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The expelled evolutionist

Courtesy P.Z. Myers
P.Z. Myers is a blogger as well as
a biologist at the University of
Minnesota at Morris.

P.Z. Myers is the evolutionist creationists love to hate: They hate him so much that he was expelled from an advance screening of "Expelled," even though the anti-evolution movie includes an interview with him.

During a visit to Seattle, the biology professor, blogger and "godless liberal" recounted the tale with relish - and then predicted that old-time creationism will be making a comeback.

Not that he's looking forward to that: Myers bases that prediction on his view that efforts to undermine evolutionary theory without referring to religion, using a concept known as intelligent design, have fallen short. Back in 2005, a federal judge ruled that intelligent design was basically a religious concept, and thus should not be taught in public-school science classes.

He said the secular version of intelligent design was no longer "a big factor in the wars here."

"This," he said, pointing to an classroom-friendly illustration from Answers in Genesis comparing Noah's Ark with a Boeing 747 jet, "is a much bigger factor. People want to believe in biblical creationism, not that secular intelligent-design stuff."

The proponents of intelligent design might take issue with that view. The folks at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute keep track of all the twists and turns in the evolution debate, including my wacky ramblings in Cosmic Log. The intelligent-design concept - that is, the idea that some complex things in nature are best explained by an intelligent cause - figures quite a bit on their side of the debate.

Even at the Discovery Institute, however, the debate is increasingly being cast on different grounds, as an argument for academic freedom rather than for an intelligent designer per se. Teachers should have the right to teach what they believe is right, even if it runs counter to the scientific mainstream. It's hard to take issue with that in the abstract, and not even Myers would assert that Charles Darwin's 150-year-old views should be accepted as gospel.

"Often we put too much emphasis on Charles Darwin," he said.

The problem comes when folks want to teach in science class that the entire edifice of evolutionary biology should be torn down because some chinks are still unfilled or out of place. Usually the reason for doing that is not out of a sense of scientific integrity, but because the edifice seems to stand in the way of the dissenters' moral or religious views.

Myers believes that the religious underpinnings beneath the intelligent-design argument will become more visible as the secular strategy falls short. "They're not going to be hiding the fact that they've got a religious motivation behind their goals," he predicted.

A fair number of public high-school science teachers might be sympathetic to that motivation, based on findings published last month by the open-access journal PLoS Biology. A survey of 939 teachers, conducted by mail and online between March and May, showed that 16 percent believe that "God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so."

That doesn't mean all those teachers want to bring Genesis (or the Koran) into the classroom. In fact, there need not be any linkage between a teacher's personal beliefs and what's taught in public school. Nevertheless, it's a statistic that worries Myers.

"One out of six of our high-school science teachers are young-earth creationists," he observed.

You'll never find Myers, a biology professor at the University of Minnesota at Morris, in league with that 16 percent. He's as well-known for his atheism as he is for his work in evolutionary biology - and he didn't mince words during his Monday night talk at Seattle's Pacific Science Center.

"I personally feel that religion itself is a lie and a danger," he said. In his view, even those who hold to religious faith at the same time that they hold to evolutionary theory are being "wishy-washy" in one way or another.

One questioner asked Myers whether that meant Brown University biologist Ken Miller, who has often said his passionate defense of evolution doesn't conflict with his religious beliefs, was being a wishy-washy scientist?

"No," Myers answered wryly, "I think Ken Miller is a wishy-washy Catholic."

Myers acknowledged that scientists sometimes have a hard time getting their perspective across forcefully, and so he provided a five-point prescription for wishy-washiness:

  • Show passion and personality.
  • Be a patient instructor.
  • Be an advocate, and shun caution.
  • Be positive.
  • Argue, argue, argue.

That last piece of advice is something close to Myers' heart. He recalled one time recently when he argued with a creationist for two hours straight. "He was so mad at me," Myers said.

Expelled from 'Expelled'
Which brings us to the "Expelled" episode: Last year, he agreed to be interviewed for a project called "Crossroads," which was portrayed as a documentary about the intersection of religion and science - going so far as to sign a release and accept payment for his time and trouble. Weeks later, he was worried to learn that the project was actually a diatribe against Darwin.

"I got fooled," he admitted.

In advance of the film's opening, Myers and a colleague of his showed up at the theater where a free preview was playing, hoping to find out how he was portrayed in the finished film. Unfortunately, he was recognized by a film producer and was told to leave the premises.

Or was that actually fortunate?

The way Myers tells it, the incident was a plus: He could capitalize on the publicity of being expelled from "Expelled" - while his colleague, the equally atheistic British biologist Richard Dawkins, had to sit through a movie that ended up making him hopping mad.

"I never imagined that they would do the perfect thing," Myers said, "which was to just throw me out, so I didn't have to go see the crappy movie, but Richard Dawkins had to go see it."

More resources
In between the anecdotes, predictions and the hate-mail readings (taken from Myers' in-box), the biologist provided a long reading list of books and blogs. Here's a sampling that could keep you busy for months:

Myers urged scientists who felt they had something worth saying to start up their own blogs. The software makes it easy to write a blog entry, he said: "Any idiot can do it."

What are your favorite science blogs? Feel free to contribute your own recommendations (or, for that matter, point us to your own not-so-idiotic blog) as a comment below.

Update for 2 p.m. ET June 4: Michael Bradbury has posted the full podcast of Myers' talk at Real Science. The talk was presented by the Northwest Science Writers Association and the Forum on Science Ethics and Policy.