Long live PZ Myers!
INTERVIEW BY IAN MURPHY
The “magnificent P-Zed Myers,” as he’s known by Richard Dawkins, is a fearless heathen. The tagline of his blog Pharyngula reads: “Evolution, development, and random biological ejaculations from a godless liberal.” He’s publicly desecrated the Eucharist and been chastised by the Catholic League’s Bill Donohue, bucked down libel suits, received countless death threats from religious kooks and he can kick God’s old, white ass with nothing but his mind. Myers teaches biology at the University of Minnesota, Morris. We decided to give him a call.
Uh, Dr. Myers? Hi, this is Ian Murphy from the BEAST.
How are you?
Great. Now, just as a formality, you don’t mind if record this conversation do you?
All right. And also, as a formality, you don’t mind if I later edit your words together out of context and sell the recordings to Kirk Cameron do you?
Do I get a cut?
Then it’s all good.
Oh, good! All right, well, um, do you have anything on your mind you want to start things off with?
I have a terrible interviewing technique, I’m sorry.
I was going to say, I have no idea what this interview is about, so you tell me.
Well, I thought it would basically be about evolution, development and whatever you want to randomly ejaculate, so to speak.
Ok, one of those talks, heavy breathing and all that. Um—
Yeah, well, OK, let’s just start off with the little controversy you were involved with this summer. If what I read is true, you actually desecrated the body of Jesus, and uh, I want to know: How did that go? Was it all gruesome like Passion of the Christ? I mean, did he cry like a little baby? What happened?
It was very disappointing. He was very passive, and there wasn’t even any blood. It was just—splat, he’s in the garbage, and uh…he made no comment. (Laughs)
No comment whatsoever?
Yeah, most of the comments have come from people who are absolutely convinced, that yes, that was actually Jesus Christ that I tortured and threw in the trash, which is just bizarre, but does open up possibilities, of course. I’m thinking if I get enough crackers and terminate them, I’ll kill Jesus eventually. There’s got to be a vital organ in some kind of cracker somewhere, right?
Did you cannibalize any Christ before you threw him in the trash?
No…I was getting these over the mail, of course, and you know, some of the people had gotten them by having them put in their mouth and they spit them back out, so, no, I was not going to taste them. And I also got a few threats from some Catholics, who threatened to mail me unconsecrated crackers that they put rat poison on.
So, you know, I wasn’t going to risk it.
On a scale from 1 to 10, how awful was Ben Stein’s Expelled?
I haven’t seen it yet.
You haven’t seen it—that’s right!
Yeah, I got kicked out, so…
They expelled you—
And uh, I just haven’t gotten up the energy to go see it since. It just does not sound that interesting.
Yeah, I can’t spend the money. I can’t do it.
Yeah. Yeah. I hear that I’m excellent in it, however.
OK, um, you debate creationists and these religious types—how do you do it? I mean, because, you know, you can’t be reasonable with these people.
Oh, well, of course you can. You can take an entirely reasonable point of view, which is that they’re morons, and you just make that clear. That’s the challenge of debating these guys, because they really are saying stupid things, and we’re kind of conditioned that when we get into a debate or when we lecture other people, that we’ll treat them seriously and deferentially and address their arguments, and what you quickly find when you talk to these goons is that no, you can’t. (Laughs) If you try to debate them seriously then you end up getting sucked into this vortex of nonsense, and you end up parroting back what they say, you know, while you’re refuting it.
And it’s just pointless. What you’ve just got to do is go right for the throat and point out that they’re incompetent, they don’t know what they’re talking about, they’re making crap up—and make it sting.
So, you think mocking people is important?
Yes. Ridicule is a really important tool. Now, you know, when you get together with somebody one on one and you want to have a serious conversation and you want to actually get a message across to them, ridicule doesn’t work there, of course, but when you’re in a public forum and somebody strolls up and says something utterly ridiculous like, you know, the earth is six-thousand years old, for the benefit of the other people in the audience, you cannot just sit there and take that at face value. You have to point out that that contradicts all of science, there’s no evidence for it—
Oh, I don’t know. I don’t know. I’ve been to a museum in Kentucky…
That, uh, made a pretty convincing case that the world is in fact six-thousand years old.
(Pained sigh) That just makes my point for me. Here they spent 27 million dollars on this ludicrous argument—
And they’re making money!
Yes they are. That’s the scary thing, isn’t it?
That is the scary thing. I thought it would crash and burn immediately. I thought it’d be out of business by now. I overestimated American intelligence, I suppose.
I had my suspicions that it would do fairly well, because I don’t underestimate the stupidity of the American public. That’s why I worry about people like Sarah Palin, who’s just aiming dead-center at the idiot-America market. And it’s a big market.
Yeah, she’s, uh, she’s a scary one, huh?
When I first saw that McCain picked her I wasn’t too concerned, mainly because I didn’t know too much about her, but then I realized she was going to ramp up this culture war to the point where, uh, it could be same old Rovian playbook, and that’s how they’re going to get the Republicans back in. Who do you think is going to win?
I kind of give the edge to Obama now, but I—there are so many opportunities for him to screw up, that…that he could pull a Kerry on us. If he doesn’t come out fighting we are doomed.
Do you think America is too racist, though, in the end?
That’s another concern. But no, I kind of suspect the part of America that would vote against Obama because he’s black, is the part that would vote for the Republicans anyway.
Right. I think there are studies that support that.
Yes, so there will be people who refuse to vote for him because the color of his skin, but we never had them to begin with.
Just to stay on this idea of race, I remember back in the ‘80s, the sportscaster Jimmy the Greek—he got in trouble for saying that slavery had, more or less, made American blacks superior athletes. It was controversial and he got fired, from CBS I think it was. Scientifically speaking, is there any merit to that thesis, or is it straight out racist?
Wha—oh—it’s, well, there’s a teeny-tiny bit of merit, but it’s much more complicated than that. American slaves went through a major bottleneck. Now, the fact that they were put on to boats where many of them died, that they were put into hard labor and many of them died, that they were abused and mistreated in ways that compromised their ability to have children, those all affected the population. It wouldn’t be as simple as saying, well, it made them more athletic—it did a whole bunch of things. African Americans are more prone to high blood pressure problems, for instance. So yeah, there’s been little shifts in their genetic makeup by that effect. But where it becomes racist is when you start lumping them all together and saying, OK, well all black people have high blood pressure and are good at playing basketball. You can say there are these certain genes that will give you high blood pressure and they’re at a higher frequency in the African American population.
Do you think that in the long term melanin is going to be an evolutionary advantage?
It’s—it’s too sloppy and flexible, it changes so much. I mean, look at the human populations all around the world, and there are these clines of color shift, you know, pigmentation of skin, and they’re all over the place. It seems to be one of those things that evolves very, very easily. So, you know, it’ll be transient and it won’t be a big deal—except that people make it a big deal. With things like global warming, you know, if you get more heat and sunshine, you’ll tend to get browner.
Ok, do you—do you mind if we shift the focus to sex?
(Giggles heartily) I am not a sex columnist. I am not Dan Savage, so…
No, no. All right, well, uh, I’ll skip the first question, because the first question was: What are you wearing?
(Laughs) I’m in my office and I’m dressed formally for work.
That’s hot, I guess. In the Disney film Finding Nemo, Nemo was a clownfish, and I’ve come to find out that clownfish are sequential hermaphrodites. Could you, uh, maybe explain what that is, and what kind of message do you think this sends to our children?
Oh, well, lots of species do this kind of thing. Lots of species will actually shift their sexes over time.
With an operation, right? Because my cousin, he’s been saving for a long time now.
Oh yeah, people are less flexible. We’re kind of stuck using surgery, but lots of animals, all it takes is a little shift in hormone levels and they’ll spontaneously generate the appropriate gonads. But these tend to be animals that don’t have particularly elaborate genitalia or anything like that anyway, so it’s an easier transition for them.
Well, yeah, lots of species do that and uh…what does it tell our children? Well, we don’t want to fall for the naturalistic fallacy, you know, that just because something happens in nature, it doesn’t mean you have to do it. Like your mom said, if your friends jump of a cliff, would you do it too? No you don’t have to. If a fish turns into a hermaphrodite it doesn’t mean you have to be a hermaphrodite either. But what it does do is kind of remove the idea that species have a right way of being, that there is a fixed order to the universe, that’s there’s some divine being who says, “Well, everybody should be heterosexual.” There’s just too many counterexamples out there.
OK. Well. Um, according to legendary sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, humans are rarely if ever strictly heterosexual or strictly homosexual. That said, do you think it’s fair to say that James Dobson is bisexual, and where do you think he falls on the scale—zero: totally straight, or six: just flaming gay?
Well, uh, you know, again, a lot of this is a cultural construct. What the biology says is that we have the ability to be turned on by a lot of different things, depending on upbringing, culture, what we’re exposed to at formative periods in life or what kind of magazines you had when you were thirteen years old, and so forth. And from that I would say that, you know, there are people who may have the biological capability to enjoy sex with members of the same sex, but, they’ve been so thoroughly warped by their culture or by their upbringing that there’s no way they could. I would put Dobson in that category. He could be a flaming homosexual deep down inside, but it doesn’t matter, because he’s been so thoroughly indoctrinated that if he did indulge himself he wouldn’t physically enjoy it, he’d be so crippled by guilt.
Now that we’re slightly, you know, more tolerant of the gay lifestyle, and these people don’t have to, um, live or work in the shadows, et cetera, do you think the priesthood has suffered?
What a weird question. Has the priesthood suffered…
The talent pool is so much lower now. Because, you know, you figure that back in the day, what was a gay guy gonna do but join the priesthood?
Now they can openly be singers and dancers and whatever—scientists.
Yeah, well, I don’t think so, because if your brain has been fried by religion it’s going to burn all the talent out of you and you won’t be a singer or dancer anyway.
Really? What about Joel Osteen?
(Laughs) I kind of feel like what we ought to do is start a little “hot or not” session here where we judge various evangelical preachers on whether they’re able to be attracted to us or not.
Osteen has developed his own little shtick, hasn’t he?
Yeah, he really has.
I wouldn’t pay money to go to a Broadway theater to see it, which is really limiting his options there. He’s never going to make it in New York.
Getting a little bit back to evolution: Um, even if we’re completely rational about the thing and we realize that evolution is a scientific fact, I think a lot of people get tripped up in that gray area where things like—what we would call inorganic, you know, compounds, you know, the clay and stone or whatever, the primordial ooze—in between there and when we have RNA and later DNA. How does this transition happen?
You mean how did it happen?
Well, you know, that’s a difficult thing, because it’s a serious problem. It’s something that happened four billion years ago—three and a half to four billion years ago—and the old biological jalopies that evolved then didn’t have what it takes to survive nowadays. So those kinds of forms can’t reoccur. It sort of requires a special set of conditions long, long ago for that to evolve. We’ve also got this problem that they’re very small creatures; they tend to be very soft, you know. They’re just little buckets of chemicals, right? So they don’t preserve very well. The way people are going about approaching it is they’re, first of all, looking for traces in ancient rocks, so you can find evidence of these things by the fact that biology tends to be racemic, that is, it tends to promote chemicals with certain handedness—selectively. So you look for these kind of chemicals from the past and what you’re basically finding is carbon sludge, and all just happens to be right handed. That tells you that’s one place.
The other way people are doing it is by trying to repeat it. What you do is set up culture chambers where there’s no living things in there, there’s just chemicals, and you expose them to conditions and temperatures and pressures and so forth that you think that were like what were present on the early earth and you try to get the bits and pieces of the chemistry going.
Now, has that been replicated?
Not the whole pathway, of course. But, for instance, you may have heard of the Krebs cycle. It’s kind of a central biochemical pathway in all of our cells, and it uses, for instance, a chemical called pyruvate and it goes through a series of chemical reactions in a little chemical loop. Pieces of that have been found to spontaneously emerge if you treat things with high pressure and temperature, and have some simple inorganic chemicals available, it will spontaneously generate pyruvate and build these particular building blocks. So, it’s kind of this big jigsaw puzzle that they’re just working out little fragments of the story piece by piece. Let’s work out each step of the pathway, let’s see what conditions promote this, and then eventually, you try to put it together, and say, ok well under these conditions we get this series of chemical reactions that are part of the building blocks of life. It’s more of a proof of concept test. You can’t really go back and see what actually happened, but you can test the chemistry and see if it’s feasible for it to have happened.
Ok. I’m sort of sick of hearing this question and I’d just like someone with some scientific authority to answer it once and for all: What came first, the chicken or the egg?
Oh, well, it’s just a bad question—
But taken simply, doesn’t the egg predate the chicken by, I don’t know, a billion years maybe?
Yes, if you put it those terms. If you say which came first the chicken or the chicken egg then it’s more problematic. But yeah, if you say just chicken or egg first, yeah, the egg is really old. The egg has been around for a long, long time. We’ve got fossilized embryos that have primitive shells from six-hundred million years ago.
And these are fossils that, presumably, Satan buried in the earth to trick us?
Yeah, Satan was in this phase where he was really into caviar, or something, some years ago. Yeah, they’re these little fossilized embryos. They’re very simple creatures. They were organisms that just evolved into a little ball of cells. But we’ve got these fossils. It’s amazing stuff. You know, just by chance, we have these bits and pieces. And of course reptiles precede chickens, they had eggs, too—still do.
Um, do you think it’s fair to ask, as CNN recently did, if Barack Obama is the Antichrist?
There’s nothing the media can’t ask. There are so many stupid questions to ask. That’s a good example of a stupid question to discredit the media. I hope people answered no, right?
Well, it just ran across the Chyron, I don’t think it was really a poll. It was just sort of an existential sort of ponderance. Uh, speaking of the media, and I don’t really have a question here, but I just can’t help being appalled that you’ll see on FoxNews people citing Worldnetdaily—you’re familiar, you’ve called it “Worldnutdaily,” which is appropriate—and the editor Joe Farah, or however you pronounce it, he literally believes in dragons. And that just amazes me.
Uh-huh. There’s a lot of people that do.
Ha-ha! Well, they don’t have evidence for them, but it is a necessary conclusion of their beliefs. They believe the earth is only six-thousand years old and that dinosaurs are concurrent with human beings. And, six-thousand years mean, well, hey, dinosaurs could still be around. There are people who actually believe the way to prove evolution is wrong is to find a dinosaur—and they have expeditions. We have one here in Minneapolis. There’s a place called Creation Safaris, and every year they put out a call and get money and go on these little tours. The big one is they go up to a lake up in Canada where they think there’s a Loch Ness-type monster. And if they find that, you know, evolution doesn’t have any claim. They make trips to Africa where they’re looking for the brontosaurus that people think is walking around there, and if they find that, evolution is done—which is absolutely absurd.
Oh wow. Maybe we could just do a few more quick questions I like to call the absurdist lightning round—are you ready?
You mean we haven’t had that already?
No! That was the serious part! The scholarly bit.
In my business I’m used to the absurdist round, so go ahead.
Have you ever been caught riding dirty?
Riding dirty…you mean, like…unbathed or…
I don’t know what it means. Just answer.
Oh, Ok. I have not been caught.
Can God make a mind so rational that it won’t believe in him?
Oh, now, you’re trying to blow my mind here, uh…no, just simply no.
Will dogs ever learn to do math?
They already do to a limited degree. What are you talking about?
They aren’t very good at it. They know one and they know many.
Ha! But what about calculus and things like this?
Oh. Uh…we’d need to do some rather substantial genetic engineering to do that, and if we get dogs who are capable of knowing calculus they’ll be smarter than ninety-nine percent of the people on the planet, which is scary.
Is that something we should worry about?
Well, you know, the way the country is going it might actually be an improvement.