Eric Pianka: Smear victim, eco-fanatic, or neither?

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(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.

Check out, too, this interesting post in the Daily Kos comments thread from Neil Sinhababu, a UT graduate student in philosophy who closely knows people who work with Pianka:

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.

NEXT: A Neutral Panic

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  1. Uh, I hope people click through and read the rest of Myers’ post that you link to in the last graf, because the rest of it is more important than the single sentence you quote.

  2. 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.

    If our morality is determined by evolution, then Pianka’s attitude expressed in this post, makes a lot of sense. he is thinking about good outcomes from an evolutionary perspective and found the one he thinks is best as far as survival of the species. That is what evolution is all about, Ms. Young.

    On the other hand, if you have faith in some kind of morality that values things other than evolutionary survival, then Pianka may be saying bad things from that perspective.

    You want to throw out Pianka: fine. Just be prepared to throw out yer Pinker and Dawkins, too.

  3. bring on the jesus!

    BRING ON THE FUCKING JESUS, AMERICA!

  4. Is it so hard to believe that this guy thinks the idea of a massive die off is both “kinda cool” and not something he’d recommend?

    How many people glue themselves to the weather channel as a hurrican approaches?

    He’s just a rubber necker. Instead of a car crash, it’s his own mathematical model. BFD.

  5. If our morality is determined by evolution…On the other hand, if you have faith in some kind of morality that values things other than evolutionary survival then Pianka may be saying bad things from that perspective. You want to throw out Pianka: fine. Just be prepared to throw out yer Pinker and Dawkins, too.

    Bullshit. That post is one of the more tortured non sequiturs I’ve seen on here. So do you think unless we accept some iron-age (or other) mythology the only option for morality is based on what is best evolutionarily? That an atheist cannot find fault with Pinaka? I am quite certain that Dawkins, or any other thoughtful atheist, would never suggest that morality is based on evolutionary survival.

  6. Mr. Notebooks Out, Atheists may need to reread or at least rethink Pinker and Dawkins. Yes, the evolutionary psychology view is that “our morality is determined by evolution.” What does that mean? Evolution gave individual human beings our mental machinery to make moral judgments. It does NOT mean “morality does not value things other than evolutionary survival.” Reread the chapter “Nice Guys Finish First” in the 2nd edition of Selfish Gene with your mind open, please.

  7. Yeah, that’s a bunch of crap and I didn’t even have to look to see that it was Dickhead Dave W. making the argument. Never miss an opportunity to smear the atheists, after all.

    It also occurs to me, apropos of my first comment, that there’s absolutely no contradiction between understanding the absolute biological reality that humans are not the end-purpose of evolution, nor its crowning achievement, etc., and being a humanist. I think Myers does both, as would anyone who reads him regularly, and who understands humanism properly posited as opposing theism and other forms of supernaturally-centered metaphysics.

  8. These views are not a recent invention. They have their beginnings in the late 18th century when Thomas Malthus published “An Essay on the Principles of Population” and were later popluarized by Paul Ehrlich in his 1968 book “The Population Bomb” and continues to this day in one form or another under the general name of “deep ecology”. I happen to be reading a book right now that has an essay about the conflict between this brand of environmentalism and so called “social ecology” and it’s an interesting read. Basically, “deep ecologists” believe that the existence of humanity itself is the root casue of all environmental problems. Social ecologists believe that environmental problems have their roots in society and social problems. The opposing view was first popularized by Barry Commoner in the early 1970’s and more recently by Murray Bookchin. A quote:

    (From deep ecology critic Murray Bookchin’s perspective) “In reducing humanity to a parasitic swarm of mosquitoes in a mystified swamp called ‘Nature’, deep ecology is at its core deeply misanthropic. This misanthropy in turn fosters a “crude eco-brutalism” that celebrates famine and disease as nature’s way of defending itself against unchecked population growth. This tendancy towards ecofascism, while most pronounced in the writings of Dave Foreman, an Earth First! founder, is also present in the central text of the movement, Bill Devall and William Session’s Deep Ecology.”

    In late 1989, Bookchin and Dave Forman met at a conference and hashed out their differences in a public debate, with both of them admitting te shortcomings of their views and the strengths of their opponent’s arguments. The result is an ongoing attempt by some enviromentalists to synthesize an integrated and coherent environmental perspective that will unify the various factions/philosphies within the environmental movement. Of course, there will always be a few nuts on the fringe. Being an environmentalist myself (though not a “deep ecologist”) I know very well that there is a persistent a pervasive attitude among many of us that humans are the source of all environmental problems and that only our partial eradication will restore the mythic balance of nature. Self loathing comes in many forms, I guess.

    See the essay “On the Search for a Root Cause: Essentialist Tendencies in Environmental Discourse” by Jeffery C. Ellis in “Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature”, William Cronon, Editor

  9. If you are an athiest and believe in evolution, what is so damed special about human beings? Further, what possible end could their be for human beings other than to propegate and push the species still higher on the evolutionary scale? If that is the case, and the human race would emerge from a mass die off a healthy stronger race further down evolutionary rode to becoming a better species, wouldn’t that die off be in the words of Professor Pianka “pretty cool” in the long scheme of things? I think notebook makes a pretty damn good point.

  10. There’s no such thing as an “evolutionary scale,” John, nor is there such a direction as “higher” on it. We are the right fitness for our environment, just as the planarians are for theirs and the fungi for theirs.

  11. It does NOT mean “morality does not value things other than evolutionary survival.”

    Yes, let me just make it clear this is exactly what I meant, not that evolution didn’t lead to our current intellectual abilities, including a concern for morality. The suggestion, however, that an atheist view of evolution somehow leads to a morality which only values evolutionary survival, is complete bunk.

  12. Phil,

    Fair enough. But if our dying off in huge numbers produces more and better species and a better habitat for other species on earth, wouldn’t that be a good thing? Look if we are just apes anyway, who really cares if we die off as long as the species continues?

  13. “If you are an athiest and believe in evolution, what is so damed special about human beings?”

    We are special precisely because we are human beings. Our species would have hardly survived long if human beings did not, in general, have a special affinity for other human beings.

    “If that is the case, and the human race would emerge from a mass die off a healthy stronger race further down evolutionary rode to becoming a better species, wouldn’t that die off be in the words of Professor Pianka “pretty cool” in the long scheme of things?”

    Because while we certainly have a broad affinity for homo sapiens in the abstract, our affinity is really much more personal and close. I want my son and daughter, my neighbors and my friends to survive and thrive.

  14. “The suggestion, however, that an atheist view of evolution somehow leads to a morality which only values evolutionary survival, is complete bunk.”

    What does it value then? If there is nothing special about human being and conscieousness, why isn’t it a good thing for humans to die off and let more of other creatures with whom we compete to live?

  15. “But if our dying off in huge numbers produces more and better species and a better habitat for other species on earth, wouldn’t that be a good thing?”

    Quite simply, no.

  16. Brian,

    So, the only justification for humanity’s continued existance is the fact that you love your daughter? Certainly 90% of the human race could die off and the race would continue. Yeah, it sucks to be the 90% but for the remaining 10% life might be great and absolutely things would be great if you are a Polar Bear or African elephant.

  17. “If there is nothing special about human being and conscieousness”

    Huh? Human beings and our consciousness is very special to us homo sapiens. Really, you should try to move beyond this straw man understanding of evolution.

  18. Brian Carwell,

    I agree, but I am not an athiest and I believe in God and the special place of humanity. Without that belief, I don’t see any reason at all why the answer would be no.

  19. “So, the only justification for humanity’s continued existance is the fact that you love your daughter?”

    I guess I just put to high a value on love for a Darwinian atheist. Damn.

  20. “Huh? Human beings and our consciousness is very special to us homo sapiens. Really, you should try to move beyond this straw man understanding of evolution.”

    So what? Really Brian, from an evolutionary point of view, what are humans other than apes with opposable thumbs and very large brains? You certainly wouldn’t talk about an elephant being more “special” or “valued” than another animal. Is the tiger more noble than the rino? I don’t see how you can make value judgements among animals and how by evolutionary standards human being are anything other than very intelligent and successful animals. Given those two facts, why wouldn’t it be a good thing for humans to die off some and let other animals have more space and habitat?

  21. The problem with the discussion is the definition of “Good” as in “why isn’t it a good thing for humans to die off and let more of other creatures with whom we compete to live?” What is “good”? From an evolutionary standpoint, “good” means ability to survive and reproduce. Period. Is it good for humans to die off? yes, from the point of view of animals and plants. Obviously not from our point of view.

    What is “good” depends on one’s point of view. Some people think that it would be “good” if there were fewer humans becasue these people value nature as it currently exists, or as it did within recent memory. Therefore, that which preserves this concept of nature is “good”. As far as nature is concerned (not that nature is really “concerend” about anything) it matters not one iota if a particular species lives or dies. Nature continues regardless. Nature is change. Species come and go, but the earth and the universe continue with absolutely no notice. If it’s not humans dominating the planet, it will be some other life form. Good for them, bad for us, no difference at all for nature.

  22. special != supernatural

    “So, the only justification for humanity’s continued existance is the fact that you love your daughter?”

    you are now very close.

    to be honest, i’ve never heard anyone use anything but an appeal to tradition when trying to explain that if the above – genetic selfishness – is otherwise meaningless or insubstantial, how can the rules of a being who has never been photographed or even blogged on flickr even come close?

  23. The problem with the discussion is the definition of “Good” as in “why isn’t it a good thing for humans to die off and let more of other creatures with whom we compete to live?” What is “good”? From an evolutionary standpoint, “good” means ability to survive and reproduce. Period. Is it good for humans to die off? yes, from the point of view of animals and plants. Obviously not from our point of view.

    What is “good” depends on one’s point of view. Some people think that it would be “good” if there were fewer humans becasue these people value nature as it currently exists, or as it did within recent memory. Therefore, that which preserves this concept of nature is “good”. As far as nature is concerned (not that nature is really “concerend” about anything) it matters not one iota if a particular species lives or dies. Nature continues regardless. Nature is change. Species come and go, but the earth and the universe continue with absolutely no notice. If it’s not humans dominating the planet, it will be some other life form. Good for them, bad for us, no difference at all for nature.

  24. What does it value then?

    What are you saying John? That if we don’t believe in some mythological sky-dweller that threatens us with eternal damnation we can’t have a morality that is concerned with human welfare? After all we do exist, feel pain and pleasure, suffer, etc. Those things are certainly real and all sentient beings know this inherently. Why is it that hard to imagine a view of morality that is concerned with those realities without the threat of punishment? I worry more about someone that wouldn’t be able to tell you it is wrong to hurt another human unless he fears God’s wrath than one that realizes, empathetically, why such behavior is wrong. In other words someone that realizes suffering is unpleasant and wouldn’t want to cause another sentient being to experience that is far more moral than the childlike response of one who only knows it’s bad to punch your little brother because you might get spanked.

  25. I agree, but I am not an athiest and I believe in God and the special place of humanity. Without that belief, I don’t see any reason at all why the answer would be no.

    The reason would be no for the same reason it would be no for a religious person, John. No. Lack of religious belief does not make a person desire the death of billions.

    Since we’re dealing in inane hypotheticals. What would you do if you discovered that there were no god, go on a raping looting, murdering spree?

  26. Because while we certainly have a broad affinity for homo sapiens in the abstract, our affinity is really much more personal and close. I want my son and daughter, my neighbors and my friends to survive and thrive.

    Pinker would argue that your mind thinks that way because it has been evolutionarily conditioned by evolutionary processes.

    The problem comes when conditions change such that what is good evolutionarily now conflicts with what was good evolutionarily during the long period when your genetic material was being conditioned. The easy answer is to say what was good then for human survival is still good now for human survival. Pinker takes this easy answer, which is probably why he is more popular with atheists than Pianka.

    However, if you take Pianka seriously, then our evolutionary conditioning is about to come into a stark conflict with current evolutionary imperatives. How an atheist would engage this conflict hypothetically says a lot about the depth of the person’s atheism. If the person can’t understand the conflict, even in hypothetical terms, then they probably haven’t thought enuf about their own atheism. On the other hand, if they want to make a moral criticism of Pianka, then they should have some idea of what makes it wrong to be gleeful about a helpful die off. If it ain’t God and it ain’t evolutionary conditioning, then what? Cuzusedso?

    Religion may be the opiate of the masses, but hard-question-avoidance is the opiate of the atheist.

  27. John,

    But I’m not a polar bear or an African elephant. I’m a human being, and I happen to like the other human beings.

    Personally, I have a strong moral code that includes abstract things such as hard work, the importance of family and friends, sacrificing for the good of others, and living an honest life. None of those things are rendered less important to me because I am aware that I wasn’t created by some great invisible being in the sky.

    I’m not sure why anybody would need religion to tell them that human beings and concsiousness are special.

  28. John, you’re making the mistake in thinking that there is anything “good” or “bad” involving evolution. Ecology and natural selection doesn’t make value judgements. That which dies, dies. That which survives, survives.

    Maybe the Earth and humanity doesn’t matter in the grand cosmic scheme of things. Unlike you, I’m willing to accept that reality and I’ve never understood the desire to find “meaning” to life beyond what it is. Life is just life. But I think that only worries someone who has their perspective focused on the wrong place.

    The universe is a vast place, but you’re missing so much if you try to conceive the whole of existence. You forget that we are as much individuals as we are a species. Our individual wants, desires, talents, and foibles are what make us sets us apart from other species that has not developed that kind of sapience. If you’re looking for something that will boost your ego in this indifferent universe, take solace in that. There’s no need for invisible fascists who live in the clouds to tell us to do what we’re told… OR ELSE.

    If you can’t, and you need some deity to give licence to your existence, then there isn’t much anyone can do for you.

  29. “If it ain’t God and it ain’t evolutionary conditioning, then what? Cuzusedso?”

    1) because everyone is unique like a snowflake, and pissing on snowflakes makes you a fucking asshole.

    2) because the best way to make sure we can do as we wilt is to make sure everyone else can do as they wilt in as large numbers as possible

    3) for social animals, mass death can indeed be crippling even if it freed up resources in the immediate term (i.e. you need a certain population density to make things like effective medical technology)

    4) because consciousness is precious, because we are social animals and value the thing which allows us to create value in the first place; the willful destruction of consciousness is vile.

  30. “However, if you take Pianka seriously, then our evolutionary conditioning is about to come into a stark conflict with current evolutionary imperatives.”

    There is only one “evolutionary imperative” : to survive long enough to reproduce. That was true 500 million years ago and it is still true today. Anything and everything else beyond that is NOT evolution’s concern. The how’s and why’s of the meaning of life, etc. is all irrelevant to evolution.

    A better way of putting it is that our cultural conditioning – the way we live, what we value as a species – is coming into stark conflict with the limitations of our environment. Evolution brought us to the point of being human. What we’ve chosen to do from there is our own fault.

  31. BTW, since when does extinction provide an evolutionary advantage of any kind? You have to live to pass on those genes.

  32. Clarification: I meant to ask how extinction can provide an evolutionary advantage to the species going exintict.

  33. However, if you take Pianka seriously, then our evolutionary conditioning is about to come into a stark conflict with current evolutionary imperatives.

    If you take someone like Pianka, and his conclusions seriously, you’re probably likely to agree with them anyway. I just don’t see why you assume that the default position of atheists is that ebola based mass death is a good thing. To turn it around, if you believe in an active intelligent designer, wouldn’t you assume the mass death to be part of his plan? Weeding out the undesirables, so to speak?

  34. I think you need to get your offspring to reproducible age to be considered an ecologiccal winner.

  35. The book of life: The question ? can we read it? Will we be allowed to try to read it? I’m finding that I am no longer allowed to do things that I used to be able to do because as we have taken all the habitats and imperiled all the other species, other species have become so scarce that they have to be protected and I’m afraid its not too long before I won’t be able to touch a lizard in the wild. And then finally, do we have enough time? I think the time has almost run out on us here and I’m gonna come back to that.

    I think this is a bit of a telling passage. You have to remember that this is a human being, with actual motivations. Dr. Pianka believes that his science is important. He is fascinated by the natural world and wants to learn all he can about it. One of the things that we want to do is to learn about nature in a way that is undisturbed by man. Man-made effects such as pollution or habitat disruption would be considered cultural noise. Cultural noise makes his job much harder, because he’s got to separate human interference from natural processes. So he’s upset with the the expansion of human settlement and influence. So his bias colors his view of humanity. He wants to play with his lizards, but he’s afraid that progress will kill all the lizards. So he gets angry at progress.

    This is a side-effect of specialization. It happens in government, in industry, and any other endeavor where people focus on one aspect of things. Drug warriors see over-the-counter sudafed sales as a threat, so ban ’em, or at least put ’em behind counters. Last week we saw a gay-and-lesbian activist warning that all this focus on immigrants’ rights was admirable, but was distracting from the real issue of extending marriage rights to homosexual couples.

    So Pianka’s politics are colored by his life’s work. No suprise, really. So he’s become a bit of a university crank, suggesting all manner of wacky, anti-social things. His big motivation is so that he can go back to playing with his lizards in peace. He’s best described the way the Guide describes Earth.

    “Mostly Harmless”

  36. “…the rush to exonerate…”

    Everyone, just think about that little phrase: Ms. Young, libertarian, is troubled by something called a “rush to exonerate.”

  37. joe? what?

    my dictionary says exonerate applies to accusations as well as charges in a court of law.

    so you could rush to exonerate someone (i.e. defend them from charges) for good or ill.

  38. “3) for social animals, mass death can indeed be crippling even if it freed up resources in the immediate term”

    Yeah, I’d be really pissed if there weren’t someone behind the counter of Starbucks to serve me my goddamned mocha latte in the morning.

  39. So what’s wrong with this…from an evolutionary perspective survival = good, death = bad

    No cock roach, bird or dolphin acts to ensure human survival. Perhaps we see our survival wrapped up in theirs, but humans alone have have the capacity as intentional actors to ensure that humans survive. So working to ensure human survival is good, not bad…and would make the idea of their being good in humans not surviving a form of self-referencing, self loathing wouldn’t it?

  40. I have had this discussion on here with Athiests before over the “I have a strong moral conviction and don’t need to be told by a imaginary higher being what is right.” I have no doubt you do. My point is that the fact that you do is nothing more than an assertion of your will. Something is immoral or moral because you say it is, nothing more. Yes, you have a greater affinity for humans than animals. That is probably from an evolutionary view to be expected. If humans didn’t have a survival instinct, they probably wouldn’t have survived very long. That said, this guy has apparently come to the conclusion that he values the lives of animals more than humans. It is a perfectlly consistent moral theory. He seems to be saying that all creatures are equal in the world and that human beings have become destructive to other creatures, therefore, it would be a good thing if 90% of the human race died off so that the remaining 10% would live in better harmony with the other creatures. It is no different than slaughtering off nutrias or ferrel hogs. Nutrias and hogs are not native to the southern U.S., so we cut down their populations so that they don’t do too much damage to the native species. If humans are a product of evolution and there is no God, it is perfectly rational to see humans as no different than ferrel Russian bores running roughshod over the environment.

    I fail to see why that is such a horrible morality, as long as you do not consider humans to be of any special significance. If humans are special and not just apes with large brains, then it is a horribly immoral philosophy. However, from an athiestic evolutionary perscpective, I don’t see what is so special about human beings and why their continued existence on the planet in large numbers is an unqualified good, which is why I am not an athiest.

  41. However, from an athiestic evolutionary perscpective, I don’t see what is so special about human beings and why their continued existence on the planet in large numbers is an unqualified good, which is why I am not an athiest.

    Because we are humans, John.

    As I asked Dave, why do you assume the default position for atheists is “crazy ecologist says death of 90% of human population would result in a better earth, lets start the killing!”? Of course, I still haven’t figured out what the death of 90% of the population has to do with evolution. Except that maybe the survivors’ offsping would inherit their parents resistance to ebola. 5.5 billion lives seems a high cost for permanent immunity to a disease wouldn’t you say?

  42. Dave,

    I am not saying it is the default position, I am saying it is a reasonable position. Clearly, if you consider humans special, then his position is terrible. If you don’t, it makes perfect sense. I just don’t see how you can as an athiest who believes in evolution catgorically consider humans to be special or more worthy of preservation than other animals.

  43. “However, from an athiestic evolutionary perscpective, I don’t see what is so special about human beings and why their continued existence on the planet in large numbers is an unqualified good, which is why I am not an athiest.”

    Here are a few of the things that make humans special and different from animals: art, music, literature, charity, progress in culture, politics and society, freedom of will, consciousness, empathy. The list can go on, but none of these require belief in God.

  44. John,

    I don’t understand why the statuses of being either or both an athiest and a believer in evolution categorically prevent one from seeing humans as special. All three seem orthogonal concepts to me.

  45. My point is that the fact that you do is nothing more than an assertion of your will.

    And relying on the Bible or some other religious teaching is nothing more than an assertion of someone else’s will – so what? In the end everybody makes that choice somehow and it is always and assertion of will.

  46. Evolution has absolutely nothing to do with morality. It is simply an explanation for how the universe works – just like relativity or quantum mechanics or Maxwell’s equations.* You can certainly choose to accept a different explanation for how the universe works if you like (evidence be damned) but explanations of the universe are positive theories – how things are, now how they should be. So don’t be fooled into thinking your choice of worldview gives you a superior moral standing. Morality is a normative theory – how things should be – and as such it is purely a human construct, brought about by our self-awareness and ability for abstract thought. This requires some standard by which we judge good from bad (i.e. a moral philosophy). Where one chooses to look for that moral philosophy is always a personal choice – either explicitly or implicitly. In either case neither evolution nor any other positive scientific description of the universe, is going to provide any guidance as to what thinking, feeling, self-aware, sentient beings will determine to be a good or bad way to conduct oneself, organize society, or otherwise engage in experiencing the universe first hand.

    * Would anyone take it seriously to be told that if you believe in Maxwell’s equations then we’re all ultimately made up of molecules held together by electromagnetic forces between atoms, and the reactions in both our and the animal’s brains are also governed by electromagnetic interactions of molecules so we can’t really distinguish one from another and hence have no basis for morality?

  47. “Where one chooses to look for that moral philosophy is always a personal choice – either explicitly or implicitly.”

    Exactly Brian, if you believe that, why is one morality any better than another? Why is this guy so wrong for valueing animals as much as humans? I am not saying it is the only way, I am saying that if you are an athiest, its pretty hard to say that it is the wrong way.

    “so what? In the end everybody makes that choice somehow and it is always and assertion of will.”

    Again, Brian you are right. Why is any one morality any better or worse than another?

    “Here are a few of the things that make humans special and different from animals: art, music, literature, charity, progress in culture, politics and society, freedom of will, consciousness, empathy. The list can go on, but none of these require belief in God.”

    Yes, those make us different, but why do any of those things entitled humans to special treatment? Moreover, all of those things would continue if even 1% of humanity survived let alone 10%. In addition, if those are the things that make humans deserving of special treatment, does that mean that those people such as the disabled who cannot engage in this special human activities are less than human?

  48. “Where one chooses to look for that moral philosophy is always a personal choice – either explicitly or implicitly.”

    From an athiest’s perspective, I could not agree more Brian. My issue is that if that is true, there is no reason to believe one person’s choice is any better or worse than another person’s choice.

  49. John, deciding which one is better or worse requires a moral philosophy to begin with. You’re arguing in circles.

  50. It seems that many theists really do believe that they have faith in a higher power instead of in their own rational faculty.

  51. Brian,

    No I am not. Where does that philosophy come from? If there are no God or first priciples, it comes from you and is whatever you want to make it. Further, without a God, what makes a fist principle? That is my entire point, without God, you are just argueing in circles and pretending that one person’s view is better or any more valueable than another’s.

  52. It seems that many theists really do believe that they have faith in a higher power instead of in their own rational faculty.

    Put another way Sam, athiests worship the God of reason by believing that reason alone can give them access to any ultimate truth, which is just as much of a leap of faith as any theist makes.

  53. John: the question to ask is “good for whom?” The idea of abstract good doesn’t have that much meaning; but we can talk about what’s good for me, or good for you, or good for Mr. Pianka. Humans are special to me because I’m a human, and I like humans. The survival of humans is good because I’m a human, and I like humans. There’s no good in the abstract; there’s no independent meaning of life. There’s just us, and what we choose to do, and our own attempts to find happiness. I don’t need to justify my life, or my preferences, or my beliefs to anyone except myself.

  54. Further, without a God, what makes a fist principle?

    John, even with God what makes a first principle and how do you know that it is one? Did He tell you? You’re just taking someone else’s word for it. Must make it easy for you but it doesn’t make it any more legitimate. You arbitrarily choose to do that with no more reason than anyone else. In the end we are all just making a choice about what those first principles are, and with or without God your first principles are no less arbitrary than any atheists.

  55. It seems that many theists really do believe that they have faith in a higher power instead of in their own rational faculty.

    Put another way Sam, athiests worship the God of reason by believing that reason alone can give them access to any ultimate truth, which is just as much of a leap of faith as any theist makes

    What it really boils down to as that theists and atheists must place ultimate faith in one thing, their own judgement. If you want to make commonality, just say ‘first prinicple’. That theists have this belief system about God really doesn’t take us any further than someones judgement about some philosophical construction that really does not inform us.
    God is first principle? How do you know? Where does God come from? Just because you choose to stop there, doesn’t make it any less your choice.

  56. The mind is a funy thing. If unable to find an answer, will often construct one, then pretend it was found.

  57. The mind is a funy thing. If unable to find an answer, will often construct one, then pretend it was found.

    Only the agnostics refrain from this tendency. It is sad there are so few of them. Funny how neither theists nor atheists can see this dynamic working in their own minds. It is always only ever the other side who is doing this.

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