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Professor's population speeches unnerve some

He says he's issuing warning, but others see talk of pandemics as a threat.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

University of Texas professor Eric Pianka's enemies say he advocates wiping out 90 percent of the population and that his seemingly giddy obsession with death and disease coupled with power over young minds is dangerous and disturbing.

His supporters say while his rhetoric may be shocking at times, he's just trying to get people to think about the consequences of uncontrolled population growth.

Laura Skelding

Eric Pianka, a UT professor since 1968, has given recent speeches where he says disease pandemics could wipe out 90 percent of the world's population. Some critics say he's promoting such a disaster.

"I've found that it takes courage to tell people what they don't want to know," Pianka, 67, said Tuesday, two days after a newspaper story in Seguin's Gazette-Enterprise ignited a firestorm that has resulted in e-mail threats on Pianka's life.

The controversy surrounds comments made during two recent speeches in which Pianka discussed the need for population control and the impending disease pandemic that might well just take care of it. Some heard the comments as simply a warning. To others, however, it sounded like Pianka was advocating the use of deadly viruses to kill off millions of people.

Pianka, who calls the latter interpretation nonsense, says the whole thing has blown out of proportion. Many, however, seem to be taking his critics seriously. Pianka said he is scheduled to meet with FBI officials today.

"Someone has reported me as a terrorist," he said. "They think I'm forming a cadre of people to release the airborne Ebola virus into the air. That I'm the leader and my students are the followers."

There's no denying that Pianka, even at first glace, seems a little eccentric.

His office, which he has inhabited for 38 years, is cluttered with books, stacks of paper, bones and even a few beers. There's a photo of him dressed like British naturalist Charles Darwin. Scattered pictures of lizards and a copy of his semi-autobiography, "The Lizard Man Speaks," reveal his area of expertise — lizards and evolutionary ecology. On his desk, he keeps a stuffed likeness of the Ebola virus that was sent to him by students who enjoyed his speeches.

He is particularly troubled by the recent explosion in the human population. He says we now take up about 50 percent of all livable space on Earth and that people should have no more than two children. Humans, and the way they've multiplied, are "no better than bacteria," he says.

Such talk makes Forrest Mims' skin crawl.

Mims, an author and amateur scientist who heard Pianka speak in early March before the Texas Academy of Science, said Pianka's remarks were degrading and that he was deeply disturbed by Pianka's comments comparing different diseases and their potential to decimate the human race. He's one of dozens of bloggers who have expressed displeasure with Pianka's point of view.

A Gazette-Enterprise reporter who heard Pianka speak Friday on the same topic quoted him saying disease "will control the scourge of humanity. We're looking forward to a huge collapse."

"It was 'Twilight Zone' material. It was like sitting in a science-fiction movie," Mims said Tuesday, adding that he is worried young doctors and scientists with access to deadly diseases might take literally what he claims is a call by Pianka to control population growth through the spread of disease. "The big concern is this professor is instilling this in the minds of students."

Pianka said only meant to warn about the potential for epidemics in the face of uncontrolled population growth. No recording or transcript of either that speech or another delivered last Friday at St. Edward's University in Austin was available. Pianka, who said his daughters are now worried about his and their safety, says his life has been turned upside-down by "right-wing fools."

Those roaming the corridors at Patterson Hall on the UT campus were very supportive of their teacher and colleague.

Fellow professor David Hillis said most people were sympathetic of the nationally renowned professor's plight. "There's a strong anti-science sentiment in the country right now," Hillis said. Pianka "has such a passion for life and diversity. How anyone could paint him as pro-death is unbelievable."

Tracy Heath, a doctoral student who has taken classes taught by Pianka, said he's known for living on a ranch, driving a Toyota Prius and raising bison. "He likes to captivate students with interesting pictures and stories," she said. "He's just trying to make waves to get people to think."

Pianka hopes this experience does just that. "We could be gods," he said. "We could be such great stewards of the Earth."

Oh, and one other thing — "Maybe it will help me sell a few books."; 445-3694

Eric R. Pianka

Born: Jan. 23, 1939, in Yreka, Calif. Now lives in Blanco County.

Education: Bachelors in biology, Carleton College 1960; doctorate in zoology, University of Washington, 1965; doctorate in ecology, University of Western Australia, 1990

Career: University of Texas, 1968 to present.

Family: Two brothers, a sister, two daughters, two granddaughters, two ex-wives and a small herd of American bison.

Publications: Several papers and more than a dozen books, including 'Varanoid Lizards of the World', 2004, and 'Lizards: Windows to the Evolution of Diversity', 2003, which won a Robert W. Hamilton Book award in 2005.

Hobbies: Chess, falconry

Worth noting: Guggenheim Fellow, 1978-79; Fulbright Senior Research Scholar, 1990-91; Denton A. Cooley Centennial Professorship in Zoology, 1986; Herpetologists League's 'Distinguished Herpetologist,' 2004; Texas Academy of Science 'Distinguished Scientist,' 2006

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