The Pianka Affair.
On March 31, young-Earth creationist Forrest Mims posted this account of a talk given by ecologist Eric Pianka before the Texas Academy of Sciences. According to Mims:
But there was a gravely disturbing side to that otherwise scientifically significant meeting, for I watched in amazement as a few hundred members of the Texas Academy of Science rose to their feet and gave a standing ovation to a speech that enthusiastically advocated the elimination of 90 percent of Earth's population by airborne Ebola. The speech was given by Dr. Eric R. Pianka (Fig. 1), the University of Texas evolutionary ecologist and lizard expert who the Academy named the 2006 Distinguished Texas Scientist.
Mims' account can be dismissed out of hand. There is no way a prominent scientist would call for mass murder by Ebola (both because no one would actually wish to see such a thing, and because anyone who did wouldn't be dumb enough to say it publicly). And if someone did advocate such a course, he would not receive a standing ovation for it from an important scientific group.
In the days following Pianka's comments it became clear that what he actually believes is that it is inevitable that overpopulation and overexploitation of the Earth's resources will lead to a catastrophic event for humanity, probably via a major outbreak of some disease. For example, he spells out his views very clearly in this brief essay. Also enlightening is this short article posted at the site of an NBC affiliate in Austin. It is also clear that he occasionally expresses himself a bit inartfully, but that there is no doubt about what he believes.
If you think that's the end of it, then you haven't fully appreciated just how thoroughly rotten many ID proponents are. William Dembski, for example, has done a slew of posts at his blog in which he slavishly accepts Mims' account in complete defiance of all evidence to the contrary. In this post, for instance, he boasts of calling the Department of Homeland Security to invesitgate Pianka. One suspects that Dembski doesn't believe for a second that Pianka is any threat to anyone. But in his sick little world such considerations are irrelevant.
According to this article from the Austin American-Statesman, Pianka is being interviewed by the FBI. It is unclear whether Dembski's antics had anything to with that. The article does contain this interesting nugget, however:
[Pianka] is particularly troubled by the recent explosion in the human population. He says we now take up about 50 percent of all livable space on Earth and that people should have no more than two children. Humans, and the way they've multiplied, are “no better than bacteria,” he says.
Such talk makes Forrest Mims' skin crawl.
Mims, an author and amateur scientist who heard Pianka speak in early March before the Texas Academy of Science, said Pianka's remarks were degrading and that he was deeply disturbed by Pianka's comments comparing different diseases and their potential to decimate the human race. He's one of dozens of bloggers who have expressed displeasure with Pianka's point of view.
A Gazette-Enterprise reporter who heard Pianka speak Friday on the same topic quoted him saying disease “will control the scourge of humanity. We're looking forward to a huge collapse.”
“It was 'Twilight Zone' material. It was like sitting in a science-fiction movie,” Mims said Tuesday, adding that he is worried young doctors and scientists with access to deadly diseases might take literally what he claims is a call by Pianka to control population growth through the spread of disease. “The big concern is this professor is instilling this in the minds of students.”
Let's take the comments of that unnamed reporter first. Even the little out-of-context snippets presented here seem perefectly clear. The scourge of humanity refers to the incredible overexploitation of the Earth's resources by short-sighted people. And Pianka is not looking forward to a huge collapse in the same way that my students are looking forward to summer vacation. Rather, he is saying that such collapse is inevitable unless we change our ways.
Don't believe any blogger or commenter who claims to interpret those phrases to mean that Pianka hates human beings and longs to see them die horrible deaths. Everyone understands that Pianka does not believe that.
As for Mims, he's rather given himself away here. Pianka speaks bluntly about subjects that make him squeamish and uncomfortable. So Mims writes a dishonest hatchet job about Pianka's talk, and spins ridiculous scenarios about young medical students moved to mass murder by Pianka's ideas. Right. And Pianka's the crazy one?
Meanwhile, in the comments to this post by P.Z. Myers, we find this:
I took Evolutionary Ecology from Dr. Pianka a few years ago. He'd frequently get sidetracked onto:
- Cool Australian lizards.
- His buffalo.
- How much he disliked his neighbors who kept killing rattlesnakes.
- How some horrible disease is going to wipe out huge chunks of the population any year now, and how pleased he will be when that happens.
So, yep, sounds like Dr. Pianka to me. The quotes in the article all sound pretty familiar.
Similar comments have been posted elsewhere.
Does point number four contradict what I have said previously? Of course not. You see, we simply start from the premise that Pianka is sane and reason to the conclusion that he will not be happy when civilization as we know it collapses for lack of people to keep it going.
So why would he make statements that could be interpreted otherwise? It has been suggested elsewhere that Pianka was joking, but I don't think that's really the best way of putting it. I suspect that in context Pianka was expressing his frustration at the dominant political culture in this country. The tone with which he made these statements is lost when you see them printed on the page. I'm willing to bet that no one who actually heard him make such a remark really pictured him happily eating popcorn on his front porch while his neighbors were dropping dead around him because of some dread disease.
We live in a society in which expressing the perfectly sensible opinions that we are havresting the Earth's resources at an alarming rate, and that if we don't control our numbers nature will find a way of doing it for us, immediately gets you branded as an environmentalist wacko or a left-wing extremist. You are called anti-capitalist, and probably anti-American. If in addition you happen to be a college professor while making those points, you will be accused of indoctrinating impressionable students (who apparently should be taught simply that unchecked, voracious consumption is a marvelous thing). You will be used as an example of the insanity of modern academe.
I'd bet real money that on those occasions where Pianka appeared happy about the looming downfall of humanity he was merely expressing his frustration at the unwillingness of people to think about the unsustainability of our way of life. What pleasure he was expressing was at the thought of arrogant, short-sighted people getting their comeuppance for not heeding his warnings.
Which leaves only one question. Is he right? Is humanity headed for a major population “correction”? Will it come in the form of a plague?
I don't know. But it looks to me like in much of the world famine, tsunamis, violent weather, genocide and war are already doing their part to control the world population. We may not need a virus to force us to change our ways.