Pharyngula

The “I.D.” Code

The following missive was slipped over my transom in the dead of night. It reveals a dark secret, a clandestine society that has been working for years to hide their origins and true purpose. It begins with a murder and wends its way through a series of codes that are, as it turns out, reducible and simple, to reach a shocking conclusion.

I know who the author is, but I’m not telling. I will say that it is not Dan Brown (fortunately!).


The “I.D.” Code:

An Evolutionary Fantasy

I.

The sounds came in the middle of the night. At first I thought it was a drunken hotel
guest stumbling in the hallway, careening from wall to wall, maybe colliding with a
potted palm. As the noise continued, getting firmer and more distinct, I realized that
someone was knocking on my hotel room door. At 2:00 in the morning.

“Just a minute.” Half awake, I wished I could put more consternation in my voice. I
fumbled in the dark, trying to find a light switch. And some pants. More knocks.

“OK. OK. I’m up. Who is it?

“Chicago police.”

That woke me up. I focused, found some pants, hit the light, got half-way dressed as
quickly as I could, looked through the peephole, and opened the door. Two authentic
Chicago policemen greeted me. One was enormous, built like a Bears’ offensive lineman.
The other one looked like Danny DeVito.

“Dr. Wardin? Charles Wardin?”, the larger one asked.

“Yes”.

“You’re an evolutionary biologist, or something like that, right?”

I was unable to respond. I am in fact an evolutionary biologist, but I could not fathom
why two policemen would need to verify that fact in the middle of the night. Their
trilobite is sick? The puzzlement must have been apparent on my face.

“Biology, right?” DeVito asked.

“Yes. Biology. Evolutionary biology. Why..?.” I was interrupted.

“OK, would you come with us please?

“Why? Where are we going?”

“There’s been an emergency, not your family or anything, but we need you to come with
us.”

“Where?”

“The Field Museum.”

II.

Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, founded in 1893, is one of the gems of the
city. Located in the Park District, between downtown and the shores of Lake Michigan,
the Field boasts extensive collections in paleontology, archaeology, ethnology, and
evolutionary biology. It is a significant research institution, in addition to being a major
tourist attraction. I had been there just the day before, visiting curators in the evolution
section and enjoying the displays.

It was completely different at this time of night. No tourists, just police. On the main
floor, Sue, famous the T. rex, and her mastodon buddy were well lit, but the far reaches of
the museum were in deep shadows. Danny and the Bear escorted me to the South
Entrance, where Inspector Daley was waiting. He looked like Peter Falk doing Columbo.

“Dr. Wardin. Sorry to get you out of bed. I want you to see something.”

He turned his back on me and headed west, toward the African exhibits. Evidently, I was
supposed to follow.

I tagged along for thirty seconds, and then, without speaking, the Inspector stopped at the
entrance to Africa Hall. He looked at me as if he were waiting for something, and
gestured. I stopped, stared into the shadows toward the Rice Gallery, and let my eyes
adjust to the dark. On the floor, behind official police tape, was a lump, a large lump. No,
it was a man, an adult, lying on his right side on the museum floor, one arm outstretched.
Inspector Daley pulled out a flashlight, stepped toward the prostrate body, and motioned
for me to come closer. As we approached, I realized that the man on the floor was naked,
in the fetal position, and completely motionless. He lay in a pool of blood.

“Doctor, this is, or was, Bill Bryan. He’s been shot in the chest, at close range. Did you
know him?”

Alas, poor Bill. I knew him slightly. We had met just yesterday at the annual meeting of
the Evolution Study Society (ESS) at the University of Chicago. He was some sort of lab
tech at a local bible college, and had come to the meeting because he was having doubts
about so-called “creation science”, which is of course not science at all.
“I met him once, Inspector. I know very little about him.”

Daley thought about that for a moment, and then expressed some doubt: “That seems
odd, Doc, considering that he when he died, he was holding a note that said to contact
you.”

III.

I stared at the Inspector, and then turned my gaze to the dead man. Why would this man,
someone I hardly knew, make a dying request to contact me?

“Inspector, could I see the note?”

Daley handed me a crumpled yellow sheet. It had been ripped from a legal pad, and was
blood-stained. I opened it and read:

WARN WARDIN:
DIVINE TRUST SOCIETY
CURSE INDECENT ACLU
HOLIEST SATAN, GET NW
EROTIC BED, CLUMPY ELIXIR
WILD NARRATION
HIM BE A LEECH

I could see my name on the first line, but none of the rest of it made any sense to me.
The Inspector was watching me closely, looking for a reaction. I handed the sheet back to
him and said “I have no idea what this is, or why my name is on it”.

Daley took the sheet. “Maybe this will help”, he said. He went down on one knee, and
gently rolled the dead man on his back. On the pale abdomen, finger-painted in blood,
were the words

TEACH
THE
CONTROVERSY

IV.

I was numb. A dead, naked man in the fetal position was found with a note that had my
name on it, and a creationist sound-bite was written on his body. It made no sense.
“How do you know ‘Wardin’ means me, Inspector? There are probably plenty of
Wardins in Chicago.”

“Sure, we thought of that. But, as you said, you met the man yesterday, and the slogan
written on him is something from the creation-evolution battles, right?” I nodded.

“You’re the only Wardin in Chicago who does evolution, Doc”.

“OK, Inspector. It may be true that this man wanted to contact me, but I assure you that I
don’t know why.”

There was a moment of silence. Then the Inspector took me by the arm, led me back
toward the light, and said in a conciliatory voice: “I believe you. But I still want you to
help me figure out what happened here. Tell me what this ‘teach the controversy’ stuff is
about.”

I explained: “It’s a sound-bite, a slogan that creationists use to get their religious views
into science classes. Their strategy is to make a lot of noise in the popular press, and then
pretend that there is a legitimate scientific controversy that should be taught. Of course,
there’s not a single professional society that thinks Intelligent Design is legitimate
science, and hardly any intelligent person who knows anything about science puts any
credence in it.”

“But I thought President Bush…”

“Like I said.”

The Inspector tried a different tack. “What about this note? What about clumpy elixir?
Erotic bed? That doesn’t ring any bells?”

“No.”

“Do you belong to the ACLU, or know why someone would want to curse them?”

“I’m not a member. Some people just have a problem with the Bill of Rights. But, come
to think of it, the ACLU played an important role in defeating ID in that Dover trial.”

“How about ‘NW’? Do you know who that might be?”

” I can’t think of anyone with the initials NW. It might be a compass direction, someplace
Satan is supposed to go. The other stuff sounds satanic too, though I’m no expert in that
area. You know, a “leech” is another word for a healing witch.”

The inspector nodded. “Funny you should say that, Doc. I was thinking the same thing.
And, what’s more, so was the corpse. If you remember his posture, you’ll recall that
Bryan’s right hand and index finger were extended, like he was pointing at something.
Turns out he was pointing directly at a new museum exhibit on witchcraft.”

V.

What does creationism have to do with witchcraft and murder? A mix of pseudo-science
and spirituality? It doesn’t make sense; the creationists are mostly conservative
Christians.

Daley brought me back to earth: “Doc, I have to tell you, we’ve been looking into this
creationism stuff, Intelligent Design and all that, and we don’t buy it. It’s just some old
ideas funded by a conservative think tank that wants to push religion. Their brand of
religion. That judge in Pennsylvania said as much, in that Dover case.”

I nodded. Daley was smarter than he looked, or let on.

He continued: “Here’s what bothers me – if the science really makes no sense, and has no
professional support, then what’s the publicity and sloganeering all about? I mean, why
go to all that effort if all you’ve got is nonsense?”

“They’re able to persuade some people who don’t understand what science is,” I
suggested.

“That’s not enough. There must be some more compelling reason for all the publicity, the
expense, the effort. We’re thinking it might be some sort of secret society.”

I was stunned. Could Intelligent Design be a front for some other purpose? That would
explain the silly proclamations, the continuing pretense of real science. But if that’s true,
what are they up to?

The Inspector probed: “So where’s the center of this Intelligent Design movement?
Where’s their headquarters?”

“It’s in Seattle. There are a few academics at various institutions around the country, but
the mother-ship is in Seattle.”

Daley chewed on that, then said: “That’s Seattle, Washington, right? In the Pacific
northwest?”

“Right. Pacific northwest. Northwest. NW.” Realization sank in. “Give me that note
again”.

My pulse quickened as I scanned the note a second time. There it was: “HOLIEST
SATAN, GET NW”. How did I miss it before? It’s obviously an anagram. Move the
letters around and they spell “sat”, “seat”, “Seattle”,

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON

This was starting to make sense. Now the first line could be unscrambled too – DIVINE
TRUST SOCIETY is code for DISCOVERY INSTITUTE. That’s the conservative think
tank that serves as headquarters for Intelligent Design. The same letters also spell ” dirty
vicious tenets”, but that’s probably irrelevant.

This was getting easy. EROTIC BED CLUMPY ELIXIR is, let’s see, clump, clomp,
complex, IRREDUCIBLE COMPLEXITY. And WILD NARRATION is obviously that
book where some lawyer pretends to understand biology so he can poke at evolution. The
“leech” part is probably an employee, and the ACLU line refers to a division of the
Discovery Institute that deals with ID.

I showed my scribbling to Inspector Daley.

“Very good, Dr. Wardin. There’s clearly too much there to be just coincidence. But what
are they really up to? And what about that message in blood?

A chill washed over me. I wrote the abdominal message on the yellow paper, then wrote
it again with the letters rearranged. I presented it to Inspector Daley. His eyes widened as
he joined me in realization. The slogan was a hidden command that could only come
from one source:

TEACH THE CONTROVERSY
ORCHESTRATE THY COVEN

Comments

  1. #1 Blake Stacey
    May 4, 2006

    Hmmm, a good beginning. Now all it needs is, well, I’ll let Geoffrey Pullum at Language Log explain:

    …on the first page a renowned male expert at something dies a hideous death and straight away a renowned expert at something quite different gets a surprise call and has to take an unexpected plane flight and then face some 36 hours of astoundingly dangerous and exhausting adventures involving a good-looking (and of course expert) member of the opposite sex and when the two of them finally get access to a double bed she disrobes and tells him mischievously (almost minatorily) to prepare himself for strenuous sex.

  2. #2 Jonathan Badger
    May 4, 2006

    Cute, but a minor issue — the detective says “Sure, we thought of that. But, as you said, you met the man yesterday[...]“. But Wardin didn’t say that out loud — just to us — he really just said “I met him once, Inspector. I know very little about him.”. But I’ve read many a published novel that makes the same mistake.

  3. #3 calladus
    May 4, 2006

    Hmm. He doesn’t seem to get everything…
    From the note:

    WARN DARWIN:
    DISCOVERY INSTITUTE
    CULT, UNREAD SCIENCE
    SEATTLE, WASHINGTON
    IRREDUCIBLE COMPLEXITY
    DARWIN ON TRIAL (or is it DARWIN NOT LIAR?)
    MICHAEL BEHE

    Obviously the dead man is trying to say that the DI is a “Cult (of) Unread Science”

  4. #4 jess
    May 4, 2006

    Calladus, shhh! You’re spoiling the next installment!

  5. #5 Davis
    May 4, 2006

    Great! All it needs is an opening sentence with an anarthrous noun phrase.

  6. #6 Doozer
    May 4, 2006

    Heh heh. Is there an animator in the house?

  7. #7 calladus
    May 4, 2006

    I’m really having trouble with the line…
    CURSE INDECENT ACLU

    The note mentions Behe by name. Perhaps this line anagrams to, “LIES CAN’T CURE DUNCE”.

    Hmm. (scratches head)

  8. #8 RPM
    May 4, 2006

    Didn’t the last guy who published something like this end up getting sued in a British court for plagiarism? I heard the judge included a hidden message in his verdict. Watch out, PZ, you should hire a lawyer. And a codebreaker. Clever stuff, nonetheless.

  9. #9 Justin
    May 4, 2006

    I like it. When’s the movie version coming out? :)

  10. #10 ecv
    May 4, 2006

    I’d be worried about a guy in charge whose initials were ID…

  11. #11 Inoculated Mind
    May 4, 2006

    This is great!

    One problem – who are we going to find to play PZ in all of this? Jonathan Frakes? Alec Baldwin? PZ “as himself”?

    Can’t wait to read the next installment.

  12. #12 PZ Myers
    May 4, 2006

    CURSE INDECENT ACLU = SCIENCE AND CULTURE

    They’re going to get Rowan Atkinson to play me, I hope. Or Clint Howard. Maybe Ned Beatty.

  13. #13 JP
    May 4, 2006

    We really need to get a physical description of the main character by having him look into a mirror. That is pretty much essential to the first chapter of any Dan Brown novel.

  14. #14 Brent Rasmussen
    May 4, 2006

    > I’d be worried about a guy in
    > charge whose initials were ID…

    Every time I see that abbreviation my mind goes back to American Grafitti:

    “I lost my wife, too – her name wasn’t ID, though, and it wasn’t in a flood”

    I think it’s wildly appropriate.

  15. #15 JP M
    May 4, 2006

    It has to end in some sort of movie cliche, too. Something like “it’s a date!”

  16. #16 quork
    May 4, 2006

    I’ve got it. Col. Mustard did it in the billiards room with a pipe wrench.

    Oops, wrong game.

  17. #17 Alon Levy
    May 5, 2006

    Is TEACH THE CONTROVERSY an anagram of anything?

  18. #18 lunartalks
    May 5, 2006

    Mountain of evidence for a designed universe? Have they found the plans?

  19. #19 calladus
    May 5, 2006

    CURSE INDECENT ACLU = SCIENCE AND CULTURE

    You know, I saw that as a possible anagram, PZ, but after seeing your Geek Prom blog entry, I was unsure if SCIENCE and CULTURE could coexist.

    Although I could be wrong. Some of my engineer friends argue that Star Wars / Star Trek and especially Firefly is Haute Culture

  20. #20 saurabh
    May 5, 2006

    Unfortunate that the basis of the story is anagrams, usually considered the lowest form of puzzling. A string as long as ‘TEACH THE CONTROVERSY’ has probably thousands of reasonable anagrams, depending on word length restrictions, etc. Some silly ones: ROVE’S TENTH THEOCRACY, YVETTE’S HONCHO CRATER, COVET HORNY CATHETERS, etc.’CURSE INDECENT ACLU’ could also be INCULCATE NERD CUES, UNREAD CULT SCIENCE, etc.

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