The Mad Scientist

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

That last line is typical Myers. A shot of lively prose, followed by some sound science, with a political kicker tacked on for good measure. Given his left-atheist inclinations, it's no surprise that Myers has tussled with his rivals at Power Line. Myers fired the first shot, posting a response to blogger John Hinderaker's odd declaration that "Darwin's theory of macroevolution is plainly wrong, on strictly scientific grounds." Myers couldn't resist. After all, Hinderaker is an attorney and political activist, not a biologist. In a blistering retort, Myers wrote:

"On strictly scientific grounds? Hindrocket [Hinderaker's now-defunct nom de guerre] doesn't know any science. The 'macroevolution' canard is stock mindless creationism. The real outrage here is that a clueless nitwit like Hindrocket can claim the entire field of biology is a fraud and cannot stand up to scrutiny; I'd be happy to mop the floor with him in a debate, if he wants to try.... Time magazine really screwed the pooch when they named Power Line 'blog of the year'—they picked a site run by a few paranoid, extremist doofuses."

If Myers's slap-down of Hinderaker was a touch overheated, the response was all the more so. After an indignant Power Line linked to Myers's post, Myers says, he found himself under electronic assault for days on end. "It was very peculiar," he says with a shrug. "I had somebody try and crash my system. I got obscene phone calls in the middle of the night. One caller told me specifically, 'Never ever write anything about politics again.'" Eventually the furor died down. "You can't keep white heat going very long," he observes. But the country's rightward tilt, and its myriad manifestations on the internet, still raise his ire. "I don't want to be a political blogger," he says. "Every once in a while, I go on a tear and then I think to myself, 'Is this really what I want to be writing about?' So then I go back to writing about sexy squid or something that helps recharge the batteries."

Allen Beaulieu

Surprisingly, Myers's criticisms of the political right have provoked less ire than his posting on an entirely unrelated subject, astrology. In the early '90s, when he was living in Philadelphia and teaching at Temple University, Myers posted on a Usenet discussion group about the subject, for which he has nearly as much disdain as ID. The death threats came fast and furious. Why were the pro-astrology folk so easily incensed? "Creationism and astrology, basically, are the same thing," he offers. "But astrologists have no political clout. Maybe that's why they're so insane about it. The creationists know that they have political power. Astrologists know that they don't."

PZ MYERS GREW UP THE ELDEST of six children in a working-class family in Kent, Washington, a town some 20 miles from Seattle. Through much of his childhood, the family lived on the cusp of poverty. There was always enough to eat, but sometimes little else. His father, Paul, graduated from high school, married, and drifted into a succession of menial jobs: gas station attendant, meter reader, custodian. In the good times, he would land jobs at Boeing and the family would be flush for a while. The kids would go to the dentist, the family would move into a better home. But then the notoriously cyclical airline industry would go bust again, and the layoff notice would follow.

Named after his father, Paul Zachary, Myers insisted on being referred to by his initials rather than "Little Paul." His aspirations always tended toward the serious as well. "As far as I can tell, I decided to be a scientist in the womb," he chuckles now. His earliest memory is of peering through the lens of a microscope his mother got him when he was still a preschooler. Later, when he was old enough to accompany his father on salmon fishing trips, it was cleaning the fish that interested him most. "I was really interested in what was going on inside of animals," he recalls. "So Dad would show me what all the organs were. Of course, we had to look into the stomachs to find out what they were eating."

Growing up, Myers attended church regularly. By and large, he says, it was an innocuous experience. "My mom is from Minnesota, and we were regular Lake Wobegon Lutherans. We listened to the minister, and afterwards we had coffee and Jell-O," he remembers. "I have no bad feelings about my religious upbringing. One of the nicest people I ever knew was our choir director." But when it came time for confirmation, Myers experienced an awakening of sorts. "I started thinking, you know, I just don't believe a word of this."

After that, his interest in science grew more intense. Born around the time the Russians leapt ahead in the space race with the launching of the Sputnik satellite in 1957, Myers grew up as part of a generation that venerated science education more than ever, if mainly as a tool for winning the Cold War. Because the young PZ showed such avid interest in science, his father sought to help him on what seemed to the elder Myers an appropriate career track: refrigerator repair. But after PZ aced his SATs, the college scholarship offers came pouring in. When DePauw University offered him a free ride, he packed his bags and headed to Indiana, thereby becoming the first member of the immediate family to make it past high school. During Myers's freshman year, his father suffered the first of a series of heart attacks, so Myers moved back to the Northwest to be closer to the family. He enrolled at the University of Washington, where he majored in oceanography. But a professor whose opinion Myers respected eventually steered him away from oceanography and toward the fields of zoology and developmental biology.

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