Congratulations to Dr. Francisco Ayala, professor at the University of California, Irvine for winning the 2010 Templeton Award. One of the highlights of my year has been attending the In Light of Evolution conferences that he co-sponsors at the National Academy of Sciences’ Beckman Center. I grew up as the son of a UC professor, so I have known a gamut of many professorial types. Some have embodied the finest traditions of scholarship and intellectual curiousity. Others have treated the university as personal playground for activities that would have made P.T. Barnum blush.
Dr. Ayala struck me from the beginning to be a wonderful example of the finest traditions in science. He is a scholar’s scholar, with a solid history in his field, and an obvious love of being a professor. He has a focused, compassionate demeanor that more of the younger generation should experience. In their world of continuous partial attention, it’s probably hard for them to understand the effects of a life-long intellectual focus such as Ayala’s.
I have also found his lectures and writings on Evolution to be the most respectable and scientifically responsible writings on the subject. He is one of the leaders at the National Academy of Science’s response to the Intelligent Design/Creationism controversy. He communicates the science of evolution in the mature, engaging manner of a great scientist who is also aware of limits to the scientific method. Unlike others who seek to win the argument by spreading self righteous indignation, he is able to present the science of evolution in a convincing manner.
The Templeton Award has aroused some controversy: Richard Dawkins, another great biologist but who is a little closer to the PT Barnum end of the professorial scale, had this to say about the award:
“The US National Academy of Sciences has brought ignominy on itself by agreeing to host the announcement of the 2010 Templeton Prize. This is exactly the kind of thing Templeton is ceaselessly angling for — recognition among real scientists — and they use their money shamelessly to satisfy their doomed craving for scientific respectability.”
I disagree that Templeton Foundation is “craving for scientific respectability.” I have had numerous interactions with Templeton Foundation, and think that they are providing an extremely valuable service in the advancement of science. Their particular choice of language makes me a little uncomfortable at times, but I agree with their intent. I have worked with them as a Sr. Fellow at Civic Ventures, who sponsor the Purpose Prize and the notion of “Encore Careers.” These $100,000 awards are given to folks over the age of 60 who have started a new pro-social enterprise after the age of 50 – a most remarkable (and growing) segment of our society. I have seen no trace of “religious” influence on these prizes. Here is my conversation with Jon Haidt, a self-confessed Jewish Liberal Atheist who won the Templeton Positive Psychology Award. And here is a video interview of Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi (a bit conflated with my interest in Positive Genomics) who is also active in the Templeton orbit. I’ve had zero sense of any religious interference in their scientific or philanthropic activities.
I invite a broad range of thinkers to my workshops, looking for a “grounded eclectic” perspective of people who are able to delve deeply in one subject as well as think laterally. I’ve had pretty hard core atheists as well as dedicated spiritual leaders – an Iraqi-American Imam and and an enthusiast supporter of the US Marines at the same workshop right after the invasion of Iraq, doing an Appreciative Inquiry into positive responses to the war in Iraq.
I frequently end up with groups containing atheists as well as believers in some religion or those who want to talk about spirituality. I generally find that I can find a middle ground of conversation by substituting “emergence” for “spirituality” in the discussion. Both will agree that a whole, live cat has emergent properties that are not discernable by looking at the parts of the dissected cat. We can accept that the emergent properties of the live cat – the whole that is greater than the sum of the parts, and then get on with herding cats rather than getting stuck on what makes a cat live. This “what is life?” question is indeed a very important question, receiving too little attention, but it can get in the way of other topics.
So congratulations, Francisco Ayala, for your contributions to the science of evolution, its a well-deserved award.
And, congratulations, Templeton Foundation for recognizing it. I think you are performing a great value to the advancement of science.