Francisco J. Ayala, evolutionary geneticist and supporter of NCSE, dies at 88

Francisco J. Ayala

Xiao Dai, via Wikimedia Commons; used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

The distinguished evolutionary geneticist Francisco J. Ayala died on March 3, 2023, at the age of 88, according to El Mundo (March 5, 2023). A prolific author, with hundreds of articles and dozens of books to his credit, he was particularly interested in arguing for the compatibility of science and faith, as in his book Darwin's Gift to Science and Religion (2007). He was equally interested in rebutting creationism, having testified in the 1982 case McLean v. Arkansas, challenging a law requiring equal time for creation science in Arkansas's public schools. A long-time supporter of NCSE, Ayala was a member of NCSE's board of directors from 2014 to 2017, serving as its president for the last year of his term. 

Evolution education was particularly important to Ayala. He spearheaded the efforts of the National Academies to affirm evolution and refute the claims of creationism in such publications as Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science (1998), Science and Creationism (1999), and Science, Evolution, and Creationism (2007). And he also emphasized evolution education in his own writing. In Darwin and Intelligent Design (2006), for example, he explained, "The theory of evolution needs to be taught in the schools because nothing in biology makes sense without it" (echoing the famous words of his mentor Theodosius Dobzhansky). He continued, "Learning about evolution has practical value. The theory of evolution has made important contributions to society. Evolution explains why many human pathogens have developed resistance to formerly effective drugs and suggests ways of confronting this increasingly serious problems. evolutionary biology has also contributed importantly to agriculture by explaining the relationships among wild and domesticated plants and animals and their natural enemies. An understanding of evolution is indispensable in order to establish sustainable relationships with the natural environment."

Ayala was born in Madrid, Spain, on March 12, 1934. He earned a B.S. in physics from the University of Madrid in 1955 and studied theology from 1955 to 1960, when he was ordained a priest in the Dominican Order in 1960, leaving the priesthood in the same year. He then studied genetics at Columbia University, receiving his M.A. in 1963 and his Ph.D. in 1964 under the supervision of Theodosius Dobzhansky. The bulk of his career was at the University of California: at Davis from 1971 to 1987 and at Irvine from 1987 to 2018. His honors include Sigma Xi’s William Procter Prize in 2000, the National Medal of Science in 2002, and the Templeton Prize in 2010.

Glenn Branch
Short Bio

Glenn Branch is Deputy Director of NCSE.