By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
By Charles Lam
In April 26, 2007, Chapman University hosted the W.M. Keck Foundation Student Research Day, a gathering of the school's various science departments, so students could showcase their research and the public could nerd out. The keynote speaker that day was a titan in Orange County's scientific community: Francisco Ayala, a professor at UC Irvine and one of the most respected evolutionary biologists in the world.
Ayala's email signature reminds recipients he is a 2001 National Medal of Science Laureate and received the prestigious 2010 Templeton Prize, an international scientific award awarded for his "public role in defending science practice and religious faith"—but he's selling himself short. UCI's largest library is named after him. He has published more than 1,000 papers and 35 books, both popular and academic. According to the UC Irvine Faculty Directory, Ayala is actually three professors in one: university professor and Donald Bren professor of biological sciences, ecology & evolutionary biology; professor of philosophy; and professor of logic and the philosophy of science. He also has a badass accent, a vestige from his youth in Spain, which grants him even more elder-scientist gravitas.
The New York Times has described Ayala as a professor "always on the road," often speaking at churches "in defense of the theory of evolution and against the arguments of creationism."
But none of Ayala's qualifications are important to Bill Morgan, perhaps Orange County's most influential creationist. To him, the esteemed professor is a jerk.
During the W.M. Keck lecture titled "Darwin and Intelligent Design," Morgan claims, Ayala described a classic empirical example of natural selection: peppered moth evolution. During the Industrial Revolution, England's trees became darker after being covered in pollutants for years. The lighter peppered moths, which were originally the most populous, began to die off because their camouflage was rendered less effective. Simultaneously, the darker peppered moths became more prevalent, since they were able to better hide on the newly darkened trees.
Morgan says he attended the lecture with his then-9-year-old daughter. Afterward, she wrote Ayala a letter: "Peppered moth population changes are an example of natural selection, which all creationists believe is true," she wrote. "But you began with moths and ended with moths. . . . There were no new animals."
Ayala's response, according to Morgan? Ayala smugly told her that when she takes college-level biology, she'll understand—and that was that.
The story was odd. It ran counter to the professor's carefully constructed public image as an intellectual who welcomes all debates about evolution. Morgan didn't save either letter. Ayala's executive secretary, however, did, and Ayala forwarded both to the Weekly.
"My daddy heard your talk at Chapman," the letter began, with the rest of it proceeding as Morgan earlier describes, with his daughter critiquing Ayala's points and asking how moths got "feet" and "eyes." She also suggested Ayala read her father's comic books, which are a collection of creationist talking points accompanied by relevant Clipart photos.
But Ayala's actual response differed from Morgan's description—characteristically terse, but not rude or dismissive. "I did not use moths to prove evolution, but to show how natural selection works in a simple case. When you study biology, you will be able to understand how evolution works," he wrote to the young girl, adding, "Thank you for your letter."
In an interview with the Weekly, Ayala calls Morgan a "liar" and says that he was "sad to see someone distort the facts in the name of religion," particularly given that science and religion should not be seen as mutually exclusive. Ayala added that it was "difficult to comprehend people who make false accusations and lie for the sake of God."
Before the letter confusion, I tried to arrange a meeting between Ayala and Morgan so the two could discuss their philosophical and scientific differences, with the hopes of finding some common ground. The history between them—along with Ayala's stellar reputation for respecting the religious and reaching out to the public—made the professor seem the perfect candidate to partake in a healthy, casual discussion about the state of the debate with his ideological opposite.
Ayala thanked me, but he declined; he doesn't think "such debates or discussions are worthwhile."
Pressed for an explanation, he says that the circumstances of debates or an interview are such that people can't explore in depth any of the scientific evidence. Instead, they just turn into rhetorical exchanges that don't accomplish anything. "Look, the evidence for biological evolution is stronger and more abundant than the evidence for other scientific theories, such as the atomic theory, the heliocentric theory or the expansion of the galaxies," Ayala says. "What is needed is better scientific education, not debate."
After unearthing the exchange between him and Morgan's daughter, he wrote, "You may understand why I do not want to have public discussions . . . with the likes of Mr. Morgan."
The problem for evolution, though, is that there are more Bill Morgans than there are Francisco Ayalas.
* * *
Morgan has developed an impressive rhetorical gymnastics routine to define his opponent's beliefs. As they see it, life won the Mega Millions several times over. Billions of years ago, stardust mixed with energy derived from an unknown source. Such energy and matter, coming from nowhere and thus violating the First Law of Thermodynamics, somehow perfectly rearranged itself to create life from non-life, thus violating Pasteur's Law of Biogenesis. Those simple life forms—bacterial organisms, essentially—then spent billions of years magically evolving into the millions of forms of life we see today.