Biology professor wanders through madness, fiction, science

BYU professor Steve Peck spoke at BYU’s annual Summerhays lecture in Fall 2016. His presentation “Evolving Faith” was about his love of science and evolution mixed with faithfulness in the gospel. (Alyssa Lyman)

Steve Peck remembers his week of horror vividly: the giant insects flying around the hospital, his daughter’s innocently hand-drawn pictures that took life and began speaking to him, the evil clones of his wife and children conversing right outside his door. To Peck, it was all real, and the madness had narrative and twisted explanations.

Almost too late, one doctor discovered Peck had a rare bacterial infection Peck picked up in Vietnam when he was there studying butterflies a year prior.

The BYU biology professor still grapples with the experience nearly fifteen years later.

“I never questioned any of the reality I was given. It was just completely accepted,” Peck said. “I was always coming up with explanations of what I was seeing but I never doubted them.”

His wife remembers the doctor approaching her, holding an x-ray of Steve’s brain.

“And then the doctor says, ‘Do you know what this is on his brain?'” Lori said. “He said that it was a layer of pus on his brain, and if we let it go another day, it would go to his spine, and he wouldn’t make it.”

While Steve lived a vivid science-fiction story, Lori lived a near-tragedy. At the time, she and her husband had five children from ages 3 to 17 years old. Doctors told her to prepare for Steve’s death.

After giving Steve the proper antibiotics, a week passed before he could see properly. The now-acclaimed Mormon fiction writer had to relearn how to read and write after the experience.

Peck writes about his experience in his recently released book “Evolving Faith” in the chapter “My Madness.” His “time of madness” is also echoed in his other book “Wandering Realities.”

“In ‘Wandering Realities,”‘ I wanted to explore alternate realities in a meaningful way. I wondered why I went to such a horrific world and place,” Peck said about his era of sickness. “It seems like if your brain is going to construct a reality, it would make one more pleasant.”

Peck uses fiction to explore the “deeper dimensions of life,” taking a speculative and magical realism approach to his writing, especially with his most acclaimed work “The Scholar of Moab.”

The rare bacterial infection wasn’t the only life-threatening turning point in Steve and Lori Peck’s lives. During their honeymoon, the Pecks’ car was hit by a drunk driver at 11:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning in the middle of the Oregon desert. Lori said at the time, the couple didn’t have health insurance.

Steve took the accident as a sign to switch from philosophy to statistics, mostly so he could make more money in the case of another emergency. The philosophy-turned-statistics major then ended up shifting his focus to biology, developing a particular specialty in evolutionary ecology.

Peck said being a member of the LDS Church has caused him to meet the disapproval of his field of study at times — even from himself, at one point.

“My personal story is one of being in love with science and evolution, and finding myself troubled with the split, eventually siding against evolution, and then siding back to evolution,” Peck said at BYU’s annual Summerhays lecture.

Peck remembers saying as a child that all he wanted to be when he grew up was be a caveman. When he was five years old, he got the prehistoric times play set, which had about 500 plastic dinosaurs.

“They have since repurposed that job,” Peck said.

After Peck became active in the LDS Church as a teenager, he turned away from his love of evolution. While on his mission, he remembers telling investigators they couldn’t get baptized unless they renounced evolution.

Then Peck came to BYU and searched for a BYU textbook on evolution, hoping the text would dismantle evolution. Instead, Peck found the textbook described evolution like any other textbook would. After taking some classes, he found many BYU professors supported evolution. Now, Peck is a strong advocate of evolution.

“I want people to love science and not feel like they have to choose between the gospel and science,” Peck said. “You can be a fully committed scientist and a fully committed member of the church and not compromise on either one.”

The jack-of-all-trades Steve Peck, who describes himself as a writer, biologist and statistician, also describes himself as a wanderer. “Wandering” appears in two of his published novels. The foreword to “Evolving Faith,” by BYU professor George Handley, affirms this notion of wandering in Peck.

“At least one way we can keep ourselves open to new revelation is to follow Steve Peck’s example and … then carefully, speculatively and faithfully wonder,” Handley said in the foreword.

Peck wandered through opinions of evolution, the difficulty of an early-life physical tragedy and even madness, but he embraces this approach to life.

“It’s a way of exploring the world and trying to understand it,” Peck said.

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