The Mad Scientist

Biologist and blogger PZ Myers speaks out on the war on science, intelligent design, and the sexual habits of giant squid

ON THE EVENING OF SEPTEMBER 24, ABOUT 500 PEOPLE squeezed into the lecture hall at the Tate Laboratory of Physics on the University of Minnesota's Twin Cities campus. There were none of the usual Friday night attractions— no music, no beer, no sports. A celebrity of sorts had come to town. Dr. Michael Behe, a biochemist at Lehigh University, is best known for his 1996 bestseller Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. The book made Behe one of the leading voices of the intelligent design movement, and a hero to religious conservatives who have long yearned for credentialed scientists to take up their cause. At the time of his appearance at the U, Behe was just a few weeks removed from his star turn as a defense witness in the so-called Scopes Two trial in Pennsylvania—the highly publicized legal melodrama occasioned by a local school board's decision to include intelligent design in its high school science curriculum.

A short, balding man with the prepossessing manner of a lifelong lecturer, Behe was greeted at the lectern with a torrent of applause. As he began to click through his Power Point presentation, he offered a simple declaration: ID theory, he said, is not "mystical" in nature. It is a matter of common sense. Life on earth is simply too complex not to have been designed. A click of his mouse then revealed a schematic diagram of a mousetrap. For the mousetrap to function properly, Behe explained, each component must be in the right place. The complex arrangement of parts proves that the mousetrap was designed by some intelligent being. In Behe's view, all sorts of other biological mechanisms—the mechanisms that allow people to talk, that enable bacteria to swim in petri dishes—cannot be accidental or random. At that, he dropped in the descriptive phrase for which he is best known. Life, he intoned, is "irreducibly complex," too sophisticated to be explained by Darwinian notions of natural selection and random mutation.

"The evidence for design," Behe said repeatedly, "is the purposeful arrangement of the parts." Though he talked for a long time, this was in effect his entire argument. Ironically, his mousetrap analogy is a direct restatement of the clockmaker analogy that was popular among self-styled "deists" during the Age of Enlightenment 300 years ago. But the deists were a pallid lot as believers go; they promulgated the idea that God the clockmaker had constructed the whole thing and left it to run as dictated by the workings of the pieces he made. Prominent deists from Voltaire to Thomas Jefferson were, ironically, among the leading critics of religious intolerance and superstition in their day. Evangelicals they were not—poisoned by the then-fresh virus of humanism, they preferred to live and let live.

Allen Beaulieu

Not so the latter-day intelligent design advocates: Just last week, the New York Times reported they had won a major battle before the Kansas State Board of Education. "In the course of revising the state's science standards to include criticism of evolution," wrote the Times, "the board promulgated a new definition of science itself. The changes in the official state definition are subtle and lawyerly, and involve mainly the removal of two words: 'natural explanations.' But they are a red flag to scientists, who say the changes obliterate the distinction between the natural and the supernatural that goes back to Galileo and the foundations of science."

And what is the identity of the designer, in Behe's view? On this point the author, like many of his fellows at the influential pro-ID think tank, the Discovery Institute, is conspicuously silent. And for good cause. Creationists—people who believe literally in the Genesis account of a world made in six days some few thousand years ago—have been slapped down by courts again and again in past attempts to gain entree to public school classrooms. Why go willingly into that lion's den?

In the question-and-answer period that followed Behe's 70-minute presentation, it became clear that the majority of those in attendance were ID acolytes. This was no surprise. His appearance was sponsored by the MacLaurin Institute, a nonprofit "Christian study center" based at the U of M. The institute, which boasts such hard-right conservatives as Minnesota Family Council president Tom Prichard on its board of advisers, aims to bring "God to the marketplace of ideas." The lecture also got heavy advance promotion from local Christian media, notably the Bible college radio station KTIS.

Still, not everyone at the lecture was an ID supporter. Sprinkled among the credulous were a handful of skeptical biology students and professors, along with a contingent from the organization of ultimate nonbelievers, the Minnesota Atheists. While the anti-ID folk were outnumbered, they had an advocate of their own in attendance—a 48-year-old associate professor of biology from the University of Minnesota Morris named PZ Myers. Myers was seated in the front row. With his wireless spectacles, khaki slacks, and gray-dappled beard, he looked every bit the earnest academic. But the truth about Myers is more complicated. Sometimes he is the mild-mannered professor, absorbed by scientific minutiae. But when the spirit moves him, he is a fiery cultural critic, bent on keeping the religious right from hijacking school curricula even if it means taking apart their arguments point by point in settings where people used to know better.

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