News, Views and Careers for All of Higher Education

‘Dr. Doom’ Under Siege

Environmental scientists haven’t been the top targets of intelligent design advocates, who have generally focused on attacking evolutionary biologists. But an outspoken environmental scientist at the University of Texas at Austin — whose research focuses on the damage modern society inflicts on the Earth — has found his work suddenly under scrutiny from unexpected sources.

Since March — in science and pseudo-science circles alike — much has been made of a speech that Eric Pianka gave at the annual meeting of the Texas Academy of Science. Those familiar with Pianka’s work say they weren’t surprised by his presentation, which, they say, outlined some of humanity’s ecological misdeeds, including overuse of petroleum. Scientists say Pianka regularly alludes to overpopulation and its ill effects on the ecological environment.

But his March speech — which Pianka’s colleagues say has been severely distorted by intelligent design supporters — has led to death threats against the respected scientist.

Pianka, when reached on Wednesday, would not talk specifically about his speech, only saying that “the full story will come out soon.”

One person who attended the event has already written a full story — which, in turn, has been championed by several opponents of evolution. Forrest Mims, a science writer without a university affiliation, has detailed his version of the speech in an online publication he edits called The Citizen Scientist. In an article titled, “Meeting Doctor Doom,” Mims wrote that Pianka “enthusiastically advocated the elimination of 90 percent of Earth’s population by airborne Ebola.” [The previous sentence clarifies an earlier version of this paragraph.]

Several people who attended the speech and are familiar with Pianka’s ideas say that he intended no such thing. While he said that overpopulation creates serious environmental problems, he didn’t call for the death of anyone, they say.

As a result of the professor’s speech, Mims says that he worries that a Pianka-worshipping student might someday become a professional academic with the ability to carry out an evil Ebola-inspired plot against humanity.

“I think this incident is a disgrace for the University of Texas, the Academies of Science, the state of Texas, and the United States,” Mims said Wednesday. He estimated that 95 percent of the crowd at the speech gave Pianka a standing ovation. “We’re not dealing with someone using theatrics to entertain students,” he added.

The Discovery Institute, a leading proponent of intelligent design, has posted Mims’s article in its online news analysis section.

William Dembski, a professor of science and theology at Southern Seminary and a well-known advocate of intelligent design, said that the critiques of the professor are not based solely on philosophical differences. “It’s not a question of intelligent design, but of our shared humanity and its value,” he said.

Since the critiques have rolled in, Pianka has received several death threats, according to local press reports.

The Texas Academy has stood firm behind the embattled professor, and recently put out a press release rebutting Mims’s account. They also defended naming Pianka a 2006 Texas Academy of Science Distinguished Scholar.

“We would like to state ... that many of Dr. Pianka’s statements have been severely misconstrued and sensationalized,” David S. Marsh, president of the academy, said in the release. “The purpose of his presentation was to dramatize the precarious plight of the human population. He did nothing more than apply commonly accepted principles of animal population dynamics to humans; an application not unique to this presentation and one that can be surmised by any student of ecology.”

John Hanson, a biology instructor at Texas Tech University who attended the speech, said that at no point was Pianka literally arguing that “humans are bad and we need to go away.” “Rather, he was talking about human impacts on the environment,” said Hanson. “From a nonanthropomorphic point of view, it probably would be best for the planet with less humans.”

Some members of the Texas Academy have united to create a petition expressing their outrage regarding Mims’s actions and their support for Pianka. Dozens had signed as of Wednesday evening.

When asked whether he believed in Darwinian evolution, Mims would not provide an answer. Hanson, for one, found that strange, and said that most scientists he knows are pretty open about being evolutionists — even ones who hold strong religious beliefs.

“I think that the Pianka affair stems from a contingent set of circumstances, and that it is because Forrest Mims happens to be an intelligent design advocate that the intelligent design advocates are so involved in this incident,” said Wesley R. Elsberry, a director with the National Center for Science Eduation. “In this case, he heard Pianka say some things that conflicted with his worldview, and through misunderstanding inferred things that just weren’t part of Pianka’s talk.”

“I would like to make clear that Mims has dishonestly mischaracterized Dr. Pianka’s statements,” said Kathryn E. Perez, a postdoctoral fellow with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill department of biology, in the petition of support for Pianka. She personally believes that the Texas Academy should consider sanctioning Mims, who is a member of the organization, for what she calls “misleading propaganda.”

“I’m not entirely sure why intelligent design proponents would find this a good bandwagon to jump on,” she added. “It just seems like they want to teach people not to trust scientists.”

Rob Capriccioso



Hello, I’m an intellectual historian. In my view, Dr. Pianka’s advocacy of elimination of 90 percent of the world’s population is not an isolated malignancy, but an extreme expression of a fairly common belief. I discuss the background of that belief in an article titled “Dr. Doom’s Mentors—Tom and Charlie.” www.hallographpublishing/Chapter13.pdf

T.D. Hall, Ph.D.

Theodore Hall, Dr./Ph.D. at retired, at 10:15 am EST on December 23, 2008

Pianka’s position

I followed the link in this article to read the one slandering Prof. Pianka, where I found another link to Pianka’s web page. He has posted there a brief, non-technical statement of his views on the problem of over-population. His expectations for the future are grim, but he is in no way homicidal.

Kathryn W. Kemp, at 10:07 am EDT on April 6, 2006

Only a Miracle

If the Intelligent Design folks were as enthusiastic about actually doing something to improve the earth rather than relying on a deus ex machina solution maybe we would not be overpopulated, polluted, engaged in wars, attacking other viewpoints and generally full of angst. Heaven helps those who help themselves. But first you have to acknowledge the problem.

A concerned citizen of the world.

John Bozzola, at 10:07 am EDT on April 6, 2006

OOPS! Wrong Template

As they reflect on this current headline grabber, IHED readers might want to reflect on this statement, and guess its source:

“As an evolutionist, I see human beings as the products of the same natural forces that shaped all other life on earth. Our brains evolved on this planet subject to the same kinds of natural selection pressures as those that shaped peacock feathers. The same can be said of all of our social structures, our religions and every other aspect of what we are that helped us secure resources and propagate our species (the hammer and anvil of natural selection). In short, our institutions and our technology are every bit as much a part of the natural world as elk mating rituals and beaver dams.”

Hmm, let’s see. Is the source. . . Dennett? Dawkins? Wilson? Gould? Or perhaps Eric Pianka, the latest martyr to scientific openness?

Nope. None of the above. It was written by Shawn Carlson, founder and director of the Society for Amateur Scientists. He’s the same person who wrote the introduction to the Forrest Mims piece referenced by IHED. Carlson’s own critique of Pianka’s views can be read at:

By the end of the day this space will no doubt be filled with comments denouncing intelligent design and lauding the courage of Eric Pianka, the most recent victim of the alleged theocratic crusade against science. That is, after all, the template with which IHED chose to frame this story. It’s alluring. It’s stimulating. And it distorts the pertinent facts marvelously.

ClioSmith, Associate Professor at Trinity Bible College, at 11:35 am EDT on April 6, 2006

Science or Politics?

While I no way support the teaching of intelligent design as a legitimate scientific theory, I feel that we should look at Dr. Pianka with some of the same scrutiny that we project toward those who support intelligent design. I formulated my opinion based on a recent interview Dr. Pianka had on the Tucker Carson Show a few days ago. When pressed by the host to explain if he did say that the planet would be better off if 90% of the population died from a world wide plague, Dr. Pianka responded that he was misquoted and misrepresented. However, Dr. Pianka did doge around answering the question appropriately.

Dr. Pianka stated he never wanted to see anyone die and would never wish a plague on mankind, citing that he is a grandfather and wants to see his granddaughter grown into adulthood. However, Dr. Pianka constantly asserted that the planet is overpopulated and has reached a point of non-sustainability since 1982. Unfortunately, heir doctor did not offer a solution to this overpopulation, so it makes it easier to assume that he would be open to a mass extinction principle. I myself came to such a conclusion after watching the rest of the interview. On a side note, Dr. Pianka needs to have a little fun in life. He is way too depressing.

Now, let me explain why we should be skeptical of those on the intelligent design side as well as Dr. Pianka’s environmental position. Both of these positions have a strong political agenda. The intelligent designers want to force creationism onto the education system, by representing ID as a legitimate scientific theory. Unfortunately, for the ID position, this is not a scientific theory and will never be seen as such by the credible scientific community.

However, Dr. Pianka is a spokes person for the environmental set, of who’s motives should be looked at with the same skepticism that we apply to creationists. That is because many of the positions that environmentalists take often are not fundamentally sound scientifically. Deforestation, species extinction, GE food and the causes of global warming are hot button issues that environmentalists and environmental scientists like to throw around to energize their support base. This is a similar tactic that the creationists utilize.

In his interview with Tucker Carlson, Dr. Pianka cited his concern about the human impact on the planet was based on the disappearance of unspoiled lands, for which he can conduct his research. Citing that man has taken away any habitat in which to study animals such as the elk. This position is not supported by the evidence however. In North America there is just as many acres covered by forests as there were when the content was discovered by Europeans. Also, there is not substantial evidence that man has contributed to the extinction of more than a few animal species in the last 100 years!

Again, both Dr. Pianka and the creationists have political agendas that they wish to thrust upon us. The present their ideas as scientific fact, when in fact there hypotheses are questionable at best. Ultimately, it is our responsibility to question many of these ideas that are being thrust upon as a science and see them more for what they are. Political ideology disguised as scientific theory.

VG, at 1:45 pm EDT on April 6, 2006

The Right Frame

IHED chose the right frame for this news report. As one close to the UT Austin campus the attacks on so-called “Dr. Doom” were preceeded for quite some time by attacks on secular science by so-called “compassionate conservative” factions on the UT Austin faculty. Those factions, in close coordination with others in departments such as philosophy, have been attacking environmental science on behalf of religion for a long time. They are well-supported by the likes of the Scaife, Olin, and Bradley foundations.

AB, at 1:55 pm EDT on April 6, 2006

Clio, Clio, Clio

Let’s read the passage from Carlson’s piece that is really relevant here:

“Forrest M. Mims III has reported in a Special Feature in The Citizen Scientist ("Meeting Dr. Doom,” 31 March 2006) on a lecture he recently heard at a meeting of the Texas Academy of Science. [...] Professor Pianka used the occasion to champion the notion, apparently without sanction of the Academy, that the Earth can only be saved if ninety percent of the human beings alive today are purged form the planet. He championed airborne Ebola as the most efficient virus to accomplish this.”

What we have here is a statement that indicates the following: a) Carlson was not present for Pianka’s speech, b) he has not read the text of Pianka’s speech, and c) he is relying entirely upon Mims’ characterization of Pianka’s speech in order to shape his perspective.

I meet the first two of those, but I will wait until I have got Pianka’s words—not Mims’ words—before me; then I will judge what Pianka has said.

Andrew Purvis, at 4:15 pm EDT on April 6, 2006

We’re much too wonderful to be guilty of error, aren’t we?

ClioSmith’s implication that all human institutions are as natural as elk-matings (and therefore, presumably benign and wholesome) is specious. Behaviors (including aspects of human culture) and physiological characteristics may indeed be the product of evolution — but the conditions under which they evolved may no longer exist, rendering what was once a successful adaptation a suicidal proclivity. That is, in fact, what some have argued more eloquently than I can about certain aspects of modern humanity, especially the Ponzi scheme of growth-requiring economic systems, overdependence on positivistic science, etc. Some of these behaviors might have been advantageous when there weren’t quite so many of us. They aren’t any longer. So will we use our vaunted intellects to adapt, or will we let the hammer and anvil of natural selection do the job?

What IS it with the crowd who can’t tolerate the notion that humans and their institutions might be flawed? Especially when they are often the same ilk who cleave to the doctrine of original sin? Must our self-depictions be ever-optimistic? Can we not stand a modicum of humility, or must any criticism be met with accusations of misanthropy and self-loathing?

And about stewardship of creation? Even if you don’t give a rat’s ass (vulgar pun intended) about the rest of the life on this planet, attending to our behavior’s impact on the environment is surely worthwhile from a position of self-interest. If nature tanks, we go along for the ride.

J.S. Clark, Father at Planet Earth, at 4:15 pm EDT on April 6, 2006

Science provides us with the means to understand what is around us in different ways. However, ultimately I can’t see that it provides us with a logical reason for ensuring the future well-being of life as it exists around us. We can use science to inform us as to how this might happen, and it may even motivate us to do this. But ultimately you still have to believe that it’s the right thing to do. I think whether this comes from a religious, humanitarian or an environmental ethos is up to the individual.

Sean Cox, at 8:30 pm EDT on April 6, 2006

How many of us have sat in a traffic jam and thought that there were too many people on the road? Does that necessarily mean that we were thinking of a way to kill a bunch of them? Get serious folks. Jumping to the conclusion that the professor or people who listen to him are going conjure up a way of killing people to benefit the world environment is pathetic at best. The professor is presenting the data which does suggest that humanity should think about limiting population growth. Gee, maybe family planning would be a more reasonable plan for limiting polulation growth than introducing ebola virus into the air ducts of a few office buildings.


Carl Sharples, at 3:55 am EDT on April 7, 2006

ho hum

“She told me, in the most unequivocal terms, that the world would be an infinitely better place without humans in it at all.” Ingrid Newkirk of PETA as quoted at:

I guess someone got there first!

tom, at 3:10 pm EDT on April 7, 2006

Eric Pianka

It would be nice if Professor Pianka would release the text of his speech to the Texas Academy of Sciences in Beaumont and any other speeches he has given recently. But he apparently won’t — so we must all speculate on what he said, or what Forrest Mims says he said, or what others say they heard him say. Professor Pianka could effectively end this debate but he won’t. I wonder why?

DRJ, at 4:35 am EDT on April 12, 2006

© Copyright 2008 Inside Higher Ed