Biologist to present evolutionary argument

ASHLAND — Genes organize and mutate by random chance, not by divine guidance, says noted biologist, atheist and popular science blogger P.Z. Myers, who will give a talk tonight at Southern Oregon University.

A biologist and associate professor at the University of Minnesota at Morris, Myers says that from a scientific point of view, God didn't create life, doesn't work in tandem with evolution and doesn't exist.

"We don't need him," Myers said in a phone interview. "I don't at all believe in him — and when we die, we're dead, end of story."

Myers' presentation, "Darwin and Design," will begin at 7 tonight in the Meese Room of the Hannon Library, 1250 Siskiyou Blvd. Admission is $10 general, free for students. It is sponsored by The Jefferson Center of Ashland. Myers will use Darwin for a point-by-point refutation of religious arguments against evolution, most of which, he said, "are warmed-over stuff" from 200 years ago.

Myers, who said he gets 2.5 million hits a month on his blog "Pharyngula" on, said of supporters of creationism and intelligent design, "They're wishing and hoping there's a designer out there. Their cardinal sin is ignorance."

He added, "They're very ignorant people, like the people who believed the Earth was the center of the universe. They will disappear. It may take a century. We will all be laughing about it."

Reactions by professors in SOU's biology department to Myers' appearance are mixed.

Professor Roger Christianson said there are alternative explanations of how diversity happened, and "people who believe in intelligent design feel the complexity of life is too great to come about by naturalistic forces."

Christianson, an evangelical Christian, said he has brought up intelligent design and creation science in class to show the swing of the pendulum between the two schools of thought, and "I suggest the truth is somewhere in the middle."

"I talk mostly about adaptation that can be seen from either point of view," he said. "... I see the world as an evolving pot, with natural selection as the driving force, but I certainly don't rule out that an intelligence or a creator is involved."

Christianson noted that he has never been called to account by superiors or spoken to about his beliefs or academic presentation of the issue.

Department Chairwoman Karen Stone said creationism and intelligent design are sometimes brought up in class, where appropriate, as a "critical thinking response."

There can be "solid reasons for studying and discussing it, but it doesn't belong in a science class on equal footing with evolution because it's not science-based," she said.

Stone said teachers have academic freedom and their careers would not be jeopardized for bringing up intelligent design, as long as it was not put on equal footing with evolution.

"Many students' minds are already made up and they don't appreciate anyone questioning those beliefs," Stone said. "My perspective is how to approach the idea with critical thinking and to provide students with tools, instead of telling them how to think.

"It's a long-term process to push toward independent thinking."

As evidence of seemingly divinely inspired complexity, Christianson pointed to the woodpecker who came equipped with skull padding so that its incessant pecking would not cause brain swelling and death.

"How can you arrive there from natural selection? You would have had to have the padded brain in place already," he said.

Myers said cells engage in "bricolage," which means endless tinkering that may have no evolutionary advantage, but supplies the mutations needed for adaptation and selection.

"When you analyze it, you don't see the evidence of design," Myers said. "It's purposeless. Many changes have no functionality, but they're mostly OK for survival."

Biology professor Christine Oswald said students often bring up the creationism controversy, but haven't yet been exposed to the evidence, logic and theory of evolution.

"Religion is human-centric and says we're made in God's image. There are two ways to look at it. The other way is that we're one of many species," said Oswald.

"Religious beliefs help find the best way to behave in the world and help us find peace," Oswald added. "Science is not about that. It tries to find answers. . . . Intelligent design and creationism try to use scientific information to give legitimacy to their claims, but why would you use evidence-based information to justify something that's not evidence-based? They're in two different realms completely."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at

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