- AUSTIN -- A University of Texas professor says the Earth would be better
off with 90 percent of the human population dead.
- "Every one of you who gets to survive
has to bury nine," Eric Pianka cautioned students and guests at St.
Edward's University on Friday. Pianka's words are part of what he calls
his "doomsday talk" - a 45-minute presentation outlining humanity's
ecological misdeeds and Pianka's predictions about how nature, or perhaps
humans themselves, will exterminate all but a fraction of civilization.
- Though his statements are admittedly
bold, he's not without abundant advocates. But what may set this revered
biologist apart from other doomsday soothsayers is this: Humanity's collapse
is a notion he embraces.
- Indeed, his words deal, very literally,
on a life-and-death scale, yet he smiles and jokes candidly throughout
the lecture. Disseminating a message many would call morbid, Pianka's warnings
are centered upon awareness rather than fear.
- "This is really an exciting time,"
he said Friday amid warnings of apocalypse, destruction and disease. Only
minutes earlier he declared, "Death. This is what awaits us all. Death."
Reflecting on the so-called Ancient Chinese Curse, "May you live in
interesting times," he wore, surprisingly, a smile.
- So what's at the heart of Pianka's claim?
- 6.5 billion humans is too many.
- In his estimation, "We've grown
fat, apathetic and miserable," all the while leaving the planet parched.
- The solution?
- A 90 percent reduction.
- That's 5.8 billion lives - lives he says
are turning the planet into "fat, human biomass."
- He points to an 85 percent swell in the
population during the last 25 years and insists civilization is on the
brink of its downfall - likely at the hand of widespread disease.
- "[Disease] will control the scourge
of humanity," Pianka said. "We're looking forward to a huge collapse."
- But don't tell local "citizen scientist"
Forrest Mims to quietly swallow Pianka's call to awareness. Mims says it's
an "abhorrent death wish" and contends he has "no choice
but to take a stand."
- Mims attended the educator's doomsday
presentation at the Texas Academy of Science's annual meeting March 2-4.
There, the organization honored Pianka as its 2006 Distinguished Texas
Scientist - another issue Mims vocally opposes.
- "This guy is a loose cannon to believe
that worldwide genocide is the only answer," said Mims, who filed
two formal petitions with the academy following the meeting.
- Joining the crusade, James Pitts, who
recieved a Ph.D. in physics from UT-Austin, became the second to publicly
chastise Pianka when he filed a complaint Saturday with the UT board of
regents. He insists a state university is no place to disseminate such
- He writes:
- "Pianka's message does not fall
within the realm of his professional competence as a biologist, because
it is a normative claim, not a descriptive one. Pianka is encouraged to
use his ecological expertise to predict the likely consequences of certain
technological and reproductive strategies, but to evaluate some as good,
bad, or worthy of prevention by genocide is the realm of philosophy or
political science, not science. His message falls no more within his professional
competence than it would for a physicist to teach religion in class or
a musician to encourage racism.Â"
- But Pianka, a 38-year UT educator, maintains
he's not campaigning for genocide. He likens mankind's story to an unbridled
party on a luxury cruise liner. The fun's going strong on the upper deck,
he says. But as crowds blindly absorb the festivities, many fail to notice
the ship is sinking.
- "The biggest enemy we face is anthropocentrism,"
he said, describing the belief system in which humans are the central element
of the universe. "This is that common attitude that everything on
this Earth was put here for [human] use."
- To Pianka, a human life is no more valuable
than any other - a lizard, a bison, a rhino. And as humans reproduce, the
demand for resources like food, water and energy becomes more than the
Earth can sustain, he says.
- Ken Wilkins, a Baylor University biology
professor and associate dean, agrees the inevitability of a crashing point
- "The human population is growing,"
he said. "We will see a point when we reach the carrying capacity
- there aren't enough resources."
- But resources aren't the only threat,
Pianka says. It's the Ebola virus he deems most capable of wide scale decimation.
- "Humans are so dense (in population)
that they constitute a perfect substrate for an epidemic," he says.
- He contends Ebola is merely an evolutionary
step away from escaping the confines of Africa. And should an outbreak
occur, Pianka assuredly says humanity will quickly come to a "grinding
- The professor's not the only one who
can articulate this concept. Because Pianka includes his doomsday material
in his coursework, Ebola and its potential play a notable role in some
students' studies. A syllabus for one course reads:
- "Although [Ebola Zaire] Kills 9
out of 10 people, outbreaks have so far been unable to become epidemics
because they are currently spread only by direct physical contact with
infected blood. However, a closely-related virus that kills monkeys, Ebola
Reston, is airborne, and it is only a matter of time until Ebola Zaire
evolves the capacity to be airborne."
- It is here that some say Pianka ventures
from provocative food for thought to, as Wilkins said, "very extreme
material" that violate many people's views - including his own - about
the treatment of human life. While many praise Pianka's boldness and scientific
know-how, others say he crosses an ethical line in his treatment of Ebola's
viability as a killer.
- In an evaluation of Pianka's course -
performed anonymously in keeping with university policy - one student offered:
- "Though I agree that conservation
biology is of utmost importance to the world, I do not think that preaching
that 90 percent of the human population should die of Ebola is the most
effective means of encouraging conservation awareness."
- Mims says he's seen countless doomsday
predictions come and go. But Pianka's is different, Mims said. Pianka,
he insists, exhibits genuine cause for alarm.
- Mims worries fertile young minds with
a thirst for knowledge may develop into enthusiastic supporters of a deadly
disease, advocating the fall of humanity.
- "He recommended airborne Ebola as
an ideal killing virus," Mims said. "He showed slides of the
Four Horsemen of the apocalypse and human skulls. He joked about requiring
universal sterilization. It reminded me of a futuristic science fiction
movie with a crazed scientist planning the death of humanity."
- But as confident as Mims is in his assessment,
he faces one unarguable fact: Most of Pianka's former students are bursting
with praise. Their in-class evaluations celebrate his ideas with words
like "the most incredible class I ever had" and "Pianka
is a GOD!"
- Mims counters their ovation with the
story of a Texas Lutheran University student who attended the Academy of
Science lecture. Brenna McConnell, a biology senior, said she and others
in the audience "had not thought seriously about overpopulation issues
and a feasible solution prior to the meeting." But though McConnell
arrived at the event with little to say on the issue, she returned to Seguin
with a whole new outlook.
- An entry to her online blog captures
her initial response to what's become a new conviction:
- "[Pianka is] a radical thinker,
that one!" she wrote. "I mean, he's basically advocating for
the death for all but 10 percent of the current population. And at the
risk of sounding just as radical, I think he's right."
- Today, she maintains the Earth is in
dire straits. And though she's decided Ebola isn't the answer, she's still
considering other deadly viruses that might take its place in the equation.
- "Maybe I just see the virus as inevitable
because it's the easiest answer to this problem of overpopulation,"
- Though listeners like McConnell may walk
away with a deadly message, Pianka maintains this is inconsistent with
his lecture. One UT official said Pianka is likely well within his rights
as a tenured educator.
- The 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic
Freedom and Tenure - a set of guidelines recognized nationwide - guarantees
college professors vast classroom liberties. But Neal Armstrong, vice provost
for faculty affairs at UT, said even this freedom is not without limits.
- "Faculty members have the right
of free speech like anyone else," he said. "In the classroom,
they're free to express their views. There is the expectation, though,
that in public - especially when speaking on controversial topics - they
must make every effort to be clear that they are not speaking on behalf
of the university."
- Students should be able to discern on
their own the validity of views like Pianka's, Armstrong said. But if allegations
of Pianka actively advocating human death were to be confirmed, he said
"there might be some discussion about the appropriateness of that
- "I would hope that's not what's
intended," he said. "I don't think that's appropriate for the
classroom, but that's my personal statement."
- Robert K. Jansen, chair of the section
of integrated biology under which Pianka is classified, said his understanding
of the doomsday material left no cause for concern.
- "It's important for students to
get all opinions, and they have to do that on a daily basis," he said.
To hold a classroom's attention, Jansen says educators must often "speak
their mind" in a fashion bold enough to garner a bit of shock.
- The Texas Academy of Science uses a similar
approach in defending its decision to honor Pianka with the Distinguished
Scientist award. Though TAS offered no direct comment to the Gazette-Enterprise,
an email sent from TAS President David Marsh to Mims in response to Mims
first letter of protest reads:
- "We select the DTS speaker based
on his/her academic credentials and contributions to science. We do not
mandate the subject he/she decides to address, nor will we ever. I would
suggest that one of the purposes of any such presentation is to stimulate
discussion - which indeed it did."
- In his petitions, Mims inquires about
the group's stance on Pianka's talk, asking if the recent honor should
be interpreted as an endorsement by TAS. Marsh responded firmly, saying
the award does not represent any formal backing of Pianka's ideas.
- But despite the academy's flat denial
of any wrongdoing, Mims maintains his stance. He said thus far, he's seen
no response to the second petition.
- "I completely agree with one assertion
made several times by Dr. Pianka: 'The public is not ready to hear that
he hopes 90 percent of them will be exterminated by disease,'" Mims
- McConnell said the TAS audience, unlike
Mims, was in awe of PiankaÂ's words. They offered a standing ovation,
and enthusiastically applauded Pianka's position, Mims said.
- "There was a good deal of shock
and just plain astonishment at what he had to say," the student said.
"Not many folk come out and talk about the end of the human population
in as candid of a manner as he did. Dr. Pianka received a standing ovation
at the end of his talk, if that says anything. What he had to say was radical,
no question about it, but that is not to say that at least some of what
he had to say is not true."
- Though Pianka turned down requests for
a sit-down interview, he maintains he is not advocating human death.
- Does he believe nature will bring about
this promised devastation? Or is humanity's own dissemination of a deadly
virus the only answer? And more importantly, is this the motive behind
- Responding to these very questions, Pianka
said, "Good terrorists would be taking [Ebola Roaston and Ebola Zaire]
so that they had microbes they could let loose on the Earth that would
kill 90 percent of people."
- As of press time, Pitts - who sent his
appeal via email Saturday - had received no response from the university,
but he says, "It's too early for any responses to have been made."
Meanwhile, Pianka urges humanity to heed his call to be prepared, saying
"we're going to be hunters and gatherers again real soon."
- "This is gonna happen in your lifetime,"
he told his St. Edward's audience. "Do you wanna go there? We've already
gone there. We waited too long."
- · Read more about Pianka by visiting
his lab page at uts.cc.utexas.edu/~varanus/
- · Read more about Forrest Mims
- www.forrestmims.org or visit the Citizen
Scientist at http://www.sas.org/tcs/index.html
- Editor's note: A correction was made
to this story to reflect that while Pitts got his Ph.D. from the university,
he is not a professor there.
- Copyright © 2006 The Seguin Gazette-Enterprise