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A Gentleman and a Scholar : Aristocratic Ex-Priest Speaks Softly, Carries Big Stick for Evolution at UCI

December 30, 1988|DANA PARSONS | Times Staff Writer

The patrician life that Francisco Ayala was born into 54 years ago taught that the truly meaningful existence was one where the mind was challenged by many pursuits but where a person was never too busy to treat others with kindness and civility.

It was the duty of the aristocrat to live out that credo, to pursue with equal zeal life's mixed bounty of pleasure and poetry, scholarship and business. Although he left his native Spain as a young man and sought his way in America, Ayala has never forsaken the lessons learned as a boy in Madrid.

So while Ayala has become a renowned evolutionary biologist and was considered a prize catch a year ago by UC Irvine, he remains something of an anomaly in the world of U.S. higher education.

In a world where rumpled suits and scuffed shoes dominate, he wears Armani and Gucci. In a world where people usually don't get rich, Ayala is a millionaire. In a Honda world, he drives a Cadillac.

In a world where other fine professors and scientists battle for office space that doesn't have a partitioned wall, Ayala's ninth-floor sanctuary is carpeted and appointed with custom furniture. In a world where single-minded devotion to one's own academic specialty is common, Ayala eschews such behavior.

He owns 400 acres of vineyards in Northern California, is the major shareholder of a winery and owns stock in a horse-breeding operation. He loves the theater, opera and ballet and reads books on such diverse topics as history, art and philosophy. He has made an international reputation in genetics but said if the field were to be declared nonexistent tomorrow, he would be happy to move over to the philosophy department or liberal arts.

"I would guess that Francisco is the kind of person who would require more than one thing" to focus on, said Wyatt Anderson, an Ayala friend and professor of genetics at the University of Georgia. "What characterizes him is the breadth of his interests and accomplishments. He would be unlikely to say there is any one thing he could not do without. He might say, however, that doing one thing would not be enough."

Ayala routinely gets by on a few hours of sleep a night and has taught himself to wake up without an alarm clock. He said his former wife told him he "had a remarkable ability to always forget unpleasant things." Perhaps that's why his blood pressure is low and why he never misses a day of work.

He spent 5 years in the priesthood until, he said, his intellectual side could no longer rationalize evil and human tragedy under the auspices of a supposedly loving God. As a result, he not only left the priesthood, he left the Roman Catholic church, never to return.

He was a major witness in an important 1982 trial in Arkansas, testifying against an Arkansas law that required that creationism be given equal time with the teaching of evolution in public schools.

"The greatest fraud the fundamentalists have committed is to make people believe that (the creationism-versus-evolution argument) is between God or religion on one side and science on the other," Ayala said.

"My students come to me, and after they realize that evolution is something that cannot be doubted, they say, 'Now I realize I have to give up my religion.'

"Although I'm not a religious person in my own life, I say, 'For heaven's sake, these two things are compatible.' I don't want to knock down religion. I don't want to see science confronting religion."

Yet, Ayala and attorneys fighting in Arkansas spent dozens of hours preparing their case. "I said then that more was at stake than science," Ayala said in his campus office. "What was at stake was the survival of rationality in our country and certainly in our educational system. If we are going to allow this nonsense of something that is not science to be interpreted as science, the potential harmful effects go beyond this particular field of science."

A federal judge in Arkansas struck down the law; a few years later, the U.S. Supreme Court also invalidated a similar law passed in Louisiana.

The fervor of Ayala's opposition seems hard to square with his soft-spoken manner and his professed desire to diffuse his interests.

"Francisco the person is above all an aristocrat," said a longtime friend and famed geneticist, G. Ledyard Stebbins, a professor emeritus at UC Davis.

"That means that he is impeccable in dress, he is polite, he is understanding, he is polished. All of those things. It's something that comes naturally to a person of his station and upbringing. In democratic America, that can be mistaken for people who think he is a little bit of a snob."

Ayala is, indeed, measured in his speech and not given to euphemisms or sillyisms in conversation. "I doubt he livens many of his lectures on evolution with jokes, which many of us do," Stebbins said.

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