Meeting Doctor Doom
Forrest M. Mims III
There is always something special about science meetings. The 109th meeting of the Texas Academy of Science at Lamar University in Beaumont on 3-5 March 2006 was especially exciting for me, because a student and his professor presented the results of a DNA study I suggested to them last year. How fulfilling to see the baldcypress ( Taxodium distichum ) leaves we collected last summer and my tree ring photographs transformed into a first class scientific presentation that's nearly ready to submit to a scientific journal (Brian Iken and Dr. Deanna McCullough, "Bald Cypress of the Texas Hill Country: Taxonomically Unique?" 109th Meeting of the Texas Academy of Science Program and Abstracts, Poster P59, p. 84, 2006).
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.
Something curious occurred a minute before Pianka began speaking. An official of the Academy approached a video camera operator at the front of the auditorium and engaged him in animated conversation. The camera operator did not look pleased as he pointed the lens of the big camera to the ceiling and slowly walked away.
This curious incident came to mind a few minutes later when Professor Pianka began his speech by explaining that the general public is not yet ready to hear what he was about to tell us. Because of many years of experience as a writer and editor, Pianka's strange introduction and the TV camera incident raised a red flag in my mind. Suddenly I forgot that I was a member of the Texas Academy of Science and chairman of its Environmental Science Section. Instead, I grabbed a notepad so I could take on the role of science reporter.
One of Pianka's earliest points was a condemnation of anthropocentrism, or the idea that humankind occupies a privileged position in the Universe. He told a story about how a neighbor asked him what good the lizards are that he studies. He answered, "What good are you?"
Pianka hammered his point home by exclaiming, "We're no better than bacteria!"
Pianka then began laying out his concerns about how human overpopulation is ruining the Earth. He presented a doomsday scenario in which he claimed that the sharp increase in human population since the beginning of the industrial age is devastating the planet. He warned that quick steps must be taken to restore the planet before it's too late.
Saving the Earth with Ebola
Professor Pianka said the Earth as we know it will not survive without drastic measures. Then, and without presenting any data to justify this number, he asserted that the only feasible solution to saving the Earth is to reduce the population to 10 percent of the present number.
He then showed solutions for reducing the world's population in the form of a slide depicting the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. War and famine would not do, he explained. Instead, disease offered the most efficient and fastest way to kill the billions that must soon die if the population crisis is to be solved.
Pianka then displayed a slide showing rows of human skulls, one of which had red lights flashing from its eye sockets.
AIDS is not an efficient killer, he explained, because it is too slow. His favorite candidate for eliminating 90 percent of the world's population is airborne Ebola ( Ebola Reston ), because it is both highly lethal and it kills in days, instead of years. However, Professor Pianka did not mention that Ebola victims die a slow and torturous death as the virus initiates a cascade of biological calamities inside the victim that eventually liquefy the internal organs.
After praising the Ebola virus for its efficiency at killing, Pianka paused, leaned over the lectern, looked at us and carefully said, "We've got airborne 90 percent mortality in humans. Killing humans. Think about that."
With his slide of human skulls towering on the screen behind him, Professor Pianka was deadly serious. The audience that had been applauding some of his statements now sat silent.
After a dramatic pause, Pianka returned to politics and environmentalism. But he revisited his call for mass death when he reflected on the oil situation.
"And the fossil fuels are running out," he said, "so I think we may have to cut back to two billion, which would be about one-third as many people." So the oil crisis alone may require eliminating two-third's of the world's population.
How soon must the mass dying begin if Earth is to be saved? Apparently fairly soon, for Pianka suggested he might be around when the killer disease goes to work. He was born in 1939, and his lengthy obituary appears on his web site.
When Pianka finished his remarks, the audience applauded. It wasn't merely a smattering of polite clapping that audiences diplomatically reserve for poor or boring speakers. It was a loud, vigorous and enthusiastic applause.
Questions for Dr. Doom
Then came the question and answer session, in which Professor Pianka stated that other diseases are also efficient killers.
The audience laughed when he said, "You know, the bird flu's good, too." They laughed again when he proposed, with a discernable note of glee in his voice that, "We need to sterilize everybody on the Earth."
After noting that the audience did not represent the general population, a questioner asked, "What kind of reception have you received as you have presented these ideas to other audiences that are not representative of us?"
Pianka replied, "I speak to the converted!"
Pianka responded to more questions by condemning politicians in general and Al Gore by name, because they do not address the population problem and "...because they deceive the public in every way they can to stay in power."
He spoke glowingly of the police state in China that enforces their one-child policy. He said, "Smarter people have fewer kids." He said those who don't have a conscience about the Earth will inherit the Earth, "...because those who care make fewer babies and those that didn't care made more babies." He said we will evolve as uncaring people, and "I think IQs are falling for the same reason, too."
With this, the questioning was over. Immediately almost every scientist, professor and college student present stood to their feet and vigorously applauded the man who had enthusiastically endorsed the elimination of 90 percent of the human population. Some even cheered. Dozens then mobbed the professor at the lectern to extend greetings and ask questions. It was necessary to wait a while before I could get close enough to take some photographs (Fig. 1).
I was assigned to judge a paper in a grad student competition after the speech. On the way, three professors dismissed Pianka as a crank. While waiting to enter the competition room, a group of a dozen Lamar University students expressed outrage over the Pianka speech.
Yet five hours later, the distinguished leaders of the Texas Academy of Science presented Pianka with a plaque in recognition of his being named 2006 Distinguished Texas Scientist. When the banquet hall filled with more than 400 people responded with enthusiastic applause, I walked out in protest.
Corresponding with Dr. Doom
Recently I exchanged a number of e-mails with Pianka. I pointed out to him that one might infer his death wish was really aimed at Africans, for Ebola is found only in Central Africa. He replied that Ebola does not discriminate, kills everyone and could spread to Europe and the the Americas by a single infected airplane passenger.
In his last e-mail, Pianka wrote that I completely fail to understand his arguments. So I did a check and found verification of my interpretation of his remarks on his own web site. In a student evaluation of a 2004 course he taught, one of Professor Pianka's students wrote, "Though I agree that convervation [sic] biology is of utmost importance to the world, I do not think that preaching that 90% of the human population should die of ebola [sic] is the most effective means of encouraging conservation awareness." (Go here and scroll down to just before the Fall 2005 evaluation section near the end.)
Yet the majority of his student reviews were favorable, with one even saying, " I worship Dr. Pianka."
The 45-minute lecture before the Texas Academy of Science converted a university biology senior into a Pianka disciple, who then published a blog that seriously supports Pianka's mass death wish.
Let me now remove my reporter's hat for a moment and tell you what I think. We live in dangerous times. The national security of many countries is at risk. Science has become tainted by highly publicized cases of misconduct and fraud.
Must now we worry that a Pianka-worshipping former student might someday become a professional biologist or physician with access to the most deadly strains of viruses and bacteria? I believe that airborne Ebola is unlikely to threaten the world outside of Central Africa. But scientists have regenerated the 1918 Spanish flu virus that killed 50 million people. There is concern that small pox might someday return. And what other terrible plagues are waiting out there in the natural world to cross the species barrier and to which scientists will one day have access?
Meanwhile, I still can't get out of my mind the pleasant spring day in Texas when a few hundred scientists of the Texas Academy of Science gave a standing ovation for a speaker who they heard advocate for the slow and torturous death of over five billion human beings.
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