Evolutionary Biologist/Former Catholic Priest Wins $1.5M Templeton Prize

By Smriti Rao | March 26, 2010 4:48 pm

ayalaFormer Roman Catholic priest and respected evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala has won this year’s Templeton Prize. The $1.53 million award honors a living person “who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.” The John Templeton Foundation cited Ayala’s dogged work through the years advocating the peaceful co-existence of science and religion in its decision. The somewhat controversial prize is often given to scientists who find common ground between religion and science, but previous winners have also included more traditional spiritual leaders like Mother Teresa and televangelist Billy Graham.

Ayala is the former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and is respected for his research into the evolutionary history of the parasite scientists have associated with malaria, with an eye toward developing a cure for the disease. He also pioneered the use of an organism’s genetic material as molecular clocks that help track and time its origins [The Christian Science Monitor]. But he is known best, perhaps, for being an expert witness in the 1981 federal court trial that led to the overturning of an Arkansas law mandating the teaching creationism with evolution in science class. In 2001, he was awarded the National Medal of Science.

Ayala will receive his award at the Buckingham Palace on May 5, but addressing a press conference yesterday in Washington, D.C. he reiterated that science doesn’t have to contradict religion: “If they are properly understood,” he said, “they cannot be in contradiction because science and religion concern different matters, and each is essential to human understanding” [Templeton Prize]. Referring to Picasso’s paiting Guernica, which famously depicts the tragedies of war, Ayala noted that science helps us understand the painting’s proportions and pigments, but only a spiritual view conveys the horror of the subject matter. He argued that the spiritual and scientific analyses were both necessary to comprehend the totality of the masterpiece, saying: “Science gives us an insight on reality which is very important; our technology is based on our science…. But at the end of the day, questions important to people, questions of meaning, purpose, moral values, and the like” are not answered through science [The Christian Science Monitor].

Born in Madrid in 1934, Ayala felt the two pulls of religion and science early on. He became an ordained priest, but left the fold when he came to New York’s Columbia University to get an PhD in genetics. He’s currently a top professor of biological sciences at the University of California, Irvine.

Some scientists have criticized the John Templeton Foundation’s work, arguing that science and religion shouldn’t be mixed up together. Critics were further angered when the National Academy of Sciences hosted the Templeton Foundation’s announcement of Ayala’s award, saying that the foundation may gain scientific respectability by associating with scientists and their institutions [Guardian].

California Institute of Technology physicist Sean Carroll, who writes for the DISCOVER blog Cosmic Variance, was one of those who voiced his disapproval: “The Templeton Foundation is working in good faith. They’re in favour of science but want to see a reconciliation with religion. That’s not evil and crackpotty, but it’s incorrect. It’s a mistake…. I’m not asking NAS to put out an official statement of atheism. They don’t have to take a stand either way, but the academy is best served by just staying away” [Nature blog]. But the NAS president Ralph Cicerone waved the concerns away, saying NAS agreed to host the event when a member of the foundation requested a room for the ceremony.

Ayala plans to give his award money to charity.

Related Content:
The Intersection: Francisco Ayala Wins Templeton Prize
Gene Expression: Francisco Ayala & autogenocide
DISCOVER: The God Experiments
80beats: Quantum Physicist Wins $1.4M Templeton Prize for Writing on “Veiled Reality”
Cosmic Variance: In Bed With Templeton questions political spending by John Templeton, Jr.
Cosmic Variance: Templeton and Skeptics discusses a conference on science and religion

Image: Mark Finkenstaedt/Templeton Prize

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Human Origins
  • NewEnglandBob

    he reiterated that science doesn’t have to contradict religion: “If they are properly understood,” he said, “they cannot be in contradiction because science and religion concern different matters, and each is essential to human understanding” [Templeton Prize]. Referring to Picasso’s painting Guernica, which famously depicts the tragedies of war, Ayala noted that science helps us understand the painting’s proportions and pigments, but only a spiritual view conveys the horror of the subject matter.

    Ayala is clueless. He has no argument for needing religion. Superstitious woo is only in the mind.

    He is even worse in his understanding of Guernica. Picasso, the Communist and pacifist painted Guernica to show the tragedies of war and the suffering it inflicts upon individuals, particularly innocent civilians. This work has gained a monumental status, becoming a perpetual reminder of the tragedies of war, an anti-war symbol, and an embodiment of peace. It is NOT spiritual at all. Sheesh.

    The Templeton Foundation is known for supporting woo and nonsense.

  • Bruce Partington

    Bob, it’s nice of you to offer us in your own plain-spoken way part of the Wikipedia article on Guernica, in the event we were too dumb or busy to look it up. But can you put in your own words a scientific proof of how those lofty though plagiarized sentiments are represented by the pigments and their distribution? Or simply a scientific, rational, non-emotional description of why our new crop of militant atheists so resemble their supposed opposites in fundamentalist, fanatical belief?

    I think the reason you can’t tell the difference between science and religion is because to you science -is- your religion, your faith. Atheism isn’t scientifically provable, it’s a belief system, and most peculiar in that it denies it is one.

    (To be fair, you can’t prove scientifically that there -is- a god, either, and, like the militant atheists’ “disbelief”, trying to do so is a category error akin to mistaking a pointing finger for what it’s pointing at.)

  • Bruce Partington

    PS: If you think I’m wrong about Bob’s plagiarism (this would seem to be the only reason my earlier comment was deleted), just google “the tragedies of war and the suffering it inflicts upon individuals, particularly innocent civilians” and see how many websites it’s on. I honestly doubt he’s even seen Guernica, much less studied it. Does Discover Magazine really care to support a standard that any high-school teacher would find worthy of an F?

  • http://sacrilicio.us Matunos

    The Templeton Prize is an interesting concept.

    Imagine a similar prize, say the Exxon Prize, which offers a $1.5M “honor” to the living person who ‘has made an exceptional contribution to affirming petroleum’s ecological dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works’.

    How about a $1.5M honor to the living person who ‘has made an exceptional contribution to affirming tobacco’s healthy dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works’?

    In other words (in case you missed my subtlety), the Templeton Prize is little more than a bribe for scientists to cater to religious sentiment.

  • Alexander Hellemans

    Matunos: Don’t worry. A lot of people have received prices you mention, but in a different form, and unpublicised. Both the Tobacco Lobby and the Petroleum Lobby have a lot of money, and they have spent a lot of it on their propagandists over the last 50 years.

  • Finch

    Templeton thoughts and feelings aside, I went to a guest lecture by Ayala at the University of San Francisco on the Evolution of Plasmodium last fall. It was amazing and he’s a great lecturer. The next night he was part of a debate on religion in relation to science; unfortunately I was unable to attend the event.

  • http://www.atotalawareness.com D J Wray

    He might very well have felt the two pulls of religion and science, but he hasn’t explained why – and that is a greater question than the one that this prize attempts to address.

    D J Wray
    Packaged Evolution: The Intelligent Universe (PowerPoint)

    “Why do many people feel that God is the creator of the universe? Because their consciousness is dominated by the 2nd universe. He created *their* universe. Similarly, God did not create the atheists’ universe. Why do people tend towards science (and technology) or religion but not both? Because of the competing influences of the two universes. The 1st universe rewards sharing important information. That is, information which is good for the species – which automatically includes information about how species evolve. The 2nd universe rewards people who think beyond nature. Science isn’t aware of the separate existence of the 2nd universe. “

  • Sundance

    @Bruce Partington: The point is not to prove the validity of atheism, it is to *disprove* it. You logically cannot prove that God doesn’t exist, just like you can’t conclusively prove that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. Maybe you’ve never seen Santa Claus, but that could just mean he’s hiding somewhere you didn’t look. The Santa-of-the-gaps.

    The hypothesis that “God exists” is not falsifiable, in exactly the same way. By contrast, the atheist hypothesis that “God does not exist” can be falsified, in principle. This makes it a more useful and realistic world view to follow until such time as it is falsified (if that ever happens). You are correct to say that atheism is a belief system (because we can never be 100% certain that the external world perceived by our senses is reality, and not some sort of illusion), but it differs fundamentally from religious belief systems in that it is based on a falsifiable hypothesis, and hence can be overturned if sufficient empirical evidence comes to light. That’s why you’re wrong to call science a faith. Science is the exact opposite of faith. Evolution by Natural Selection, General Relativity, the existence of atoms, plate tectonics, etc are not ideas that people have clung to for centuries because previous generations told them to (or threatened them with eternal suffering if they failed to believe) , they are comparatively new ideas that people adopted on the basis of cold, hard, tested evidence.

  • Shaking head

    i agree with sundance… science is the exact opposite of faith.. faith means you belive in something that you do not nesscessarily know to be true…. science is generally been known to be proven.
    My apologies if there are spelling mistakes

  • RP

    @Sundance: Actually, the hypothesis “God exists” is falsifiable, in principle. It is logically equivalent to the statement: “There exists at least one non-contingent, non-temporal, omnipotent being.” There is no a priori reason why such a hypothesis cannot be falsified; simply show that no such being can exist. Similarly, the hypothesis “All beings are contingent, temporal, and non-omnipotent” can be falsified by demonstrating the existence of one such being that is non-contingent, non-temporal, or omnipotent.

    Also, atomism is quite an old concept, going back to the ancient Greeks at least, and was very close to a belief, since no one at that time could make direct observations on the microscopic world. Further, Evolution by Natural Selection is not a falsifiable proposition. As has been pointed out for quite some time, the theory does no “work”; it makes no testable hypotheses , nor any predictions as to the future development of species. In short, it is merely an explanation after the fact. To be explicit, Evolution by Natural Selection is “merely” descriptive.

    All of that aside, science is nothing more than a loose confederation of ontological and epistemological dispositions, that is, beliefs, no more or less accurate than other dispositions. The sooner scientists understand this limitation, applying the methodology of science to its specific domain (and no more), the better for science in general.

  • Zachary

    @RP. You like just making stuff up don’t you?


    You say science supports concepts that are no more or less accurate than other description. So to you it is safe to say that light in a vacuum travels at 100 miles per hour is equally valid as stating that it ravels at 299,792,458 meters per second? That Hydrogen is actually more massive than say Gold?

  • RP

    Actually, I wrote that science is a collection of ontological and epistemological dispositions no more or less accurate than other dispositions. For example, the proposition that an external reality exists and that it can be measured is a belief, nothing more or less. There is no evidence, no authority that one can point to, to ground these dispositions. Isn’t that the definition of a belief?

    I’m not sure where I am “making stuff up.” The evidence you site as “proof” of evolution is, in fact, precisely what I stated above: the apparent changes in species interpreted after the fact as evolution. When the beak of the finch shrunk, did evolution make a prediction beforehand that it would be thus? No, it did not. The power of a scientific theory, for example, the Standard Model of Particle Physics or General Relativity, is its ability to offer an interpretation of a phenomenon or phenomena (which evolution does) AND to PREDICT the behavior of the system in the future (which evolution DOES NOT DO). Without prediction, there is criterion or condition, no state or event, that may be falsified. There is no experiment anyone can devise to “test” evolution. As such, evolution does not stand up to Popper’s criterion of falsifiability, which, in his philosophy of science, determines whether a hypothesis or theory is “scientific.”

    As for the speed of light and hydrogen/gold comments, well, those are just plain silly. Upon acceptance of certain propositions (such as the external reality and measurability of objects), the measurement of the speed of light in a vacuum as roughly 3 X 10^8 m/s is perfectly reasonable. As for hydrogen/gold, did you actually suppose I would claim that one is greater than many (one proton versus seventy-nine)?

    Next time, please leave the straw men in the corn field.

  • Skeptikor

    Many of the comments, and the Templeton prize as well, do the disservice of conflating theism with spirituality. There is no contradiction in a scientist — or atheist — embracing a spiritual world view, which encompasses human qualities such as tranquility, compassion, a purpose beyond material gain and a sense of belonging and a sense of wonder.

    The problem seems to come when we bring in the casperitic notions of an invisible, incorporeal buddy. There is precisely as much proof for that as there is that the world is run by magical dwarfs, or that everyting was created five minutes ago, including our memories. I would hazard that little is to be gained by pursuing any of these musings.

    To the poster who says that atheism is a belief system. You are quite right. It is the default in the absence of proof to the contrary. That is completely different from holding a positive affirmation (invisible buddy, dwarfs, etc.). The big difference is that it is amenable to change given the weight of contrary evidence (currently absent). Ergo, it is not faith and quite different from other belief systems that treat the question of evidence as an annoying irrelevance.

  • Zachary

    @RP. Your level of skepticism is ridiculous, why should you consider that measurement of “c” as reasonable? It is part of that external reality that is just a mere belief according to you. If you wish to discuss philosophic views fine, but science is firmly rooted in the phenomenological world, and simply states that there is no cause to believe it is not in fact the Noumenon.

    Evolution most certainly has held up its end of Popper’s falsifiability, look at Haldane’s Precambrian rabbit that has yet to be found. This ability to explain an historical process, which could be invalidated at any moment by the fossil record yet never has, most certainly counts as a prediction. On future developments of a system, look at drug-resistant bacteria you would notice that it is perfectly predicted by evolution. However evolution can make the prediction that if one trait is selected for in either positive or negative way, this will have an effect on the allele frequency within that population.


    Perfectly predicted by evolution by natural selection.

  • RP

    @Zachary: Perhaps I should be clearer. I believe in evolution (no pun intended) as our current best approximation for the development of origin and development of species. I also believe in the existence of an external reality, consistent with a “scientific” worldview. What I question is the extension of the supposed (perhaps rightly so) veridicality of scientific knowledge to an absolute statement that its ontological and epistemological premises are inconsistent with a theistic belief system, that is, that the success of science in elucidating the material world is such that one should reject outright any proposition that posits entities outside or beyond corporeality; on the matter of non-material existence, science is and must always be silent. Science, or, rather, some prominent scientists, needs a healthy dose of humility.

    With all of that said, I take your points about the predictions of evolution.

    @Skeptikor: While I take your comment in the spirit it was intended, I have to disagree that atheism is the default position in the absence of proof to the contrary. Atheism makes the positive assertion “God does not exist.” The default in the absence of proof is agnosticism, or simply “I don’t know.”

  • Zachary

    @RP. If you take God to mean any possible being operating outside natural laws then yes, the claim “God does not exist” becomes questionable. However if you limit the concept of God to any of the Gods humanity has posited, and thus made certain claims about, then you can say “THAT God does not exist.” In the most absolute term I am an agnostic. Yet with respect to every God described by every religion I am atheist, for they make claims that are clearly false.

  • RP

    @Zachary: Your perspective is perfectly reasonable. “God” as described by human religion isn’t a god at all; he’s a human, with human pains, passions, and personality, who just happens to be very powerful.

  • CatholicDadof3

    Former priest? Eh…here is what we Catholic really believe: http://www.kolbecenter.org/the-traditional-catholic-doctrine-of-creation/


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