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.

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.

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."

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."

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."

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.

OBSERVED IN HIS NATURAL HABItat of the University of Minnesota in Morris, PZ Myers hardly seems like a firebrand. He is unabashedly proud of his work and of the Morris campus itself—regularly ranked by U.S. News & World Report as one of the country's best public liberal arts colleges. The town of Morris, population 5,000, lies about 160 miles from Minneapolis in a portion of the state that is flat and full of farms, the topographic kin of the neighboring Dakotas. (Fittingly enough, Morris is roughly halfway between the Twin Cities and Fargo.) The university is small, with an enrollment that usually hovers around 2,000, and so are the classes. Discussion groups in the freshman biology class that Myers teaches have as few as a half-dozen students apiece.

In the classroom, Myers aims to create a mood of levity. As he dispenses a two-page pop quiz, he is the opposite of the curmudgeonly professorial type. "This test is so hard you'll all be lying down and crying," he says with a laugh. "Then you'll get a four-day weekend." After the students finish and clear out of the classroom, Myers leads a brief tour of the campus, beginning with his lab. It is a small, somewhat cramped space, full of tanks teeming with adult zebrafish. Myers isn't especially interested in the adult fish; he keeps them as brood-stock for the embryos he and his students study. Because zebrafish are such prolific breeders, they make ideal research subjects. A separate tank contains some strange-looking white frogs. In explaining his experiments, Myers is unfailingly patient and thorough. His tone provides a striking contrast to his fighter's persona at Pharyngula—that is, until the subject comes back around to intelligent design.

"I have nothing but contempt for ID," Myers says. "The old-school creationists were people who just didn't know much and were sincere in their belief in their Bible. Fine. But the new school is people who have had training, scientists who know a little bit about biology and molecular biology and put on their lab coats and say all this ridiculous nonsense. I find that fundamentally dishonest."

In his opinion, most modern proponents of ID know full well that the open integration of religious beliefs into their argument would present constitutional troubles. So although they are predominantly fundamentalist Christians, ID defenders by and large do not speak the name of the designer. They simply insist that, as a matter of science, his existence is a legitimate theory.

As a committed nonbeliever, PZ Myers is offended by this. He doesn't care to drive by the giant Jesus billboards in his town, or hear the judgments passed on his fellow atheists. But it's dishonesty that sets him on fire. In ID, he sees a concerted attack on the scientific method, an attack funded through the same network of right-wing foundations and philanthropists that has underwritten corporate America's assaults on government regulation. If science loses on ID, for example, Myers wonders what will become of the subject of global warming. What will become of scientific method in general? "I go either way on that," Myers offers. "The U.S. has a very good scientific establishment that is still the envy of the world. On my good days, I can't imagine we'll throw that away. But when you look at the grass oots, you realize that this is pretty fragile and that it could be destroyed."

That attitude goes a long way in explaining Myers's frontal assaults on fellow academics who promote the ID agenda. It is not just far-flung figures such as Michael Behe and the Discovery Institute's Philip Johnson who have aroused his wrath. Just last week, Myers fired off formal letters of protest to University of Minnesota president Robert Bruininks and provost for academic affairs Tom Sullivan. The cause? A freshman seminar offered at the U's Twin Cities campus called "Life: By Chance or Design." Myers's objections to the course are myriad, beginning with the fact that the instructor, Christopher Macosko, has no particular expertise in either biology or evolution. Macosko, a born-again Christian, is a professor of chemical engineering. In denouncing the seminar, Myers minced no words in his post on Pharyngula:

"This is contemptible. Having academic freedom is not an excuse to tolerate incompetence and dishonesty in teaching our students, and Macosko has done a disservice to the young men and women in his class, as well as doing harm to the reputation of the university. I've said before that we have to tolerate some crackpottery in tenured faculty, but this changes my mind. This course should be removed from the books, Macosko should be censured, and there should be more review of the first-year seminar courses to make sure our students aren't getting fed false information by unqualified faculty. At the very least, courses like this should be evaluated by biologists, and a competent member of the discipline brought in to make sure the ideologue trying to run the show isn't screwing up."

ON THE EVENING OF OCTOBER 9, Myers made the long trip from Morris to the Alumni Center at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis to hear a lecture by journalist and author Chris Mooney. Mooney had come to town to talk about his book The Republican War on Science, which documents a series of attacks on scientific method and science-based government policy by the modern conservative movement. Mooney cited a number of troubling, if increasingly familiar, examples: the Bush administration's notorious excising of a global warming analysis in a report from the Environmental Protection Agency; its dubious claims of links between abortion and cancer; its unfounded claims about the effectiveness of abstinence-only sex education; and, of course, the president's explicit endorsement of adding ID to public school curricula.

About 40 people showed up—a tiny fraction of the number that attended Michael Behe's Friday night appearance a couple of weeks earlier. And students were not foremost among them. Few of the people in Mooney's audience appeared to be under 30. When Mooney ended his speech, Myers was the first to stand with a question. Not long before, the New York Times had published a front-page story about creationists rafting through the Grand Canyon, where their guides offered biblical glosses on the many geologic marvels at hand. Myers was incensed by the story, incensed that the nation's leading newspaper would lend ink and credence to the roundly discredited "young earth" view held by many Christians. ("Young earth" views involve a literal belief that our planet was crafted by the hand of God just a few thousand years ago, as the Bible suggests.)

Myers's question for Mooney was simple: Why is so much science journalism so bad? The journalistic imperative of "balance," Mooney replied, has no parallel in the world of science. Consequently, the media's formulaic use of "he said/she said" reporting often generates a false sense of controversy about matters that scientists overwhelmingly count as settled.

A few questioners later, Myers rose again. He wanted to know what had become of the independent scientific panels that long served the government in advisory roles, like the Office of Technology Assessment. Established during the Nixon years, the OTA was eliminated in 1995 by the Gingrich Congress in what Mooney referred to as "a scientific lobotomy." That, as it happened, was the last question of the night. Mooney retired to the back of the room to sign copies of his book. Myers toted his edition to the table, had his picture snapped with Mooney, and made the 160-mile drive back to Morris. By 6:00 a.m. the next morning, he was back at his computer, throwing up yet another post at Pharyngula.

What makes Myers blog? He is, he admits, attracted to the flexibility of the medium. Myers can write about whatever strikes his fancy—from the evolution of the mammalian vagina to Buffy the Vampire Slayer to the latest outrage from Pat Robertson—with the knowledge that his musings will be read. Myers knows this because he hears from his readers. All the time. This presents quite a contrast to purely academic writings, which, he notes, frequently generate little or no comment. But it's more than an ego stroke. With science increasingly buffeted by political and religious forces, Myers points out, popular appreciation for the scientific method is more vital than ever. Blogs like Pharyngula provide the means to cultivate that appreciation. "We have to get good information out to the public," he says. "It can't be just me because if it's just me railing from the wilderness, we're doomed. But more and more, I'm seeing other people and other blogs coalescing around that idea."

The professor's efforts to bridge the metaphoric "town-gown divide"—the gap between Main Street and academia—are not restricted to his blogging. This fall, Myers organized the Morris chapter of Café Scientifique, an international movement in which scientists use informal settings such as coffee shops and bars to introduce their ideas to lay audiences. So far, Myers says, the Morris program has been a mixed success. The inaugural gathering, which was held at a downtown coffee shop, didn't attract a lot of non-university people, which was a main goal. There was another problem, too: The coffee shop that hosted the gathering is owned and operated by a consortium of Morris churches. As a stipulation, Myers was told to avoid "controversial" topics such as intelligent design and evolution. Not surprisingly, he immediately started looking for a new space. A bar would be good— "science and beer go well together," he says—but it's more likely the program will wind up at the Stevens County Historical Society. "There's no beer there either," Myers laughs, "but we'll cope."

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