The Mad Scientist

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

As Behe moved from his mousetrap analogy into technical discussion of bacterial flagellum, blood-clotting mechanisms, and other scientific-sounding subjects, Myers listened intently. Occasionally, he tapped notes into the laptop computer that he totes with him everywhere. When Behe launched into his more pointed critiques of the received wisdom of generations of evolutionary science, an expression of distaste would flicker across Myers's face, and the pace of his typing would quicken.

Before Behe uttered his first word, Myers outlined the lecture we would hear, punctuating his list of Behe's talking points with off-the-cuff observations about the Lehigh professor's "atrocious modeling" and intellectual sleight of hand. He made no effort to conceal his disdain. "There's a stereotype that academics are all dry and dusty, tweed and elbow patches and pipes in mouth. But it's just not true," Myers explained. "In science, we scream a lot."

Yet as Myers braced for the Behe lecture at the U, he seemed weary. The 160-mile drive from his home in Morris couldn't have helped. But more than that, Myers didn't want to be here, didn't want to spend another evening listening to the same old attacks on science. "Bad movies can be fun, but this isn't going to be," he warned. "I'm only here out of a sense of obligation, because if I want to be a credible source in arguing against creationism, I have to be aware of what creationists are saying. If I shut my eyes and ears, I don't think I can be a legitimate critic."

Allen Beaulieu

By the time he finally published his assessment of the Behe lecture, Myers's palpable fatigue had given way to a feistier, more polemical air. Behe's arguments, Myers wrote, "exceeded my expectations of suckiness. It was an evening of phony rhetoric, smug self-aggrandizement, and utter vacuity—and the audience of complacent Christians ate it up. That part of the audience that consisted of atheists and competent scientists and, I presume, honest Christians found it appalling." After that, Myers dissected Behe's technical contentions in considerable detail before concluding as follows:

"Behe talked for an hour, and in all that time he didn't give one specific hypothesis, he didn't describe any evidence, and he didn't propose one single line of research that an ID-friendly scientist could follow. This was a completely empty talk, a hollow shell with a few buzzwords and fallacious analogies to make his cheerleaders happy. He's a fraud. I can't say that it was an entirely wasted evening, though. I learned that Intelligent Design creationism is still dead in the water, and that one of the few legitimately credentialed scientists working within the movement is still an empty babbler without a whisper of scientific support; the most amusing part of the talk was his opening line, when he gave a disclaimer that the provost of his university wanted him to say, that his views do not represent Lehigh University."

FOR ABOUT A DOZEN YEARS, PZ Myers has been among the fiercest, most public critics of the intelligent design movement. An early convert to the internet, he first embarked on the mission by posting on a Usenet group called Talkorigins. Over the years, he has poked away at ID in other forums, too, most notably in a well-regarded evolution-themed group blog called the Panda's Thumb. But Myers owes most of his notoriety to the personal weblog he created two and a half years ago, Pharyngula.org. The blog's name is a reference to the stage in development of vertebrate embryos in which various species most resemble each other. Given the obscurity of the domain name—and the often esoteric subject matter—it is a minor miracle that Myers has been able to cultivate such a large and loyal following. A Google search of his name yields more than a quarter of a million results. According to Alexa, the Amazon.com-owned website-ranking page, Pharyngula's idiosyncratic musings on science, culture, and politics—and his claw-hammer critiques of ID—have made him the most-read Minnesota blogger after the popular right-wing mainstays Power Line and Captain's Quarters.

Lately, Myers says, Pharyngula has averaged some 13,000 visitors a day. On busy days—typically, those days when Myers has posted one of his screeds on ID shenanigans—the count spikes into the 25,000 range. That is an impressive amount of traffic for a personal blog, especially one that doesn't offer the spectacle of coitus—or much of it, anyway. As befits a biologist's journal, Pharyngula follows assiduously the latest scientific findings regarding the sexual habits of creatures such as the giant squid. (As it turns out, giant squid mate by firing bulletlike globs of sperm at anything that resembles another squid, male or female, often leaving the paramour injured). Myers is prone to lengthy scientific tangents on such matters, and occasional unscientific ones: "Just imagine it—great pelagic orgies, the males thrusting wantonly with their massive penile arms, promiscuously inseminating any nearby slickly molluscan body. Perhaps they end up sated and exhausted from their frenzied exertions and, oblivious and insensate, drift ashore to die content. Forget March of the Penguins. There's a great documentary to be made here: Squid Gone Wild. Cephalopod Sex Party. I want to see Michael Medved review it."

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