St. Paul, Minn. — Bright Ideas host Stephen Smith sat down with noted science blogger PZ Myers to discuss evolution and the intersection of science and politics.
Myers is well-known for his personal blog, Pharyngula, one of the most popular science blogs in the world. He has published numerous research papers in Nature and other notable scientific journals.
In 2006, the journal Nature listed his blog as the top-ranked blog written by a scientist. Additionally, Myers was also the recipient of the Humanist of the Year award in 2009.
Below is a transcript of the conversation.
Stephen Smith: This is "Bright Ideas." Fresh thoughts on big issues from Minnesota Public Radio News. I'm Stephen Smith. Each month, we invite a guest to the forum here at Minnesota Public Radio headquarters to talk about important issues and ideas and to take questions from a studio audience. Our guest this time is biology professor PZ Myers of the University of Minnesota Morris. He writes the science blog Pharyngula in which he fights with creationists and the intelligent design movement. He also opines on science, good and phony, and extols the virtues of squids, octopuses, and other wiggly things.
With some three million visits to Pharyngula each month, PZ Myers is one of the most widely read bloggers in Minnesota. PZ Myers drove down here from Morris to be with us in St. Paul. Welcome to "Bright Ideas."
Smith: Well, let's start with the title, Pharyngula. What is that?
PZ Myers: [laughs] It's an obscure word that I picked just to confuse everybody, not realizing that it would become popular. A pharyngula is a stage in development. Have you heard of a blastula, gastrula, neurula?
Smith: I heard about it one time, way back, yeah.
Myers: Yeah, there's a bunch of these stages in the chronological development of the early embryo, and pharyngula is the one I'm most interested in, because that's when Hox genes are being expressed. It's when organogenesis begins to occur, so making all the bits and pieces of the animal. The major body plan is all laid out. So it's a pretty cool and important stage, especially in evolution and development.
Smith: You started this blog how long ago?
Smith: Why? Why did you start writing a blog and what was the blogosphere like in 2003? Was there one?
Myers: There was one. It was not very big. It was just there were a few academic blogs floating around that I admired. I recall Crooked Timber was one that I really enjoyed reading. What happened is, it was the summertime. It was Morris, Minnesota.
Smith: The corn was high and the cotton was doing fine.
Myers: Yeah, and there was a computer sitting there begging me to do something with it, so I just started typing. And to my surprise, people started reading it, which was a blast. I really did not expect anybody to ever read it.
Smith: Did it start out as a blog or did you do some other creature back then?
Myers: No, it started out formally as a blog, following the pattern of everybody, a chronologically related series of posts about whatever I felt like, with comments that people could leave there. It was a real thrill when people actually started leaving comments.
Smith: Did you start out thinking this would be a blog that would focus as much as it does now on creationism, on atheism?
Myers: No. I started it with the intent to just follow my muse and write about whatever I felt like. I wrote some early posts about things like what it's like to live in Morris, Minnesota, things about the local wildlife. There's lots of turtles out there. I went looking at those. Things about kids, and then I discovered a talent for ranting. [audience laughter] Myers: I started writing about some of these creationist things that were constantly cropping up and that's when it started to grow. That's what people want to hear. They want to hear you give a strongly voiced, personal opinion of something. That's what a blog is really good at.
Smith: Obviously, this is an entirely different kind of expression than you had been using, at least professionally, up until this time.
Myers: Oh, yeah. Professional writing is very dry. It's very formal. There's a particular order in how things have to be said and laid out in. Things like subjective opinions are frowned upon. But this is the opposite. There is no real format to which you must write. You can do whatever you want and you can say whatever you want.
Smith: A talent for ranting?
Smith: Was this also present in your everyday life? If somebody knows you well, would they say, "That guy's a real ranter"?
Myers: No, not at all. This is embarrassing to admit, but everywhere I go, people say that I'm a teddy bear. I just want them to stop it. [audience laughter]
Myers: No, it's when you've got a blank sheet of paper in front of you or a blank computer screen, and you've got something you disagree with and you start enumerating all the ways that you find that wrong. That's something you can do when you're writing, but it's not something you can really do in a one on one conversation. It's not something you even do when you're lecturing a class. It just doesn't work.
Smith: What is it about blogging in particular that allows for that to happen, for that to become your Superman cape, so you go from being mild mannered Clark Kent to...?
Myers: Yes, it's having the opportunity to express yourself at length. What you can do is, what's really wonderful about it to those of us with an ego is that when you're writing it, no one is interrupting you. You get to put out all your thoughts right there and you get to lay them out however you want. Then you push that last little button and send it out there for people to stare at. It's very different from what commenters experience, so people are sitting there writing things. What you're doing when you're commenting is you're making a little short comment on something. Then somebody else will say something, and somebody else and somebody else. It will cascade that way.
But with the blog itself, you form a unit. You get to just say, "Here's what I think and I am more important than you, so this is what you get to read."
Smith: Because it's my blog.
Myers: It's mine, yes. [laughs]
Smith: So you spend a lot of digital ink, if you will, attacking intelligent design and the people who are behind that movement. They argue that "certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process, such as natural selection." Why do you have such scorn for these beliefs?
Myers: Well, for one thing, they're dishonest. They're grossly dishonest about this stuff. That's not really where they're coming from. When they say this stuff, they say, "Oh, we're taking an objective view. We're taking a secular view of the universe in saying that there's a designer behind it." They're misleading you. That's not where they come from. Where they come from is typically a very religious background. What intelligent design is, is taking their religious beliefs, sanitizing them of any mention of God, and presenting them in this cleaned up format. The sole premise, the sole impetus for doing this stuff is their belief in God. Smith: If you could, if you will, divorce the people behind the idea from the idea itself. If you analyze the suggestion on its own, is their any merit?
Myers: No, none at all. [laughs] No, I do that all the time. There are some of the people in the intelligent design movement who are incredibly nasty, awful, and misrepresent science in ways that I cannot forgive. At the same time, when you get to know them, when you talk to them, they're generally nice people. They're your neighbors. They're ordinary people. So I would say, right off the bat, no, this is not about demonizing the individuals. It's about demonizing really, really bad ideas.
Then, for instance, what you find with these ideas that they present is that they have no evidence for them. The evidence, if you even want to call it that, is simply this negative form where they say, "Well, evolution cannot adequately explain this phenomenon, therefore, intelligent mystery, this invisible man did it."
But what you discover also when you start talking to these people is that they have no idea what evolution is all about, so they completely miss the story there. They are not qualified to tell us what evolution does not explain.
Smith: I see. Now, tell us about your own upbringing. First of all, I want to know why you're called PZ.
Myers: [laughs] Yeah, I didn't know my name was Paul until I went to school, actually. I was brought up being called PZ by everyone in the family because my grandfather's name was Paul and we don't confusion there. I'm this tall, he's that tall; they could mix us up so easily. Also, the alternative was, apparently they thought about calling me Little Paul and I'm glad they went with PZ. It's a little bit less diminishing.
Smith: It would be hard to have a blog out there and call yourself Little Paul Myers.
Myers: Yeah, that would be, ugh.
Smith: Where did religion fit into your upbringing? You were raised Lutheran, I take it.
Myers: I was raised Lutheran, yeah. I grew up in a little town near Seattle. People out here will be familiar with this. Everyone I knew was a Minnesota transplant. We were part of this big exodus after World War II of Minnesotans who got fed up by the corn, soybeans, and dairy farms, and moved to the cities on the coast. There was a major enclave of Scandinavian ancestry, Minnesotan related people living there. Yeah, I was brought up in a very Minnesotan Lutheran church, which meant every week you went there and it was mainly chitchat and really bad, weak coffee.
Smith: Church basement?
Myers: Yeah, church basement coffee. Sermons that were actually sort of nice and tepid, this was not fire breathing stuff. It was comfortable, liberal, let's get along stuff.
Smith: So did you believe in God as a young person?
Myers: It used to be that when people would ask me that I would say, "Yes, I did." Except I've come to realize that no, I didn't. As I've been hanging out with the atheists and I talk to more people in this movement, I have met many people who were very devout Christians once upon a time. In talking to them, I've realized, no, I never really believed. Like I said, it was church basement stuff. It was the social stuff. I had friends in Sunday school. That's why I went to Sunday school. I didn't care about that Bible stuff, but I had some good friends. We had a good time. We'd do little artsy craftsy things, memorize Bible verses. Nothing religious about that, really, it's more social.
Yeah, I realize now that even though I was going through the motions, I didn't really believe.
Smith: But was there an atheist awakening moment for you?
Myers: There was an atheist awakening several years. What happened is, as you know in the Lutheran Church, you get to go through confirmation when you're 12 or 13 years old. I went through this and I was sitting there listening to people telling me what I was expected to believe in order to be a Lutheran. I said, "No, I don't believe any of that." It's just they're telling me this stuff I'm supposed to memorize. Sure, I could memorize it, but it really doesn't sink in here. So I left the church, on friendly terms. It wasn't a tantrum or anything. Just, OK, I don't believe this, I'll leave the church.
I still vaguely believed, well, maybe there's a God out there. But at that same time, I was really getting into science, learning more about science, evolution and all these cool things that the real world had to tell me. Religion became superfluous.
It was probably when I was in college. I just realized, hey, none of this makes sense. I don't believe in any of this. I don't believe in the existence of a God, so apparently, I'm an atheist. It was fine. I just slowly eased my way into it.
Smith: Was the process of becoming more critical of organized religion, was that a slow one as well?
Myers: No, that was part of the scientific training. Again, those of you here who are scientists, who have gone through graduate school, you know that one of the things you do all the time is rip into everything. I think this is mainly what graduate school teaches you is to be hyper critical of every single great paper that comes out.
It's not limited just to the sciences. I think graduate school, in general, is about finding what's missing.
Myers: Let's dissect this and see what's going on here. Yeah, there was a gradual acquisition of an attitude towards ideas where the best thing to do is be critical, to ask, "What's wrong with this?" This was after I realized I was an atheist, but I started thinking, well, what about this religion stuff? Especially since people kept bringing up this creationism garbage, I applied those same skills to religion. And religion does not hold up for a fraction of a section when you apply any critical thinking to it at all.
Smith: Well, how does it hold up, because it's been holding up for a long time?
Myers: You don't apply critical thinking to it. [laughs]
Smith: Right. Some people call that faith, some people call that belief, some people call that...et cetera.
Myers: Yes. Faith is simply the suspension of any critical faculties at all. It's accepting it without consideration for reality. Yeah, also of course the other things that make it survive so well is social aspects, church basement coffee. All that kind of stuff is really great. When you're a kid going to Sunday school and they offer cookies and juice, oh, OK, I'll go for that.
Smith: Well, they offer more than that. Frankly, they offer fellowship and community. I mean, it's not...
Myers: Well, good friends, yes. But you don't need church to do that. Church seems to try and set up a monopoly on this. That's one of the things I oppose about it. For instance, in my small town of Morris there are something like 14 churches. Yes, you could say that this is where people come together and they form community. And I think that's great and that's an important function of any small town is you've got to do that. But why do it in the context of a church?
Why aren't we doing this with science discussion groups, for my particular bias? Or why aren't we doing this to talk about art and poetry? Why are we obsessing over this one, really actually erratically written old book?
Smith: You're speaking of the Bible in this case?
Smith: In Morris.
Myers: Yes. There are other things you can read, besides the Bible. The Bible's really only got a couple of parts of it that are really good. The rest of it is crap, seriously.
Smith: Now, you have been described as belonging to a movement that some people call "new atheism." Is there such a thing and do you like the term?
Myers: No. I'm buddies with a lot of the big shot new atheists, people like Richard Dawkins and Dan Dennett.
Smith: They do have some sort of soccer team out there or community group with a jersey and a logo.
Myers: What we have is a whole bunch of people who voice their opinions and are looked to as representative of the new atheist movement. And none of them like the term, because we're not new. There's nothing we're saying that Betrand Russell didn't say. This is all the same old stuff. The only difference is that somehow, in the last 10 years or so, more people have woken up and they're speaking out loudly. They're not holding back. I think that's really the only difference is we've got the primal scream therapy of atheism.
New atheists are the people who shout and yell a lot about this stuff and say, "Wake up, wake up, think about this stuff." But it's the same old stuff that atheists have been talking about for years and years.
Smith: You're listening to "Bright Ideas" from Minnesota Public Radio News today. You're listening to "Bright Ideas" from Minnesota Public Radio News. And our guest today is one of the most widely read bloggers in Minnesota. PZ Myers is a professor at the University of Minnesota Morris. He's a biologist, an atheist, and an unrelenting critic of creationists and the intelligent design movement. PZ Myers writes the blog Pharyngula, where he also attacks bad science and political conservatives, but admires squids and octopuses, which we'll get to in a minute.
You say you have an audience of about three million visits to your blog each month. Who is your audience? Who is listening to you and to whom are you writing?
Myers: Well, I'm writing to myself. That's the easy one to say. I think that's another important characteristic of blogs, that when you write them, you don't try to tailor it to your audience. You're just expressing yourself. And who the people are who are reading this, they're all over the place. I go to various places around the country and also around the world and meet them. They're all different. There's no way to characterize them. There are probably some people in this room who read it, and they're not all the same.
I would say, in general, though, they tend to be politically liberal, fairly tolerant. They tend to be, unfortunately, mostly white. That's one drawback to the atheist movement right now is that we've got a limited diversity there.
But otherwise, large numbers of men and women, both, and a great range of ages. I talk to five year olds who have been introduced to it on the blog, on the web, and I've also talked to 80 year olds.
Smith: What about the people who don't agree with you? How many do you suppose are out there reading you regularly?
Myers: Oh, lots, yeah. It's an interesting phenomenon, though. The way I run the blog is extremely open. I try not to censor at all and so people can say anything they want. Which you might think, well then, you're going to be invaded by trolls who will say horrible things and screw up the discussions. And that does happen. But what's happened is that there are so many people commenting, that they get shredded as soon as they speak up. It's actually been a little bit of a problem.
If you read the blog five years ago, you would have found lots of creationists, for instance, showing up and having discussions, getting ripped apart. Now, after years of this, they've been learning their lesson and not very many of them will jump into the piranha tank anymore. But some do occasionally, and then we have fun.
Smith: We've talked about the blog before, and now, the metaphors tend to get fairly aggressive. Sometimes they have a military cast to them, when you describe the blog and the army of followers.
Myers: Yeah. [laughs]
Smith: In this case, not necessarily natural selection, but certainly a predator and prey quality to it. Is it? When you approach it on a daily basis, are you going in there swinging and fighting?
Myers: Yes, definitely. This is part of the cultural wars. Often what will happen is, the typical way I do this is I get up in the morning and I go to my computer. The first thing I do is I look at my email inbox, which typically has a few hundred things from various people around the world who are telling me, "You've got to write about this." I go through them and pick a few. What happens is, the adrenaline stars flowing when you read about some of these outrages. For instance, the recent stuff with the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland, which was published in the "New York Times." So people send me that sort of thing. I read that and of course I get outraged. That drives me to write something really quickly about that and get that out there.
Then of course everybody else gets outraged and we feed on each other's anger. It's a great deal of fun. So yeah, the adversarial part of this is important.
Smith: You use a lot of blunt and disparaging words to describe people that you don't agree with or people who you think are idiots, trolls, nitwits, et cetera. I wonder if you're ever concerned about your role in promoting a less tolerant conversation.
Myers: Well, there's a subtle difference here that what I try to do is promote a conversation that is tolerant. I mean, we do. Think literally about the meaning of the word. We tolerate them, but we do not do is give them a false respect. What this is all about is eroding this unwarranted respect that's given to religion and foolishness like creationism in this country. We back off so much from this and we refuse to confront it. We cover it over with manners and nice words. We shouldn't be doing that. We should be openly dismissing a lot of these bad ideas and doing it loudly and proudly. That's what we do.
But of course the tolerance part is that there's no question that nobody is going to deport creationists. Nobody is going to shut down the churches. Nobody is going to do anything like that. What we want to do is put things in a proper perspective.
Things like religion and creationism do not belong in government. They do not belong in the public schools. If you want to believe that in the privacy of your home, if you want to get together in church and talk to people about this, yes, that's perfectly reasonable. That's the tolerance we'll give them.
But if you're telling me that the earth is 6,000 years old, I'm going to call you an idiot.
Smith: Where did you get this combativeness? Because on a personal level, as you said, you've been described as a teddy bear. You don't seem like a guy who walks around with a flamethrower ready to burst off, at least in conversation with other people.
Myers: Oh, no, I can do this in conversations, too. It depends on what we're discussing. Where does the combativeness come from? Well, the combativeness largely comes from the fact that I got into this kind of argument because of creationism. In this country, we have this rather ridiculous strain of niblical literalisms. Roughly 40% of the people believe that the earth is only 6,000 years old, that there was a big ark 4,000 years ago that was used to rescues a sampling of animals from a giant flood. All of this stuff that has been thoroughly debunked, thoroughly disproven, none of this is true.
It's totally false. It's not even something that fits into the leeway that we would give. It's not within the standard deviation margin of error. Yet, people just blithely accept it.
Smith: And what's the danger?
Myers: What's the danger is that we get idiots in political office, that we get schools that do not teach science. Also, that it's self perpetuating. I recall at the last presidential election, probably everybody remembers this, the Republican debates. There was a whole string of Republicans up there and they asked them if they believe in evolution. And what happens? Half of them say, "No."
At that point, this is a level of absurdity that it's just shocking. At this point, what everyone ought to say is, "OK, well, you people who raised your hand and said you don't believe in evolution, you're not qualified for the presidency. You're not qualified for any kind of political office at all. I think you ought to go dig ditches somewhere, because you're not very intelligent." And we don't do that.
We just sit back and say, "Oh, how surprising, how interesting." Then the pundits go on and say, "Well, let's look at their policies."
Smith: Are there people of deep faith that you admire?
Myers: Oh, yeah.
Smith: I mean, for example, President Barack Obama is said to be a person of substantial religious belief.
Myers: I have my problems with Barack Obama. [laughs] No, there are people that I thoroughly respect. For instance, the Reverend Barry Lynn of Americans United. The Reverend Barry Lynn, he's a Christian, but he's wonderful. I think he's a great guy. He's standing by his principles and that's what I can really respect.
Smith: Why is he not an idiot? Why, I mean, if he's following his beliefs?
Myers: Oh, because he puts it in the appropriate place. See, the problem isn't believing in a god. Lots of people do that. It's like lots of people play World of Warcraft. OK, they believe in a fantasy world, but they know it's a fantasy world. They know that this is a personal belief. It's something they enjoy doing.
Similarly, people, you can be a minister, you can believe fervently. But as long as you realize that this is a deeply held, personal belief I have, and I'm not going to try to impose this on public policy. I'm not going to tell this person over here that they're going to hell because they don't share my beliefs. I have no problem with that.
That's the way it should be, that's the way everybody should be. I mean, I'm sure that I have some irrational beliefs of my own. I have no idea what they are.
Myers: But, again, it's not holding irrational beliefs that makes you an idiot. It's holding the irrational beliefs and demanding that those be imposed on everyone else.
Smith: You've said that science and science education have less authority in our culture now than they may have enjoyed in the past. Why do you think that is? And I assume, secondly, that part of what makes you so combative is that problem that you're identifying.
Myers: Yes, while science is the answer. I'm sorry; you may be a very devout religious person, but praying is not going to solve the world's problems. It never has. If it did, the world's problems would have been solved in the Dark Ages and those would have been the Light Ages instead, but no, they're not. What we are doing now is we're living in an enlightenment, which is fuelled by rational thinking and science. So we need more of that. That's what will get us out of problems like emerging diseases, global warming and whatever else that's there. There are so many problems that can crop up in a highly technological civilization like ours. We need that. Science is the answer.
So I oppose anything that tends to erode that and try to replace it with superstition. Superstition doesn't work. It may make you feel good.
Like I said, if you want it to be a personal belief and you want to hold this, if you want to pray that Congress solves the budget deficit, yes, go ahead. It won't make a difference, but what you need to do is you pray and then you look at the candidates and you say, "OK, I'll vote for this guy because he's offering a rational solution," not because that person is of the same faith as you.
Smith: Would you like to use the blog and the growing influence that you have and, in fact, this space in this radio studio right now to evangelize for the joyful and uplifting things in science?
Smith: Because there is so much battle going on in your conversation and in your blogging.
Myers: Yes, of course. No, I do write about science, and the power of science and the wonderful things that we discover. One thing that I've often written about is the fact that these creationist beliefs and these religious beliefs really devalue the human experience. If you look at what science says about evolution, for a specific example, who's heard of the Laetoli footprints? They're really cool. They're 3.5 million years old. What it is, is a set of footprints preserved in this volcanic ash.
There was this huge volcanic eruption, covering everything with ash and dust everywhere. When you look, what you find is that there are these three people walking along, one smaller than the others, one walking in the footprints of the other. You can just imagine that 3.5 million years ago, here was a family or a small group of people walking across this blast landscape.
That ought to touch you right here. This is 3.5 million years of human history, which is totally written off by the creationist movement. That didn't happen. The earth is only 6,000, 10,000 years old, somewhere around there, so all of this stuff is thrown away.
Similarly, these fossils that we find, they're just these old, dead things, right? That's all they are, is dead things. But you can read so much more into them.
For instance, another famous fossil is Turkana Boy, which is a 1.5 million year old specimen of Homo erectus. It's beautiful. It's this young boy. He was probably 10, 11 years old, perfectly preserved. We've got most of the bones present there. It's a spectacular specimen.
But when you think about it, this is an 11 year old boy who was growing up healthy and strong, and was wiped out and was killed. You've just got to wonder, well, what about the family? What did this mean to people then?
This is somebody. He would have looked fully human from the neck down. He would have a small cranial capacity, about 900 cc. It's clearly different from us. We would recognize this as somebody different and not of our same species.
But at the same time, there's this depth of feeling that you know he had to be experiencing that his family, his tribe, his group was also feeling that this was a big tragedy. And it's completely gone. It's completely lost to us. Again, you look at religion, you look at creationism, it writes it off as irrelevant. We know he wasn't a Christian; obviously, it couldn't have mattered.
You can go even deeper than that. A lot of what people think about evolutionary biology, they think of fossils and they think that these are these old, dried bones. But most evolutionary biologists now are more focused on the beauty of the molecular biology.
Molecular biology is what tells us all this cool stuff about the history of life on earth. For instance, I work on fish in my lab. One of the cool things is to look into the eye of a fish. A fish eye is very much like our eye. The same components are there, the same molecules are involved.
Our eyes evolved roughly 450 million years ago. We're just a minor tweak, a minor variation on the structure of this beautiful thing. So when you can hold up a fish and you can look it in the eye, you can feel it; this is my brother, right there. My ugly, little brother, but, yes, there is this affinity that we have. That's best expressed by understanding the science that links us all.
Smith: What is it about the cephalopods that attracts you?
Myers: Oh, the cephalopods, yes.
Smith: The squids and the octopuses and these guys show up in your blog.
Smith: In fact, you'll often post artwork of them or photographs.
Myers: Right, yeah. This started years ago. I was a graduate student working on this weird little animal, the zebrafish. Zebrafish, they're vertebrates, they're model systems, they're great to work with, they're really easy to raise in the lab. I realized, even at that time, that I could get stuck here. I could end up just doing nothing but fish, which wouldn't be so bad. But when you look at the diversity of life on this planet, we chordates, we're just one group. Like I said, I look at a fish and a fish is just like us in a lot of ways. The molecules, the structure, the body plan, that's...
Smith: The fins, yeah, all that stuff.
Myers: Well, yeah, I'm thinking more notochord, myotomes, post anal tail, all those little details that we have these deep affinities. So I said, "Well, there's got to be something that's really weird, that's completely different from a chordate."
Smith: A chordate is what, for the non scientist?
Myers: Oh, chordates are this broad group of this phylum that we're in. It includes fish. It includes mammals. It includes reptiles. It includes amphibians. All of these things are chordates, so that big group. I went looking outside that group that is so familiar to us, for other more interesting organisms, and found them in the mollusks. Mollusks are really weird and interesting. They are completely different.
If you think about it, you look at a fish and you think that this is a natural way for an aquatic creature to be, right? It's torpedo shaped. It's a fish and it will go through the water quickly. It's got its eyes in the front and it's got its mouth in the front. It is all geared towards swimming forward and consuming prey. And it does this very efficiently.
You might think that this is the only natural way for an aquatic creature to be, but then you look at a squid and it's completely different. It's all flipped around. That front end that you see with all those tentacles, that's the foot of the fish, or of the mollusk. That's the bottom of the animal, and that stuff dangling back here is all of the guts.
They have completely rearranged everything. What they do is they assume a streamline form just by bringing their tentacles together. They get the same fusiform shape that you see in fish, but they're better because they've got tentacles. Right?
Myers: So what we see is a radical reorganization of a very different body plan. They do very exciting things with them, but they're just as effective, just as efficient as a fish. It's an object lesson to me. Don't assume that what you see is the best way things can be, that there's always differences. Sometimes those differences can be spectacularly useful.
Smith: This is "Bright Ideas" for Minnesota Public Radio News. Fresh thoughts on big issues. I'm Stephen Smith and my guest this time is U of M biology professor and science blogger PZ Myers. He is the author of the popular blog Pharyngula. We're talking science, atheism, the pleasures and perils of blogging, and much more. We'll continue with the conversation with PZ Myer, in just a moment after this break for the news.
That's called the break for the news.
Smith: The part I'm going to do now is controversially called the re join. Welcome back to "Bright Ideas." Fresh thoughts on big issues, I'm Stephen Smith, and each month, I invite a guest down to the UBS Forum at Minnesota.
Do we use UBS anymore or just the forum? Sorry, that's a vestigial. That's vestigial naming rights.
Welcome back to "Bright Ideas." Fresh thoughts on big issues, I'm Stephen Smith and each month I invite a guest down to the forum at Minnesota Public Radio News headquarters for a conversation about key issues before a live audience. My guest this time is PZ Myers, professor of biology at the University of Minnesota Morris and author of the popular science blog Pharyngula.
When you are talking to a creationist face to face, how is that conversation different than the conversation or the things that you say on the blog?
Myers: Oh, man, that varies, because these are individuals you're dealing with now. You're not just talking to a generic mass out there. And it depends on their attitudes. Sometimes the creationists will come up to me in a very confrontational way. They'll open with an incredibly stupid question like, "If evolution is true, why are there still monkeys?" Then you just want to kick them, OK.
Smith: Which is not recommended.
Myers: Not recommended and I usually restrain myself. It's what I have to do. But sometimes they'll come up to you and they want to start an honest conversation. I've had creationists come up to me and their opener is an honest one. They say, "OK, you're a college professor. I want my kids to go to college because it's good for them, they should learn more. But I'm afraid to send them to you because they'll lose their faith." Then you've got something you can talk about sincerely, as person to person. They haven't said something stupid. I can appreciate that.
Yeah, if I thought my kids would go to hell if they listened to me, I would shut up or at least insulate the children. Then we can actually discuss, "Well, what annoys you about this? Why are you so concerned that your children lose their faith?" We can actually have a sincere discussion.
That's what you have to do first, though. You have to put it on a level where we can respect each other's opinions. Things like, "What do you think of your family?" That's something we can all respect in each other.
Smith: Your family, you've been married for some three decades at least and you've got three adult children, if I remember correctly.
Myers: Yeah, finally got rid of them. [audience laughter]
Smith: How did you raise them? Was there any religious conversation in their upbringing whatsoever? Did they ever challenge you? And say, "I actually think there might be a God."
Myers: Oh, no, they never did. Never.
Smith: Really, sincerely?
Myers: Sincerely. This was never an issue. Because I know this is very strange for people to think, but once you're a sincere atheist, once you think of the world in purely naturally terms, it's almost impossible to imagine going to this theistic belief. It seems so crazy and so ludicrous. So my kids are not the fervent, militant, evangelical atheists. They are the kind of people who just take it for granted. This makes sense, what I think, and I'm not going to adopt some superstitious belief.
Smith: They're an armchair atheist, really.
Myers: Well, not even that. It's one of those things where religion is simply not part of their lives. Traditions are, and family relationships are and good things like that, but this whole god belief stuff, no, it isn't. Also, when they were growing up, my wife and I were not the kind of people who would say, "Well, you can never go to church. They're all stupid." No, if their friends asked them out to church or Sunday school, we'd say, "Yeah, go, find out about this stuff. Learn about it."
The kids would go off and they'd come back with their eyes like saucers and say, "You wouldn't believe what they think over there." It was enlightening for all of us.
Smith: Your blogging has earned obviously a large following for you, but it's also earned you a lot of enemies and personal threats, as I understand it. On the front page of your blog, you say, "Any threats of violence, I'll post here with your identifying information." How often does that happen?
Myers: Well, I say that I'll post any of them, but they're so boring, they're so repetitive. About once a week, I get somebody threatening to chop my head off, or stab me or shoot me. And unless they're creative about it, I don't mention it. Yeah, I probably get a death threat maybe once a week. On a daily basis, I just get general verbal abuse, but I dish that out myself, so I can't complain.
Smith: Right, I was going to say.
Smith: Do certain kind of posts provoke more violent responses, and what are they?
Myers: Oh, well, anything where I there's lots of stuff I write where I'm just being very general. I'm criticizing faith or I'm criticizing God belief, in general. That gets people riled up, but it's not so much. It's when I say something specific about a specific religion that people can identify with. I have got a huge collection of Catholic hate mail, for instance. I really don't have anything against Catholics, in particular. I don't believe their religion. I think that their faith often leads them to do terrible, terrible things.
Smith: But I think at once point you satirized the Eucharist.
Myers: Why, yes, I once desecrated a communion wafer. Boy, that blew up. [laughs] Yeah, I also say the same thing about Mormons, Muslims and whatever. All of these different cultural beliefs have consequences and I criticize those unpleasant consequences. And that's what gets people riled up. Many people self identify very strongly with their personal religion.
Smith: Well, that's been observed for a long time.
Myers: Yes, and it's very unfortunate. We've got to break people of this.
Smith: What do you say to scientists, good scientists, who believe in God? Can you believe in God?
Myers: Yes, you can. This has come up frequently on the blog, because there are a number of very prominent scientists, like Francis Collins, for instance, who is a very fervent believer. He's a good, evangelical Protestant. He's also a very good scientist. The only way they can do this is, they have to keep their religion out of the laboratory. It just doesn't work if you try and combine them. It's like I said earlier. If somebody wants to go off and believe in God on their own time, go to church and get together with people and sing "Kumbaya," OK, no problem. But if they come into the laboratory and they start thinking they should start praying over the test tubes, problem. That's a real problem.
Smith: How has writing this blog and the perhaps disproportionate fame for a biology teacher in Morris, Minnesota, how has this blog changed your life personally?
Myers: Oh, well, in some ways it hasn't changed it that much at all. I'm still the same person I was. Having a popular blog does not make you rich. It does not turn you into Lady Gaga, OK?
Smith: Well, you're certainly dressed like Lady Gaga, I have to say. [audience laughter]
Myers: Yeah, well, it's a joke. "Oh, you're a guy with a blog, right?" So in that sense, it doesn't change much at all. Except the one difference is that I do get invited out a lot more to go speak at various events. It's not just atheist events. It's also a lot of science events. I get invited to many scientific meetings. Either to talk about science education which is what I mainly do as a faculty member at the University of Minnesota Morris or to talk about some of these new developments in the field.
I can't claim to be a major, primary researcher in this, but I'm good at synthesizing ideas about science and bringing together, "Here's the direction we're going in." I also get brought in to talk about things like how can scientists take advantage of new media like blogging, like Twitter, like all these other social things?
Smith: Well, how can they? I'm interested in what you think that the future looks like, to the extent that one can peer into there and, in fact, how the process of science education and science discussion is being changed by new media.
Myers: Oh, it's slowly happening because there's a lot of resistance from the established media. Any of you who know science know that for many, many years what science has been is really the ivory tower. All of our literature gets locked up by these for profit companies that are sitting there and making mint off of scientific research. They put it behind pay walls so you can't get at it.
Smith: You're talking about the journals, etc.?
Myers: The journals, all the scientific literature. This is stuff that all of you paid for with your taxes. You paid for the scientific research establishment in this country. We do the work. We publish. And, nope, sorry, you don't get to see this unless you're willing to pay $1,200 a year to read "Nature" or something. One big change that's happening is that there's more and more push to open up the scientific literature. We're seeing more and more open access journals coming along.
The big one right now is the Public Library of Science, which has a couple of journals under its umbrella. All of the stuff there is free. All of you can read this. This means that you guys can get out there and read this current scientific literature and see what scientists are actually doing and learn directly from that primary literature.
As an educator, this is important to me, too, because when I'm teaching my upper level courses, this is what we do. You don't learn from textbooks anymore. What you do is, you go out and you get scientific literature, the current stuff. You sit there and you discuss it in class. You tell them, "Here's the way things are going. These are the new techniques. These are the new results."
So that's important, opening that up more. The other is that scientists have long been followed this very formal tradition of writing. It's a great tradition.
Smith: As long as you don't have to read it.
Myers: Well, no, if you do have to read it, it's great. Once you get used to the format, you can open up a scientific journal and you can look at the abstract. You can dart quickly through it and find all the different pieces. You can say, "OK, well, is this paper worth reading or not?" Read the abstract, read the conclusions. "Well, maybe I should read this whole thing." So it's great for efficiency that way, but for people who are not familiar with the format, it's daunting. There is no way you can dig into this.
Every year I get freshmen coming in, one of the things I do is I hand them a scientific paper. They look at this and they're, "What? I can't read this. This is gobbledygook." It's true; it is to them.
But what the new media, the Internet is doing is encouraging scientists to, in addition to the formal publications, is write up summary of work, something that your grandmother can understand, and get that out there. Right now, you can get on these blogs like scienceblog.com and Scientopia, and there's a couple of other networks out there. You can find these discussions of scientific research.
What's happened is, real scientists translate this arcane formula that it's all written in originally into plain English. It tells you, here's what it means. Here's the flaws in this paper. Here's the strengths. That's really useful. That's a powerful tool.
Smith: Now, when you work on your blog, you're saying that you're writing for yourself. But obviously, lots of people are posting there as well and I imagine you read some of that.
Smith: Have you ever changed your mind based on what your readers have said back to you? Have you ever realized? "I've really been wrong about that."
Myers: No. Of course there have been cases where this has happened. One example I can give just recently is you may have heard about this arsenic life form that somebody discovered, claimed to have found in California. An extremophile bacteria that incorporates arsenic instead of phosphorous into its DNA. I read this paper and I didn't believe it. But my initial comments were, "Well, OK, maybe it happens, but it's a marginal phenomenon. It's not a significant factor in the history of life." Then several biochemists come along and they read this from the point of view of biochemistry and they say, "It's total nonsense. This doesn't work. It cannot happen."
Yeah, there of course what happened is I said, "OK, well, not even a marginal case. I will go along with the informed people who understand the chemistry." So of course that happens, yeah.
Smith: But on anything fundamental? I mean, that seems important within your discipline.
Myers: Well, what do you mean by fundamental? Nobody has convinced me that God exists. That's not going to happen. Well, another a big scale issue is, 10 years ago, if you looked at what I was writing, I was saying that this new field, this EVO DEVO which I'm active in it's evolution and development. I was saying, "This is going to be a real revolution in biology. It's going to change everything."
Then five years ago, if you'd read it, you would have found I was saying, "Well, it's really cool stuff. It's very important, but it's more of an evolutionary transition." We're not talking revolution anymore. We're talking a gradual shift in our thinking.
Nowadays, when I look at the stuff, I'm saying something a little different. I'm saying, "You know what? EVO DEVO isn't going to change biology. What's happening here is that biology is changing EVO DEVO."
What's happened here is we're seeing a change towards more population thinking in development. Suddenly, we're looking at variation and diversity. Most of the changes, most of the revolution, if there is a revolution, is happening within the sub field, not in the greater biology.
So that's abstract, I know. But to a scientist, this is important stuff. This is a different way of thinking of the world. So I have gradually shifted away from my earlier views about it.
Smith: Good. You're listening to "Bright Ideas" on Minnesota Public Radio News. Guest today is the widely read science blogger PZ Myers, a professor of biology at the University of Minnesota Morris. Let's open it up now to some questions from the audience for PZ Myers. OK, we'll start down here. Tell us your name and where you're from, please.
Steve Peters: Sure. My name is Steve Peters and I live in Minneapolis. My question, where does ethics come from? We all aspire to our ideas of good. We prefer order and we prefer to treat others well because it works best for us. Where does that come from?
Myers: Well, I think it's fairly easy to say where ethics come from. Ethics come from the fact that we live in communities. We live in cultures. We live in societies where we have to interact with each other. Ethics is a property that has to emerge if you're going to get along with a large group of people like this. It's not imposed from above. It's something that will arise, because otherwise, if I said some outrageous things tonight, I noticed that nobody jumped up and leaped for my throat, right? This is the beginning of ethics, is recognizing this kind of restraint and recognizing that, yeah, you could jump up and leap for my throat but it would have unpleasant consequences for you.
Smith: They might be waiting for the refreshments afterward.
Myers: That's true. They could be waiting till a little later.
Smith: Bludgeon you with a bagel.
Myers: Yes, so it's really an emerging property of interacting beings, and that's where it comes from.
Smith: Over here?
Al: Yeah, hi, my name is Al, from St. Paul. I'm an atheist and a parent of two. I'm also a vegan and an animal rights activist, of the non violent educational kind, as are most every animal right activist I know. I'm wondering, most of the vegans I know are atheists, it seems like. I know that the inverse is not true: most atheists aren't vegan. But I wonder if you could speak to possibly where you see maybe the intersection between veganism and atheism being. Possibly, maybe it's that fish that you look into and see your brother. Possibly, I don't know.
Myers: Yes, but then I go ahead and eat him anyway. [audience laughter]
Myers: No. There is a link and the link is in rationality and thinking about the consequences of our lifestyle. If we're going to continue to survive on this planet, we're going to have to make adjustments to our lifestyle. This is tough to say, because in a perfect, ideal universe, I would say that atheists are extremely rational and they will make the most rational decision, which means they will eat less meat. They will gravitate towards veganism. And that's the link.
Of course in the real world, there are atheists who are idiots, too. So it's not so cut and dried that we can say that.
No, I actually know a fair number of atheists who, for those reasons of rationality and thinking ahead to the future, are going to that particular strategy. Myself, I'm not a vegan, but I have greatly cut back on meat consumption. For instance, I might have it maybe once a week. Otherwise, yeah, we're vegetarian at home.
Anoop Atri: Anoop Atri from [indecipherable 54:17] . When are you running for office? Considering that the right loves the founding fathers, so much they were a product of the Enlightenment. They were interested in science. And there aren't as many scientists in politics.
Smith: The first biology professor/atheist in the White House.
Myers: Yeah, I don't think it will happen. A couple of years ago, we were having a discussion. The local DFL got together and we were discussing the local school board elections. I said, "I think this is an important issue. I'm willing to volunteer." Everybody looked at me like I was absolutely insane, because they knew that people would read my blog. And they'd say, "Oh, wow, we're not electing him." So, no, I don't see it happening.
I also have to confess, I do not have a great skill for administration. I'm not that kind of person. I think I would be a really sucky politician. You don't want me. No, sorry.
Smith: You heard it here. That's the bumper sticker.
Myers: Yeah. A sucky politician. Yeah, don't vote for me. Smith: Go ahead. James: Hi, PZ. My name is James and I'm from Roseville. My question was, you talked about dating early on in the conversation. You were talking about how creationists are sure that the earth was created around 6,000 years ago. There's obviously so many evidences in science that can show that that's not true, but what is the argument that doesn't seem to win over that particular group? What is the science behind that that can't just, cut and dried, solve that question?
Myers: Which question?
James: The question of dating, in terms of the age of things. For instance, things like fossils, carbon dating is a particular method, for instance. What would the argument be against accepting that?
Myers: Well, there isn't one, actually. What it is, is that if you're a creationist, you come in with a preconception, which is that the earth can only be so many years old. Then what you'd start doing is fudging the data to fit and you start inventing excuses for it. There is no coherent, sensible explanation to allow us to claim that the earth is 6,000 years old. It just doesn't work at all. They advance various arguments like, well, maybe radioactive compounds decayed more rapidly than in the past, that there's been a change over time.
But of course, if you postulate that, well, first of all, physics fall apart. And most Christians aren't brave enough to attack physics yet. They think biology is easier, so they go for that. Physics falls apart. If it doesn't fall apart, what it implies it that, well, if you have a couple of grams of fissionable material, you'll have nuclear explosions going off all over the place and the planet would be blown to smithereens in the past.
So you can't fudge those numbers. You can't adjust them. So what they'll do is they'll just sort of ignore all the coherence of physics and pull out bits and pieces and say, "Well, we just say they'll decay more rapidly. That's why we get this funny number."
And then when you point out, "Well, then the world will explode in a giant nuclear fireball," they say, "Well, well, God prevents that. It's a miracle." You know, it's you can't win.
Smith: Is there anything that religion has produced over the millennia that you truly admire? Religion and faith have been such fundamental human properties, if you will, characteristics.
Myers: I disagree. I disagree. No, I don't think they have been.
Smith: Well, people have been doing it a long time.
Myers: I know people have been doing it a long time.
Smith: I don't know anybody else who was making them do it.
Myers: Oh, well, what I think religion has been really good is at concentrating wealth and concentrating power. That what we have are these institutions that built up, using propaganda and fear and evangelizing techniques, and have become powerful enough that they can do things like support art and science. So if you look at the Renaissance, who's paying for all that gorgeous artwork? Well, it's the church. But it's not because religion gave them some sort of greater sense of aesthetics. It was that religion gave them lots of money that they could throw around. So that would be the one thing I'd say they're good at. Religion makes for good bankers.
Smith: Over here.
Denise: Hi. I'm Denise from Eden Prairie. The major scientific topics that get the public's attention right now, things like global warming, intelligent design, don't always segregate cleanly between scientists and non scientists. And so sometimes you'll get into a forum where you'll find someone who is genuinely a scientist but they will advocate for intelligent design or they'll advocate against global warming. A lot of times you find out these people are in minor faculty positions and nonetheless they get a lot of traction, so they move the debate forward for the opposing side. So can you comment on that and how to deal with that?
Myers: Yeah. What happens there is, outliers get all the attention. I will confess I myself am an outlier among university faculty. Right? I'm the outspoken, noisy one, so I get a lot of attention just because I'm unusual that way. And it's the same for these people who advocate peculiar positions, like who are against global warming or think the earth is 6,000 years old or think intelligent design is true. Because they're weird, they get the attention. Now the thing is that those people will always be with us. There's no way you can get around it. Any time you get 1,000 people together, you'll find one or two of them are total cranks. It's just the human condition.
And this is true whether you are looking at a convention of car salesmen or you are looking at a convention of neuroscientists or whatever. So what's going to always happen is there's always going to be a few people who make noise out there on the fringe, and we just have to put it in the appropriate perspective and recognize this.
For example, with intelligent design, the National Center for Science Education had this great little idea. The intelligent design people were touting this list of dissenters from Darwin, people who disagreed with Darwin. They got all of these names. They got 600 or so names on this list of people who disagreed with evolution.
Most of them were dentists, interestingly enough. Most of them were, you know, the scientists were things like chemists and engineers and physicists. Very few biologists among them. If you actually look at the biologists, I think it's under 20. That's the kind of range we're talking about.
So the NCSE put together a little program. They said, "OK, well, we're just going to make a similar list of people who agree with evolution, only we're only going to have people named Steve sign it."
Myers: And, you know, it quickly outstripped the Discovery Institute's list?
Smith: Is that with a "v" or a "ph"? [laughter]
Myers: They were catholic about this. You could be a Steve or a Stephen. Yes, if you were a scientist, you could sign up for this.
Myers: Or you could be a Stephanie. They were trying not to be sexist about this. And yeah, there's a huge number that signed up. Because really, the point is, we're looking at cranks when we talk about scientists who support intelligent design. These are people way out there on the edge who do not have consensus in the community at all.
Smith: Have you ever been pressured or encouraged by the university to do anything differently with your blog than you're doing it?
Myers: Not at all. I really have to commend the University of Minnesota, which has got an excellent track record on academic freedom and has been very supportive. You mentioned the incident... [audience applause]
Myers: Oh. We have University of Minnesota fans. Good. OK. You mentioned this incident with the cracker. That was the closest I came to breaking them, because they were getting a deluge of mail into the University of Minnesota Morris Chancellor's Office. And all they did is they said to me, "OK, we'd rather you didn't we'd rather your university page didn't link to this." So that was fine. And they also said, though, "This is your right to do this. You have academic freedom. We're not going to say a word against it."
Smith: We'll take, I think, three more questions and then please remember to join us afterwards outside for refreshments. After those three questions I have to read the very, very famously named closing of the program. And I'm going to thank PZ Myers for being here, and you can and I'll wave at you and you can applaud if you feel like it. Please don't throw anything until afterwards. I'm going to read my thing. We'll be done. And then we need to get everybody out of the room because they have to reset the room for an event tomorrow morning. So please make haste. We'll chase him out there, we'll hang out, and we'll hobnob.
Debra: Yes. My name is Debra. I'm from Minneapolis. I'm wondering what you think the future of religion is, both in this country and around the world. It seems like there's this growing religious fervor whenever I read the news or see things, and so I'm wondering if you think it's something that will grow or kind of fizzle out.
Myers: I think we're in the middle of a serious backlash right now, that the fundamentalist religions are really in fear of the changes happening. This is a reaction against modernity. The world is changing, right? And one thing you know about fundamentalist religions is they don't like change, so they're getting very, very upset about this. But I think the path of history is going to go against them. That we're seeing the American public, for instance, shifting very rapidly on issues that were considered very important to the evangelical Christians, like gay marriage. You know, a majority now supports this. The more they rail against us, I think the more people are seeing them as an alienating force in society.
So I think they are going to fade away. Now, I did a movie once. You may have heard of this. "Expelled"? Yeah. I was suckered into doing an interview for this movie and this was actually what they asked me about. They asked me what I think will happen to religion. If you ever watch the movie I do not recommend it. It's a crummy movie.
Smith: It's a movie or a documentary?
Smith: Or a docu...
Myers: Oh... Smith: It's a movie. OK.
Myers: Well, it's something. I don't know what you'd call it. A piece of crap is what I'd... [audience laughter]
Smith: Starring you.
Myers: I was one of the stars.
Smith: Oh, OK.
Myers: Yes. Yes, there were many of us. Anyway, they asked me the same question and my answer there was, I think, as science progresses that we're going to slowly move away from this kind of religion. That I think what will happen is it won't go away ever, because people do find consolation in tradition and ritual and they find happiness in the traditions of the forebears. And so, yeah, it'll stick around, but it will acquire a more proper place in our lives. And the comparison I made in that movie is I said that religion will become like knitting, that it will be something that people will do and nobody will be condemned for it. It will be regarded as a pleasant hobby and a good thing for some people to do.
It keeps them occupied and it's intellectually interesting, all that kind of good stuff. Apparently when the movie was shown, people just gasped in horror at my comparison.
Smith: The knitting community was aghast, no doubt. [audience laughter]
Myers: That's what I found afterwards...
Smith: Those people carry those needles.
Myers: Those people got very upset with me afterwards. I got so much email from knitters complaining about... [audience laughter]
Smith: You don't want to mess with them.
Myers: Yeah, yeah.
Smith: A lot of them listen to public radio, too.
Myers: Oh, yeah. So I never make that comparison any more.
Smith: Let's go here and then there and then we'll wrap it up.
Andrew: Hi. I'm Andrew from Minneapolis. I teach both biology and chemistry at the high school level, and one of the convenient features that they have in common that I think makes them easier to explain to people is that both of them have a very powerful unifying idea that pretty much is the key to the entire discipline. For biology, of course, that's evolution. For chemistry, that's the periodic table of the elements. And in chemistry, that's handed out on the very first day. It comes out every single day. The kids, they get it. They get that you can't do chemistry without it, that it solves all of the problems, you'd be lost without it, it's on every exam. As biologists, of course, we understand that evolution works the same way, and that's brought out every single class.
It's woven into the explanation for everything. But there aren't any chemistry teachers, to the best of my knowledge, teaching chemistry without the periodic table. But some of the studies out there point to what, like 50% of biology teachers in high schools teaching either just avoiding evolution altogether or teaching creationism outright?
Andrew: How as an individual can an educator do that, I guess?
Myers: OK. Well, two things. The first thing is: what are we going to do about this? Well, what we need is more public pressure. If your high school teacher you know, the person teaching your children is not teaching them evolution, they are not doing a good job of teaching them biology, right? And the thing is, we've got to be aware of what our kids are being exposed to and we've got to go in and we've got to talk to people. There's a kind of asymmetry here, that if a teacher does teach evolution in the class, there will be parents who come in screaming bloody murder and protesting and saying, "Stop this. You can't poison my child's mind with this godless stuff."
But when teachers do that, how many of us go in and say, "Oh, good job"? Go to the principal and say, "Give this teacher a raise"? You know, that's the kind of stuff we want to see. So we've got to be more active in that way. The other thing is you mentioned the periodic table.
I've got to warn you. Last year I was in a debate with Jerry Bergman, who's a creationist who came up to the Twin Cities to debate me. And this was his main point, is that he claimed that we evolutionists were lobbying to get the periodic table of the elements removed from classrooms because the periodic table proves irreducible complexity. I know, weird.
Myers: But I'm just saying: brace yourself. There is nothing that is so crazy that a creationist won't propose it somewhere. And you're next.
Smith: Is a periodic table like an occasional table? Never mind. [audience laughter]
Kevin: Hi, PZ. My name's Kevin from Plymouth, and I share a lot of your same beliefs, but my question is actually a little more related to your study of evolution and the evolution of the Internet, and how you... I sort of had recently, or I was under the impression recently, that people are gravitating and maybe even in your description toward ideas and people who share their similar beliefs online. Like, you said you've have fewer and fewer people jumping into the shark tank with you.
Kevin: Do you see any parallels between the evolution of the Internet and your study of evolutionary biology?
Myers: Oh, wow. What a stretch. [laughter] That's a tough one to make. There's a guy named Stuart Kauffman who's been doing some really interesting work at the Santa Fe Institute, and he does make some comparisons between linkages between genes. Because when you actually start looking at molecular biology and how organisms develop, what you're actually looking at is networks of genes interacting with each other, and there are certain intrinsic properties of these networks that are important. And you can relate those to what we see in the Internet, which is it's a network of connections, right?
But otherwise, no. It's a tough one to make. The answer would be is, you know, if we wait a few more years, will an artificial intelligence emerge out of the Internet? Then you would say, "Oh yeah, well there's a great example of an emergent property evolving in a complex system."
It might be decades, might be centuries. It might never happen. Who knows? But that hasn't happened yet. The network, compared to what's going in inside of a cell, is extremely primitive. We've got a long ways to go before we can start making those kinds of analogies.
Smith: Artificial intelligence, do you think there's even a preponderance of intelligence on the Internet at the moment?
Smith: I wonder.
Myers: Hey, I'm doing my part. [laughs]
Smith: PZ Myers, thanks very much for coming in.
Myers: My pleasure. [audience applause]
Smith: You've been listening to "Bright Ideas," a program from Minnesota Public Radio News that presents fresh thinking on big issues.
Transcription by CastingWords