Pharyngula

Pianka and Mims

I’m getting some email requests to state my opinion on some claims by Forrest M. Mims. Mims attended a talk by Eric Pianka, in which he claims Pianka advocated the “slow and torturous death of over five billion human beings.” I wasn’t there, and I don’t know exactly what was said, but I will venture a few opinions and suggestions.

  • Read Wesley Elsberry, who does know Pianka’s work and has his own take on the interpretation of the talk.
  • I assure you that biologists do not have a secret plan to deliberately murder nine-tenths of the planet’s human beings in order to make room for more bacteria. The suggestion is ludicrous and is little more than an absurd conspiracy theory.
  • There are, of course, cranks who do think it would be a good idea to kill billions. There is no reason to think that Pianka is one of them. Mims reports that his talk was “vigorously applauded”, “cheered”, and that dozens “mobbed” Pianka afterwards. A suggestion as heinous as the one Mims claimed was made would not be so warmly received. Are we really to believe that a large audience of biologists did not muster one question or complaint at the suggestion that billions should be killed?
  • There’s another account of the talk online. It mentions nothing of a plan to intentionally infect people with airborne ebola and kill a majority of the people on Earth. Pianka does clearly state that the planet is overpopulated and that we cannot sustain our growth, and may have already exceeded what we can maintain at a desirable style of living. That’s the kind of thing an audience of ecologists would readily agree to, and is a truth they would applaud as an honest and strongly stated opinion.
  • Forrest Mims is not a credible source. He is a disgruntled creationist with a serious dislike of the science establishment, who has been carping for years about it. He has an overt bias and it is in his self-interest to play up accusations of ‘evil’ among scientists. They rejected him, after all, so they must be bad…and here’s proof!
  • I suspect that what we have here is a vocal scientist who tactlessly spoke an unpleasant truth—we are burning through the resources of our world at a prodigious and unsustainable rate, heedless of the future, and we can expect Nature in the form of a devastating disease to strike back—and once again, a kook from outside the reality-based community is using that as an excuse to demonize the messenger.

Comments

  1. #1 Tiger Spot
    April 2, 2006

    I took Evolutionary Ecology from Dr. Pianka a few years ago. He’d frequently get sidetracked onto:

    1. Cool Australian lizards.
    2. His buffalo.
    3. How much he disliked his neighbors who kept killing rattlesnakes.
    4. How some horrible disease is going to wipe out huge chunks of the population any year now, and how pleased he will be when that happens.

    So, yep, sounds like Dr. Pianka to me. The quotes in the article all sound pretty familiar.

  2. #2 Michael Geissler
    April 2, 2006

    Funny, I thought it was God who had the plan to torture and kill billions of people. Book of Revelation, anyone?

  3. #3 Moody
    April 2, 2006

    “…[We] can expect Nature in the form of a devastating disease to strike back….”

    Nature, I suspect, has no intention whatsoever. “Strike back” is a phrase implying intention. Light a fire, put your finger in, you get burned through no intention of the fire.

    I’m not trying to scold anyone here, but I always worry that such language is just what IDiots love to see, because it looks like some sort of tacit acknowledgement of just the kind of “intelligence” they promote. I’m guilty of using such language, myself, from time to time — it fits my occasionally poetic leanings — but I would gladly disabause anyone of the notion that I “believe” any “supernatural” agency or “intelligent designer” is behind whatever curtain, pulling whatever strings.

    But look who I’m telling! Haha! ;-)

  4. #4 Interrobang
    April 2, 2006

    Pianka may also halfway be expecting to die in a pandemic, which can change your outlook on things. Over on Serenity’s blog, people were accusing Serenity of thinking that he or she would be in the 10% of those who survive, which I think is not only an ad hominem but kind of jumping to conclusions. I’ve been through this; I’ve been following HPH5N1 for years now, and if it does go pandemic, I’m dead. Pianka might have come to the same conclusion long ago…

  5. #5 Jim Lund
    April 2, 2006

    That’s the plot of Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Cradle of Life. I kid you not. The evil genius scientist plots to kill mankind with the plague from Pandora’s Box. A couple hundred thousand chosen will be sold the antidote.

    What will creationists think of next, sharks with frikkin laser beams?

  6. #6 BrassyDel
    April 3, 2006

    Hey, I think I played this Story Arc in City of Heroes awhile back. You know, with the evil doctor Vahzilok?

    *ahem*

    Anyways, I didn’t hear the talk but I read that “article” and the Serenity blog about it. Now, it seems like the suggestion is more along the lines of we’re overpopulated, yada yada, and it is likely that we’ll be wiped out by a virus and that it would be good because we have too many people to sustain ourselves. When Serenity goes on to talk about medicine that reminds me of some concerns I’ve thought about myself. The whole “breeding ourselves into deficiency” thing. Would I not want that technology and medicine if I had a child that needed it? Of course I would. That’s different then wondering if it’s good for us as a species and thinking about it is not the same as actually preaching it.

    Which is the point: many of the posters on Serenity’s blog were implying that she specifically wanted people who were alive because of advanced medicine to just drop dead and that she advocated the murder of 5 billion people. That’s a jump and it’s reactionary. From the readings I’m leaning towards the disgruntled conclusion.

  7. #7 Rey
    April 3, 2006

    Ah yes, sort of like the Ward Churchill thing. Said that the 9/11 attacks were the chickens coming homw to roost, and people didn’t like that, so they accused him of saying that 9/11 was a good thing and we deserved it.

    Why does this never happen to Christian doomsayers? You know, them that say the Rapture is coming? “You guys WANT the Apocalypse!” “This just in, President Bush wants billions to die. Film at eleven.”

  8. #8 Tim Lambert
    April 3, 2006

    Oddly enough, I just posted on someone who bleives there is an occult conspiracy to reduce the population of the world to 500 million.

  9. #9 jc.
    April 3, 2006

    I know nothing about the people you are talking about but I do know that in europe many of the ecological parties, “Greens”, are a strange conglomeration of nature “friendly” groups. Among the quite legitimate and reasonable concerned people and groups can be found national socialist nature romantics and hardcore militant animal rights vegan types where the idea that a very large amount of of the “unnatural” & “parasitic” human race must be eliminated and the survivors must forced into a nature friendly rugged society of simplicity and ecological harmony with a controled birth rate (a kind of ecological Pol Pot paradise) is seen as a perfectly reasonable concept. Of course the Green parties try to keep these people and their ideas pretty low profile.
    I second the complaint about phrases like “nature will strike back”. I used to hate the group in my landscaping school that used to twitter on and on about how “wise” nature was especially if left to “it´s” own devices without interfernce by those stupid ugly “unatural” human race (which did not include the wise twitterers, who were usually of a middle class education and economic situation), jesus these were people who were going to make GARDENS, how natural is that?!
    Sorry, what I mean is that of course “nature” doesn´t give a shit if the planet earth is smoking lifeless cinder or a flourishing green garden of eden, but humans should and do.

  10. #10 Torbjörn Larsson
    April 3, 2006

    Uhh. I think it was the 80′s. 70′s perhaps?

  11. #11 Ian H Spedding
    April 3, 2006

    If Pianka actually believes that decimating the human population would be a good thing then I can think of another word for him that rhymes with his name.

    Allowing that we are depleting the planet’s resources at an unsustainable rate, to welcome the death of billions as an acceptable solution is both crass and crude.

    The worst thing about it is that it hands PR ammunition to the forces of antiscience that they will welcome with open arms – as we can see from Dembski’s reaction.

    Even if it’s not an accurate account of Pianka’s views, scientists need to distance themselves from this reported position pretty sharpish if they are smart.

  12. #12 Cheeto
    April 3, 2006

    “If Pianka actually believes that decimating the human population would be a good thing then I can think of another word for him that rhymes with his name.”

    Uuhh…Bianka?

    Anyway, a plague that killed 90% of the population would put us back farther than 3rd world. All services we take for granted would stop – oil production, electricity, food production. The secondary wave of disease from the bodies would probably eliminate another 90+% of the remaining population. It would be impossible for 90% of the population to die rapidly and not eliminate all but a few of the remaining humans.

    Now weather or not that would be better for the planet – well, who cares? If I and all my relatives are dead – then I don’t care what happens to the planet, my genes would already be gone.

    And the idea that people who would have died 300 years ago are now able to be saved is a good thing. That people are able to write that it is a bad thing, only indicates that those people have not thought to deeply about the topic, or else that they are sadly lacking in empathy.

  13. #13 KC
    April 3, 2006

    Fear not, fellow citizens! Brave Patriot Bill Dembski has fearlessly reported Pianka to the Department of Homeland Security:

    http://www.uncommondescent.com/index.php/archives/984

    “As soon as this is posted, I’m going to have a chat with the Department of Homeland Security. [Called them -- They are aware of it; it will be interesting to see if they do anything about it.]”

  14. #14 thwaite
    April 3, 2006

    Another sci-fi book with a half-credible scenario for an eco-population doomsday isn’t so literary as Stewart’s excellent EARTH ABIDES, but is still provocative: NATURE’S END, Streiber & Kunetka, 1986. But in this one humanity takes action: faced with overpopulation and ecological disasters, an international political movement emerges, the “DePopulationists”. Their program is simple: on a given day, all of humanity will pop a pill, and one-third of them will be fatal. The novel alternates between vivid descriptions of the ecological catastrophes (Denver’s air-pollution crisis, the burning of the Amazon and of LA’s new suburbs, etc) and a plot in which the heroes attempt to create a computer model of the De-populationist leader’s psychology, such models when animated and published having become the preferred method of public denouncement for politicians (could be better than blogs, I suppose, if psychology were up to it). The novel’s ruminations about the collective psychological impact of humanity’s partial suicide are equally speculative.

    Unfortunately these authors seem to have gone off the deep end since writing this – UFO’s, etc. Salvation from the stars …

  15. #15 Molly, NYC
    April 3, 2006

    He contributed some columns to Scientific American’s “Amateur Scientist” column, but the magazine declined to make him a regular columnist because the editors didn’t think hiring a creationist was consistent with its mission to promote science.

    The current Sci Am staff are probably thanking the 1990 staff as I type.

  16. #16 NatureSelectedMe
    April 3, 2006

    Gee, I read dozens of Forrest Mims electronics books and articles when I was younger. I didn’t realize that he was a whacko. Should I burn my old copy of ‘Engineer’s Notebook’?
    Look Mike, PZ writes wonderful science posts but just ask him what he thinks of the president, or the Iraq war. He gets very… deranged. But that doesn’t detract from the science. Look at what Kurt Vonnegut is saying lately but I still love his earlier books.

  17. #17 Elizabeth
    April 3, 2006

    While I don’t support Mims’ leap from “Pianka’s wishes” to “Pianka’s plots,” I do find it unscientific and inappropriate for an honoree of a scientific body to take glee in the thought of wiping out 90% of humanity through whatever means. And there hasn’t been much commentary on Pianka’s alleged support of China’s one-child policy (which is a clear violation of human rights), which should also garner him censure.

    Pianka is an ass. So may Mims be, but this time he got some of it right. Pianka is in no way deserving of honor or admiration.

  18. #18 Steve J.
    April 3, 2006

    There are, of course, cranks who do think it would be a good idea to kill billions.

    Hm, posters at Little Green Footballs?

  19. #19 sara
    April 3, 2006

    You realize that Eric Pianka is going to be the Ward Churchill of scientists?

    If these kind of academics didn’t exist, the right wing would make them up (and they do, using the insinuatory plural).

  20. #20 jaimito
    April 4, 2006

    I was expecting someone like Pianka since I read Gore Vidal´s “Kalki”. In his ignorance, or responsability, Vidal uses Yersinia pestis to wipe out humanity. In the plot, the scheme backfires and the “survivors” die off too.
    Since there is a very strong anti-humanity movement out there, and engineering pathogens can be done in the garage, it seems inevitable that Pianka’s ideas will be tried at field level. I dont know if casting light and publicity on Pianka-like people does not increase the danger.

  21. #21 Chris Clarke
    April 4, 2006

    Now weather or not that would be better for the planet – well, who cares? If I and all my relatives are dead – then I don’t care what happens to the planet, my genes would already be gone.

    By that logic, why should those of us who are not closely related to you give a flying fuck what you think?

  22. #22 Whatever
    April 4, 2006

    Mim’s should stop watching movies like ’12 Monkeys’ and ‘Shaun of the Dead’ if he can’t disassociate movie plots from fiction.

  23. #23 Torbjörn Larsson
    April 4, 2006

    “there is no evidence to support it.”

    We have plenty of evidence for worldwide plagues, and that overpopulation and poverty are increasing risks.

    “So you’re saying that this wackjob is a reliable source, while Mims is not, solely because Mims is a creationist?”

    This is your projection of what is said.

    Mims got on record for mistranslating events because SciAm wouldn’t hire him as being creationist, ie antiscience, which he refered to as “firing”. His creationism was circumstantial.

    It also seems Mims and his creationist fellows are hounding Pianka since he is an evolutionist. Already Malthus (pre-evolution) covered what Pianka is saying.

  24. #24 rightwingprof
    February 20, 2007

    “Forrest Mims is not a credible source.”

    Neither is anyone who describes himself as a “godless liberal.”

  25. #25 Sammie Ferrill
    January 1, 2010

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