“Genes can be cloned, but not people”, Francisco J. Ayala

Francisco J. Ayala (Madrid, 1934) is one of the most prestigious Spanish scientists. A world authority on evolutionary biology, he’s a professor at the University of California, Irvine (USA) and became president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, publisher of Science magazine.

With honorary doctorates from over 20 universities in a dozen countries, Ayala has just received this honor from the Autonomous University of Barcelona. He is also the author of 40 books, including the recently published Evolution for David (publisher Laetoli) and Where did I come from? Who am I? Where am I going? (publisher Alianza). In this interview he attempts to answer some of those questions.

1. Ethics and Biotechnology

The greatest recognition of Ayala’s scientific career was the U.S. National Medal of Science, which George W. Bush awarded him in 2001. Previously, he was science adviser to President Bill Clinton, and since then he has tried to clarify the expectations created by the Human Genome Project.

“The genome is not sufficient to know what we are,” explains Ayala, for whom this makes it impossible to clone people and greatly hinders our chances of genetic improvement, regardless of the ethical considerations. Instead, he is a big supporter of cloning the best heads of livestock, once the technique is fully mastered. In addition to teaching Biology, Ayala teaches Philosophy of Science at the University of California, Irvine. There, and in all forums in which he participates, he advocates establishing red lines in genetic engineering.

2. Our place in evolution

Francisco J. Ayala was dubbed “the Renaissance man of evolutionary biology” by The New York Times. As a researcher, he stood out particularly for his studies on the so-called “molecular clock of evolution.” According to his scientific specialty, he places human beings as newcomers to the evolution of life, as we have appeared “in the final minutes of the history of the Earth.”

In this interview, the researcher also addresses some of the evolutionary oddities of the human species, such as monogamy, “which does not exist in other primates,” or the apparent evolutionary paradox of homosexuality, “which is not easy to explain.” Ayala provides explanations to these human peculiarities, from the perspective of genetics and evolutionary biology.

3. Evolution and Religion

In 1960 Ayala was ordained as a Dominican friar in Spain, but soon hung up his habit and moved to the US the following year to study the evolution of living beings. Nationalized as a US citizen in 1971, this Spanish scientist received the 2010 Templeton prize of 1.53 million dollars for “his public role as a defender of the scientific practice and religious faith.”

In his view, there is no contradiction between science and religion, as long as each respects the sphere of the other. In the US, Ayala’s testimony in court has been essential in preventing the teaching of creationism in schools (which denies evolution) as being equivalent to the scientific explanation of the origin of life.

Ayala rejects creationism and intelligent design: “If God had designed the human reproductive system, He would have to account for 20 million miscarriages per year. It’s an atrocity, blasphemy,” he reflects in this interview.

4. Investing in Science

Ayala is a strong supporter of philanthropy and increased budgets for science. His are not empty words: in 2011 he donated $ 10 million to the university, profits from his vineyards in California.

The professor regrets the limited investment in science in Spain and wields altruism as an argument to promote philanthropy. “Do we want a prosperous society? We must all contribute, to the extent we can,” Ayala concludes.

Manuel Ansede for Ventana al Conocimiento (Knowledge Window)