces appear scattered over the canvas, each one clearly in some kind of suffering.

The work was an expressive reaction by Picasso after the bombing of the Basque city of Guernica in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War.

But to Francisco Ayala, acclaimed evolutionary geneticist and molecular biologist, and the winner of the 2010 Templeton Prize, the painting is also an example of how science and religion do not contradict each other.

The shapes, size, dimensions and pigments can be observed using scientific analysis, he said Thursday at the Templeton Prize news conference, but the dramatic message, the pain, the aesthetic value and historical significance are beyond the scope of science.

Science and religion, he explained, are two different ways of looking at the world and both are useful.

Mr. Ayala won the prestigious $1.5 million prize for his extensive work in biological and genetic research and writings on the relationship between science and religion. He said science and religion should not be entangled and can respect each other.

So is there a God? Mr. Ayala does not claim to have proof that a higher power does exist, and would not say whether he believes in God himself for fear of being observed as having subjective opinions, but he reiterated that science does not prove that God does not exist.

“Scientific knowledge cannot show any such thing,” he said. “Scientists can be people of faith and many are.”

His observations, he said, “explain the presence of evil in the world.”

“I would say that science is more compatible with monotheistic religion than the so-called creationism and intelligent design,” said Mr. Ayala, a professor at the University of California, Irvine.

Mr. Ayala described the human jaw as poorly designed. It is too small, often resulting in the removal of wisdom teeth. If an engineer today had designed the human jaw, he would be fired, he said. Similarly, 20 percent of all human pregnancies result in spontaneous abortion because of flaws in the human reproductive system. These problems, Mr. Ayala said, are explained by the imperfect natural processes of evolution.

“Think about it,” he said, according to intelligent design, God should be held responsible for the failure of 20 percent of pregnancies. “Dont think that way.”

Described by John Templeton Foundation President and Chairman John M. Templeton Jr., son of the founder of the Templeton Prize, as a man of persistent questioning, Mr. Ayala is an accomplished author as well as scientist. He was nominated by Ralph J. Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences and former chancellor at the University of California, Irvine, for his extensive writing on the significance of science in relation to human life and religion.

“He is not ever going to allow in his mind, and hopefully his students, or all of our minds to let us stop asking questions,” Dr. Templeton said of Mr. Ayala, adding that he deserves the Templeton Prize because of his humility toward different scientific opinions, a quality of which his father was a great proponent.

“His publications show the power of science as a way of knowing and the significance and purpose of the world and human life, as well as matters concerning moral or religious values that transcend science,” Mr. Cicerone said.

Dr. Templeton said Mr. Ayala’s background, in part, was what impressed the panel of esteemed Templeton Prize judges, which included Sarah Coakley, Mallinckrodt professor of divinity at Harvard University, and Durree Sameen Ahmed, chairman of the Department of Academic Studies and professor of psychology and communication at the National College of Arts in Pakistan.

Born in Madrid in 1934, Mr. Ayala was one of six children in a family largely focused on business and finance. He grew up during the strain of the Franco-era dictatorship. But while attending a private Catholic school at age 12 he discovered his passion for science. From there, education fueled his interest in biology, physics and astronomy.

After receiving his bachelor’s in science in physics from the University of Madrid in 1955, Mr. Ayala was ordained as a Dominican priest in Salamanca, Spain, but left the priesthood to study genetics at Columbia University in New York. There he met and worked with famed Ukrainian geneticist and biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky.

In the 1980s, Mr. Ayala went on to study the parasitic Chagas’ disease, and discover its reproduction process, significantly pushing forward prospects for the development of vaccines and drug treatment for the disease. He has since published more than 1,000 papers and 40 books, including “Darwin’s Gift: to Science and Religion.” His latest book, “Am I a Monkey? Six Big Questions about Evolution” is set to be released in October.

He also recently co-authored a paper that ascertains the notion that gorillas and chimps may carry the parasites that cause human malaria.

Mr. Ayala plans to donate some of the prize money to the University of California, Irvine, and various charitable organizations.

The Templeton Prize is the world’s largest award given to an individual. Honoring a person who has made an outstanding contribution to religious insight, it was established by investor and philanthropist John Templeton in 1972. It continues to be at a higher monetary value than the Nobel Prize to emphasize Templeton’s belief that the innovations of spiritual ideas are more vast and valued than other accomplishments.

• Casey Curlin can be reached at ccurlin@washingtontimes.com.

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