Francisco J. Ayala, a former Catholic priest who as an evolutionary geneticist has long argued that science and faith are compatible yet separate, won the Templeton Prize, one of the world's most prestigious religion prizes.
It comes with a cash prize valued at about $1.5 million which the foundation behind the prize claims is the world's biggest money award to an individual.
Ayala, age 76 and not to be confused with the late Spanish writer of the same name, has been a sometimes provocative defender of evolution and critic of creationism and intelligent design. But because he is a highly regarded as a scientist by his peers, his views have had great weight both inside and out the scientific community.
A sense of just how edgy some of Ayala's views are, especially the way he states them, can be gleaned from a 2008 New York Times profile:
As challenges to the teaching of evolution continue to emerge, legislators debate measures equating the teaching of creationism with academic freedom and a new movie links Darwin to evils ranging from the suppression of free speech to the Holocaust, "I get a lot of people who don't know what to think," Dr. Ayala said. "Or they believe in intelligent design but they want to hear."
Dr. Ayala, a former Dominican priest, said he told his audiences not just that evolution is a well-corroborated scientific theory, but also that belief in evolution does not rule out belief in God. In fact, he said, evolution "is more consistent with belief in a personal god than intelligent design. If God has designed organisms, he has a lot to account for."
Consider, he said, that at least 20 percent of pregnancies are known to end in spontaneous abortion. If that results from divinely inspired anatomy, Dr. Ayala said, "God is the greatest abortionist of them all."
Or consider, he said, the "sadism" in parasites that live by devouring their hosts, or the mating habits of insects like female midges, tiny flies that fertilize their eggs by consuming their mates' genitals, along with all their other parts.
Ayala, a University of California, Irvine, professor has done fascinating work over his career. The Templeton Prize website has the following description:
It was the first of many discoveries that placed Ayala among the pioneers of genetic research in the second half of the 20th century, including his proof that the parasites responsible for Chagas, an often fatal disease afflicting millions of people living in the tropics, reproduced not sexually but by cloning. This led to similar discoveries about the parasites that cause malaria and other tropical diseases, opening up new approaches to potential vaccines.
Ayala also developed highly-accurate ways to read genetic clocks to determine the timing of precise steps in the evolution of a species over millions or even billions of years. Recently, he and colleagues determined that malaria was likely first transmitted from chimpanzees to humans a mere five or six thousand years ago, possibly through a single mosquito. In January 2010 he co-authored a paper establishing that gorillas and chimps may now serve as reservoirs for the parasites that cause human malaria, so that even if a vaccine is developed, humans will always be vulnerable to re-infection.
Besides holding professorships in biology, philosophy, logic, and philosophy of biology (a field he helped establish), at the University of California, Irvine, Ayala is also University Professor, the highest rank within the California university system and the only person with that title at Irvine.
In case all of this hasn't made you envious enough of Ayala, there's this -- he owns a large wine vinyard near Sacramento, Calif.
From the Times profile:
But his major outside interest is wine, specifically the vineyards he and his wife, Hana, own in Sacramento and San Joaquin Counties in Northern California, where they produce grapes for several wineries. In June, he will give a talk on wine and health, but as a wine lover. "I will not be talking much about health," Dr. Ayala said.
The couple got into the wine business almost by accident in the 1980s when Dr. Ayala was at the University of California at Davis, near Sacramento. Property he and his wife bought as a weekend getaway turned out to have acres of vines, he said, and over the years they have expanded their holdings to 6,000 acres.