Heads up, folks. Forrest M. Mims III is on a new rampage. This time, he is targetting Eric R. Pianka, noted ecologist and Denton A. Cooley Centennial Professor of Zoology at the University of Texas at Austin, whom Mims is calling “Dr. Doom”.
Pianka has long been talking about how humans have overpopulated the earth, and that human population is liable to “crash” just as we have seen happen in various animal populations that outgrow their resources. In his courses, he discusses both how an airborne contagious version of the Ebola virus might reduce the world human population to 10% of its size at the time of spread, and how, ecologically speaking, this would not be a bad thing. Apparently he gave a capsule version of what he teaches in his courses at a meeting of the Texas Academy of Sciences, where Pianka was to receive the TAS 2006 Distinguished Texas Scientist award. Mims was moderating the session. Mims has come away with the notion that Pianka wants people to undertake biological warfare to accomplish a 90% reduction in human population on purpose.
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 tortuous death of over five billion human beings.
Pianka has a brief discussion of the topic on this course site.
If humans do not control their own population (and we seem unwilling and unable to do so), then other forces will certainly act to control our population. The four horseman of the apocalypse (conquest, war, famine, and death) are all candidates. Most likely, lethal virulent microbes like HIV and Ebola zaire will set limits on the growth of human populations. HIV, by allowing infected hosts to survive years while they spread the virus and infect new hosts, has already become a pandemic, but it will be years before it decimates the human population. Although Ebola 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.
There’s no trace of the activist notion that we should bring about a pandemic as our means of population control.
I’ve emailed Prof. Pianka and hope to get a response on this topic. If I can, I will share that with you later.
As for the “Mr. Hyperbole” title, Forrest M. Mims III is a long-time antievolution advocate. His notoriety in antievolution comes from his failed bid to become
a staff writer for Scientific American magazine. During his job interview (something that everyone at the outset apparently thought was a mere formality), they noticed several church publications on his resume’ and asked him about his views on biology. He’s a creationist and antievolutionist. SciAm decided not to hire him. Mims screamed bloody “religious discrimination”, going so far as to provide Harper’s Magazine with a tape-recorded conversation with SciAm editor Jonathan Piel. Mims hadn’t bothered to tell Piel that the conversation was being recorded. Since then, Mims has repeatedly claimed that he was “fired” from Scientific American and that this constituted religious discrimination.
My take on this is that we are witnessing an intellectual mugging here. As even Mims reports, “In his last e-mail, Pianka wrote that I completely fail to understand his arguments.” I’m guessing that Mims’s penchant for hyperbole and inability to accept correction on cherished misconceptions is the only thing of note here. It’s one thing for Pianka to be dinged for inflammatory rhetoric, and quite another for him to be accused of fostering and encouraging academic scientists to take up organized biological warfare.
Obligatory disclosure: I was a student of Kirk O. Winemiller’s at Texas A&M University in 1993. Winemiller was a graduate student of Eric R. Pianka.