The fallen idol

The Spanish geneticist Francisco J. Ayala [1] , an American national, was one of the most renowned scientists in the United States in recent times.  His name was attached to the University of California Irvine (UCI), to which he lent prestige and even gifted with up to $10 million from the awards he received and the profits from his own wine business.

After studying Physics and Philosophy at the University of Salamanca, he was ordained a Dominican priest, although he put his interest in science first and within a year had decided to leave the priesthood. He moved to the United States, earning his doctorate in genetics under the supervision of the well-known neo-Darwinist Theodosius Dobzhansky in 1964.

Thus Francisco J. Ayala began an intense and successful stage as a researcher, in which he focused on the molecular clock of evolution and the study of certain parasitic diseases, which he combined with other activities: promoting the teaching in schools of the theories of evolution; the publication of numerous papers and books; and giving lectures and taking part in public debates in which he always defended the compatibility of science with religion. This led him to serve on the governing council of the National Academy of Sciences and as chairman of the board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  He was scientific advisor to President Bill Clinton, and was awarded the US National Medal of Science by George W. Bush in 2001. The Foundation that organizes the presentation of this award highlighted his merits as follows:

“For his theoretical and experimental discoveries on the origin of species, genetic diversity, and population dynamics that led to a new understanding of biological evolution, and his distinguished contributions to education, the promotion of public understanding of science, and the philosophy and ethics of the scientific enterprise”[2].

He also received the Gregor Mendel Honorary Gold Medal from the Swedish Academy of Sciences and the Templeton Prize, the world’s highest-paid award. He was distinguished with an honorary doctorate by 20 universities around the world and welcomed as a member of the National Academies of Sciences of Russia, Spain, Italy, and Mexico.

However, the good name and public recognition enjoyed by Ayala fell apart in 2018 when, at age 84 and active in his duties at UCI, he was accused of sexual harassment. University researchers claimed that some women around him felt professionally undermined by his conduct and concluded that Ayala violated UC Irvine’s sexual harassment and sex discrimination policies in the cases of three of the four women who filed complaints against him. “Unlike many harassers who have sex with students or pressure them directly for sex, Ayala did not cross those boundaries,” said Ann Olivarius, a sexual harassment specialist who reviewed the UCI Irvine report at Science‘s request. “But he clearly made multiple women feel degraded. (…) Senior university officials warned him to stop acting in these ways, but he continued.”[3]

The university immediately dismissed him and Ayala’s name was removed from the Faculty of Biological Sciences, as well as from fellowships, academic programs, and endowed chairs. And although more than 100 academics from UCI and around the world signed a statement expressing their concern that the sanctions constituted “a massive overreaction[4],” nothing changed; in the loss of his good name, the die was cast.

The response of the media to the news of his death on March 4 has been low-key. For this reason, the panegyric dedicated to him by the theoretical physicist Lawrence M. Krauss, on the religious antipodes of Ayala, stands out. Krauss calls him “A Great Scientist, Scholar and Gentleman”, highlighting what Wikipedia says about him: “He is known for his research on population and evolutionary genetics, and has been called the ‘Renaissance Man of Evolutionary Biology.’ His discoveries have opened up new approaches to the prevention and treatment of diseases that affect hundreds of millions of individuals worldwide[5]. ”

He elaborated on Darwin’s thinking

Ayala stressed the importance of Darwin’s contribution, highlighting what was his fundamental discovery: that in nature there is a process that is creative though not conscious. Natural selection implies that certain genes and genetic combinations are transmitted to subsequent generations on average more frequently than their alternates. Natural selection does not seek to obtain predetermined kinds of organisms, but only organisms that are adapted to their present environments.  The variables that determine in which direction selection will go are the environment, the pre-existing constitution of the organisms, and the randomly arising mutations. Therefore, natural selection is a creative process that can explain the emergence of genuine novelty. However, it does not “create” the entities on which it acts, but produces adaptive genetic combinations that would otherwise not have existed.

For that reason, Ayala stated that “Darwin completed the Copernican Revolution by drawing out for biology the notion of nature as a lawful system of matter in motion that human reason can explain without recourse to supernatural agents.”

This creative power, which Ayala argues exists in nature, does not refer to “absolute” creation. As he explained so many times, absolute creation occurs at the origin of the universe and is beyond scientific analysis: “The creation or origin of the universe involves a transition from nothing into being. But a transition can only be scientifically investigated if we have some knowledge about the states and entities on both sides of the boundary. Nothingness, however, is not a subject for scientific investigation or understanding.”[6]

“A person’s genetic makeup can be cloned; the individual cannot”

When we talk about cloning [7] , we can refer to the cloning of genes, the cloning of cells, or the cloning of individuals, and all these fields have been the subject of study and interesting contributions by Francisco J. Ayala.

Human cloning has been in the spotlight of the popular imagination and science fiction; not only that, but as a result of the spectacular progress made in genetic knowledge and technology, utopian scientific proposals to enhance the human race have also been put forward. Professor Ayala has taken it upon himself to lower these expectations by stating categorically that the genome is not sufficient to know what we are, so human cloning is impossible in the strict sense. Indeed, we must distinguish the genotype or genome, the genetic makeup of the individual, as opposed to his phenotype, what the individual is.

The phenotype of a person includes their morphology, physiology, behavior, preferences, moral values, aesthetic preferences, religious beliefs and, in general, all the traits of their culture acquired by imitation, learning, or in any other way, and that are part of cultural evolution. And this means that the genotype of that person has an unlimited, virtually infinite number of possible experiences. It is clear that genotype influences what the individual is, but it is equally clear that it does not determine it in a strict sense. The experiences of a human individual throughout their life, conscious or not, influence what the individual becomes. Consequently, there is no reason to expect that the genomes of individuals with excellent attributes will produce individuals equally endowed with ability or intelligence when cloned. Identical genomes in different environments produce individuals who may be very different.

It is important to note that the technology of cloning, genome cloning, has not yet been developed to the point of making it possible to produce a healthy human individual by cloning. But what is really important is that the individual produced by cloning would be a very different person from the one whose genotype is cloned.

Morality is a uniquely human trait

Darwin had already argued that the moral sense or conscience is the main difference between humans and other animals. It is undoubtedly the dual role of philosopher and geneticist that has allowed Francisco J. Ayala to explore the idea in more depth, and to and propose ethical capacity as a necessary attribute of human nature.

First, Ayala defines moral behavior as “the actions of a person who takes into account in a sympathetic way the impact the actions have on others.”[8]  He also considers that the question of whether ethical behavior is biologically determined can refer both to the capacity for ethics (i.e., the proclivity to judge human actions as either right or wrong), or to the moral norms accepted by human beings for guiding their actions. He thus proposes that the capacity for ethics is a necessary attribute of human nature, whereas moral codes are the product of cultural evolution, not biological evolution.

According to Ayala, human beings have a moral sense because their biological makeup determines the presence of three necessary conditions for ethical behavior: the ability to anticipate the consequences of one’s own actions; the ability to make value judgments; and the ability to choose between alternative courses of action. These abilities derive from the high degree of intelligence attained by humans in their evolutionary process. Ethical behavior emerged in evolution not because it is adaptive in itself, but as a necessary consequence of man’s eminent intellectual abilities, which are an attribute directly promoted by natural selection. Indeed, the development of advanced intellectual abilities was favored by natural selection, in that the construction and use of tools improved the strategic position of our bipedal ancestors because bipedalism transformed the anterior limbs of our ancestors from organs of locomotion into organs of manipulation.

A human is Homo moralis because he is Homo rationalis. The ability to anticipate the consequences of one’s actions is closely related to the ability to establish the connection between means and ends, i.e., to see a medium precisely as a means, as something that serves a specific end or purpose.  This ability to establish the connection between means and their ends requires the ability to anticipate the future and to form mental images of non-present or even non-existent realities. The ability to establish the connection between means and ends proves to be the fundamental intellectual capacity that has made the development of human culture and technology possible.

This capacity for ethics is the result of gradual evolution, but it is an attribute that exists only when the intellectual abilities reach an advanced degree such that the formation of abstract concepts and the anticipation of the future are possible, without us being able to determine when this threshold was crossed. Nevertheless, we do know that similar phenomena occur in other evolutionary developments, for example: in the origins of life or multicellularity and also in the physical world, such as the transition of water, which starts to boil at 100°C and suddenly changes from liquid to gas.

Substantiating his idea, Ayala quotes the prominent psychologist Steven Pinker when he writes that “morality is not just any old topic in psychology but close to our conception of the meaning of life. Moral goodness is what gives each of us the sense that we are worthy human beings.”[9]

His legacy will remain

Although his name no longer appears at the entrance of what was his faculty, his discoveries will continue to benefit millions of people and his teachings will remain. He has made us see the difference in being human.

Manuel Ribes

Bioethics Observatory– Institute of Life Sciences

Catholic University of Valencia


[1] Lawrence M. Krauss  Francisco Ayala, March 12, 1934 – March 3, 2023, Scientist, Scholar, and Religious Defender of Science Critical Mass Mar 5 2023

[2] Sara Grossman Francisco J. Ayala National Medal of Science – National Science and Technology Medals Foundation

[3] Meredith Wadman  Report gives details of sexual harassment allegations that felled a famed geneticist | Science Science News 20 Jul 2018

[4] Teresa Watanabe Banishment of an acclaimed UC Irvine professor sparks debate over whether #MeToo can go too far Los Angeles Times  Oct 13, 2018

[5] Lawrence M. Krauss Francisco Ayala, March 12, 1934 – March 3, 2023, Scientist, Scholar, and Religious Defender of Science Critical Mass Mar 5 2023

[6] Francisco J. Ayala  En el centenario de Darwin  Ludus Vitalis, vol. XVII, num. 32, 2009, pp. 1-16.

[7] Ayala, F. J. (2019) ¿Clonar humanos? Límites de la eugenesia Arbor, 195 (792): a502

[8]  Francisco J. Ayala. The difference of being human: Morality PNAS. May 5, 2010 107 (supplement_2) 9015-9022

[9] Ibid.


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