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Thursday, 20 October 2005
Kevin PadianWhen I was at Cal, I had to take a damn physical sciences course, so as a freshman, I took Integrative Biology 33, a famed Dinosaurs 101* sort of class usually taught by one Kevin Padian, who turned out to be one of the top five professors I ever had. Padian is Mr. Paleontology at Berkeley, and his classes are absolutely electric. The dude has the kind of passion for his work that is contagious. When you hear him talk about how birds developed from raptorish dinos, you get excited, not just because he pumps the story full of wonder and energy, but because the man knows his stuff like no one else, and he manages to work every last shred of evidence for his case into the folksy talk he’s giving you.

But wait, he gets better. Here’s how big a cross-discipline thinker Padian is: He taught a seminar in the English department, which I had the honor and pleasure of taking. The subject of the course was something like “Darwin’s ideas in literature” — it was basically a survey of how Darwin’s world-shaking theory of natural selection (not “evolution” — remember, that word appears nowhere in The Origin of Species) got into people’s brains and stuck there and started dripping out into art and culture. We read Tess of the D’Urbervilles and The French Lieutenant’s Woman with an eye toward Darwinian ideas emerging in plot and character motivation. It was fantastic stuff.

Padian also had us read some William Paley. Paley was an eighteenth century Christian ideologue who fancied himself a naturalist. He put forth the “watchmaker” argument of creation: If, having never seen a pocketwatch before, you came across one in nature, you would have to assume, based on the intricate workings inside, that the watch was a product of design — that there must be a watchmaker. Similarly, looking at the intricate workings of nature itself, we must admit that there appear to be some grand plans in place, that there is a design behind it all, that there must be a creator. Paley’s arguments are not only old, but largely pedestrian, easily smashed to pieces with reason, and yet these same tired ideas have now been relabeled Intelligent Design and are being pushed as science by the first powerful know-nothings of the twenty-first century.

So — and yes, I’ve buried the lead — it is with great amusement that I hold up this entertaining news report of Kevin Padian’s testimony in the Intelligent Design / Neo-Scopes trial happening right now in Pennsylvania. The reporter can’t restrain himself from pinning a stereotypical-Berkeley description on my old prof — “Padian … with his mop of gray hair, looks like a retired member of Jefferson Airplane” — but I have to admit, the description is apt. The hair in question is, in fact, a mop, a right crazy curly one. Padian was also the sort of laid-back academic who brought an equally laid-back black labrador named Riley to class more often than not.

Things are so insane and out of whack in this country right now that there is really no predicting how this trial will end, but I feel good having inquisitive, answer-seeking geniuses like Kevin Padian on our side. On the other side, there are only those who feel they already have all the answers to the questions worth asking, and a disdain for those who dream up new questions. This disdain is built into their philosophy, you have to understand, for it’s conservatives who work (against nature itself, in my opinion) to keep things from changing. But shit, people who dream up new questions — especially questions about how the universe works — and then go out and do hard work and answer those questions, well, those people, they make change happen, don’t they? So if you’re a conservative, ya just gotta try to keep these people down, don’t ya?

There’s a question in the back — can you speak up? Huh? You want to know whether I think there’s a creator? Let me tell you, bub: As a student of Zen, I know there is intelligence behind creation. But I also know that I cannot prove it to anyone in a scientific way, ever — it’s more a peculiar sort of first-hand knowledge. One of the enriching states that can arise within the Zen meditative practice is an intimate awareness of the interconnectedness — the Buddha used a word closer to inter-isness — of all things. When you have experienced that first-hand, touched it, certain things just become obvious. So yes, I think there is intelligence behind creation, but I also know that that in no way means there must be a specific who (or even a what) behind the scenes. I don’t know about that; the spiritual teachings I hold dear are silent on that intractable topic; I find that part of the argument unimportant anyway. That’s why it’s just so hard to witness the war today’s evangelicals are fighting against hapless teachers and scientists like my hero, Kevin Padian.

[*The course numbers at Berkeley work differently from those at most American universities. What most schools call a 101 class is usually a 1 class at Cal, as three-digit class numbers are reserved for upper division courses. But some departments, like Integrative Biology, are so enormous that they offer all kinds of 101-type classes, so you end up with courses like Integrative Biology 33, which I enjoyed so intensely and will never forget.]
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