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The View From Planet Ayala

Francisco J. Ayala, a biologist at U.C. Irvine who has won the 2010 Templeton Prize, is known for his attacks on intelligent design. He even tars it as a kind of "blasphemy" because ID would allow the attribution of intent and purpose to a designer guiding the development of life. What an odd thing to say. That would make most mainstream theology in Christianity and Judaism "blasphemous" too. You would expect that before using such a hyper-charged word, a distinguished guy like Dr. Ayala would take the time to think a little more carefully.

With Ayala, that expectation is often doomed to be disappointed. Thus as readers may recall, when he accepted an invitation to critique Stephen Meyer's recent book, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design, he went ahead and wrote his review as if he had the read the book whereas -- it should have been to clear to anyone who had simply glanced at Meyer's Table of Contents -- Dr. Ayala had not done even that. The invitation came from the website BioLogos, specializing in Christian cheerleading for Darwin, which Dr. Darrell Falk appears to operate as editor-in-chief. Falk has read Signature in the Cell, and written about it. Presumably he read Ayala's essay before publishing it.

The episode illustrates how hard it is for anyone in the intelligent design community to get a fair hearing. Ayala critiqued Dr. Meyer's book despite having no idea what's in it. Falk published Ayala's attack despite knowing that it distorts Meyer's thesis, while also displaying Ayala's overall ignorance of the sophisticated case for design that has been mounted by philosophers, biologists, physicists, and other scientists over the past decade. Ayala has made his reputation, as a peacemaker in the supposed stand-off between science and religion, based on a presumed ability to bring his own scholarship, discernment, and intelligence to bear on ultimate questions. What kind of a meaningful response can you have to an idea if you haven't taken the time to inform yourself adequately about it?

I mean no disrespect to Dr. Ayala, yet there is a sense in which he seems to be responding not to people and ideas as they are but to a construction in his own mind and of his own imagining. Maybe that's why he got creamed in a recent debate on ID, as even the Los Angeles Times notes in its coverage of the Templeton Prize winner:

Last fall, Ayala debated a prominent advocate for intelligent design, William Lane Craig, at the University of Indiana. Various Internet accounts suggested the evening was less than a triumph for Ayala. ("He got womped," wrote one Ayala sympathizer.) Ayala said he hadn't understood he would be debating and didn't believe a debate was the proper way to resolve the dispute anyway.
It's funny, a few years ago I wrote a piece for Townhall magazine about the suppression of intelligent design advocates in university and other academic settings. At the time I was writing it, I sent an email to several prominent theistic evolutionists and other Darwin defenders, including Francisco Ayala. I asked:
Critics of ID argue that one failing of ID theory, among others, is that it hasn't been backed up by research. If you were to imagine a university-employed scientist who wanted to do such research, would he be completely free to do so? Or, as ID advocates say, would he more likely be dissuaded by pressure from peers or supervisors?
Ayala replied:
He would be free to do so. I cannot imagine any serious scientist or academic administrator trying to dissuade anybody else from carrying out any well-designed research project (or, in fact, almost any research project). Our academic freedom to pursue any research we wish is something precious that we value as much as any other academic value.
What planet does this man live on? After the experiences of Sternberg, Gonzalez, Crocker, Marks, Minnich, Dembski -- chronicled here and elsewhere, along with others yet to be named and still others too worried about reprisals to let themselves to be identified -- it should be obvious that Ayala's statement is utterly, completely, and entirely false. When it comes to doubting Darwin, serious scientists would be justified in feeling intimidated. In part, the fear of speaking out is maintained by the realization that if you raise your voice, your view will not merely be criticized. It will be distorted so as to prejudice public and professional opinion against you.

What we have in Dr. Ayala's review of Steve Meyer's book is a telling illustration, in miniature, of how that works.