(Cross-posted at The Y Files.)
My Y Files post on the Eric Pianka controversy has generated considerable debate in the blog's comments, with some posters saying that I have fallen for a right-wing creationist smear against an innocent scientist accused of advocating the deaths of billions for the sake of the planet. The "smeared by the right" meme also prevails in the liberal blogosphere, and one conservative blogger, Atlanta Rofters, has retracted his anti-Pianka position and apologized.
So, do I stand by my first blogpost? Mostly, yes.
I'm quite certain that Pianka, a University of Texas biologist, did not advocate active steps to kill 5 billion people with a deadly virus; but I made it clear in my initial post that I endorsed no such claim. I believe that for "Intelligent Design" maven William Dembski to report Pianka to Homeland Security as a potential terrorist was ludicrous and reprehensible.
Did Pianka, as reported by Forrest M. Mims III, wax enthusastic to the Texas Academy of Sciences about the prospect of over 5 billion people dying in an Ebola plague, or express hope that such an epidemic would come to pass (rather than merely warn that it will if we don't change our profligate ways)? I'm not absolutely certain of that; but I think that the rush to exonerate Pianka in some quarters is a little too quick and easy. For instance, at The Panda's Thumb, we're told that "KXAN News36 in Austin, TX, has just debunked the whole thing." But the "debunking" does not include any independent evidence, such as a transcript of an audio recording of Pianka's speech, or an eyewitness account contradicting Mims. It consists, instead, of Pianka's assertion that he is not pro-genocide, doesn't want vast numbers of people to die and wants his granddaughters to have a future. Well, that's very nice. But, as one commenter at The Panda's Thumb correctly noted, "A denial is by no means a 'debunking.'"
Others have pointed to this statement on Pianka's website, denying any ill will toward humanity and asserting that Pianka's apocalyptic scenario was simply a warning, as exculpatory evidence. But this statement, as far as I can tell, was posted after Pianka became the target of unwelcome publicity. It does not, as Atlanta Rofters seems to think, represent the content of his speech.
So, what about this content? A partial transcript of the Texas Academy of Sciences speech has been posted on the website of Nancy Pearcey, another ID champion. In those portions, Pianka hails draconian measures to restrict childbearing, but the part dealing with the human "die-off" is not there.
There is, however, a transcript of another, apparently quite similar speech Pianka made before the controversy broke, at St. Edward's University in Texas. It was given on March 31—actually, the very day Mims published his account of the earlier speech. The trasncript from an audio (with a few small gaps) was published on April 7 in The Sequin Gazette-Enterprise, which has covered the Pianka story. Weirdly enough, a couple of days later the paper removed all Pianka-related material from its website (even though stories generally stay up for a month). What is behind this removal, I don't know. However, thanks to Google cache, I was able to locate a copy of the transcript. Here it is.
This transcript, as the pro-Pianka blog The Questionable Authority points out, differs in some substantial ways from the paper's own report about the speech. It's also interesting to note that in this speech, Pianka actually says that it's likely going to be some virus other than Ebola that is going to get us. But TQA's textual analysis omits the portions of the transcript that tend to bear out Mims's claims:
So this is really, really an exciting time in the history of mankind. Remember the ancient Chinese curse: "May you live in interesting times"? I think that right now has got to be just about the most interesting time ever and you get to see it, and, hopefully, a few are gonna live through it. … Things are gonna get better after the collapse because we won't be able to decimate the earth so much. And, I actually think the world will be much better when there's only 10 or 20 percent of us left.
It would give wildlife a chance to recover—we won't need conservation biologists anymore. Things are gonna get better.
So yes, there is documented evidence of Pianka expressing enthusiasm for a mass die-off. There is also, as I previously mentioned, Brenda McConnnell's blogpost about his speech—one that supports his views, and also largely supports Mims's account. McConnell has now deleted her blog, but the relevant portions are reproduced in my blogpost.
I just asked them if this sounded like something Pianka would actually say. The grad student laughed and told me that Pianka is in fact crazy, and has repeatedly said in classes that it'd be good if devastating diseases would wipe out 90% of the human population. There were freakish references to "our friend, AIDS."
He has a history of other bizarre behavior too. The professor says that whenever new prospective faculty are brought into the biology department and meet Pianka, Pianka likes to puts his feet up on his desk and loudly say, "We're all fucked!" (This is apparently how the professor himself was greeted.) The biology department has started making sure that new hires meet the other ecologists before they meet Pianka, so as to make clear that not all Texas ecologists are insane.
The poster's bona fides seem to be in order (check out his own blog). Admittedly this is second-hand information, but in conjunction with the speech transcript, Brenna McConnell's blogpost, and some of the student evaluations he has posted on his own website, the picture that emerges is not a pleasant one.
Many people find it unbelievable that someone who spouts the human-hating views attributed to Pianka would be treated as mainstream in the biology/ecology field. Well, in my last post, I cited the example of Dr. David Graber, a biologist with the National Park Service, who wrote in 1989 in the Los Angeles Times:
We have become a plague upon ourselves and upon the Earth. … Until such time as Homo sapiens should decide to rejoin nature, some of us can only hope for the right virus to come along.
If Graber has been professionally shunned for this repugnant statement, I'm certainly not aware of it. (He is currently a science advisor to the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.)
It should be noted as well that the kind of views Pianka has been accused of holding have been expressed by some of his supporters on various blogs. Take, for instance, this post by "Praedor Atrebates" at Pharyngula:
Umm…feeling some personal satisfaction at the thought of an inevitable population decline (due to disease, famine, whatever) because of the harm we as a species are doing to our home is NOT the same as advocating same.
I welcome a culling for the same reasons but have no desire to see any particular people die. It is a general, theoretical feeling of satisfaction. We as a species getting our comeuppance due to your thoughtless activities against the natural world. Such an onslaught can ONLY come to ill, not only for humans, but for far too many innocent other species as well (the collatoral damage).
I also fully realize that a human species fall could well include ME. So be it. That doesn't mean I don't, in general, get a feeling of satisfaction from the idea of schadenfreude: humans getting their broad just deserts for thoughtlessness, greed, profligacy, and selfishness. Totally different from advocating actively bringing about such a result, which Pianka is accused (falsely) of.
It is objective fact that the environment would do EXTREMELY well should humans fall out of it. There's a silver lining to all storm clouds.
This post, I believe, speaks for itself. (It should be noted as well that none of the other Pianka supporters in the thread reacted to "Praedor's" post with outrage.)
I don't want to get into the issue of how much of Pianka's alarmism—for instance, about deadly virus mutations due to overpopulation—is rooted in good science. This is primarily an issue not of science, but of ideology.
The conflict between Pianka and his persecutors, most of whom are ID supporters, has been (mis)cast as a war between science and reason on one side, and religious zealotry and superstition on the other. But as I have said before, I think it is in fact a conflict between two different brands of religious zealotry. Commenters at Kos and other left-of-center blogs have gleefully pointed out that the same religious conservatives who voice outrage at Pianka's vision of an agonizing death for 80 to 90% of humanity often embrace the idea of a God who will visit horrific destruction upon the world and punish the disobedient with eternal agony. They are correct, but they miss the point that the irony goes in the other direction, too: the radical environmentalists are as enamored of Armageddon as the more conventional religious extremists. The eco-doomsayers are driven at least as much by their fervent belief that humanity needs to be punished for its sins of greed and luxury as they are by scientifically based concerns. (Note the moralistic, not scientific, language in "Praedor Atrebates'" post above.) Joseph Herzlinger, who has a blog of his own, puts it best in the comments thread at Bad Astronomy Blog:
This looks like crackpot vs. crackpot. It's a debate between someone ignoring the evidence in favor of Darwin's theories and someone ignoring the evidence against Malthus's theories.
The enviro-zealots and the religious zealots are united in their hatred of the human mind, of human freedom and pride; and both long to see humanity crushed under the weight of a superior power, be it God or Nature. I should add here, by the way, that I have nothing against God or Nature, against religion or environmentalism—as long as they are not anti-human.
But of course, humanism—the bugaboo of the religious right—is also in disfavor with the Piankas of this world, who lament the evil of "anthropocentrism." Even PZ Myers of Pharyngula, who regards Pianka as "eccentric," writes that he is "more sympathetic to the egalitarian view that denies humanity a privileged position, except in our own personal esteem." Being a humanist, it seems, is a lonely job these days.