Eric Pianka

Eric Pianka
Born Eric R. Pianka
(1939-01-23) January 23, 1939
Siskiyou County, California, U.S.
Other names "The Lizard Man"
Education B. A., (Biology), Carleton College, Northfield, Minnesota, 1960
Ph. D., (Zoology), University of Washington, Seattle, Washington, 1965
D. Sc., (Ecology), University of Western Australia, Nedlands, W. A., 1990
Occupation Biologist
Title Professor of Integrative Biology
at University of Texas at Austin.
Honors Guggenheim Fellow, 1978
Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1981
Biography in "American Men and Women of Science"
Biography in "Who's Who in Frontier Science and Technology"
Biography in "Who's Who in America"
Biography in "Who's Who in the World"
Denton A. Cooley Centennial Professorship in Zoology, 1986-
Fulbright Senior Research Scholar, Australia, 1990
Big XII Faculty Fellowship, 2000–2001
Distinguished Herpetologist, Herpetologists' League, 2004
Distinguished Scientist, Texas Academy of Science, 2006
Fellow, Ecological Society of America, 2013
American Academy of Arts and Science, elected 2014
Auffenberg Medal for excellence in monitor research, 2015 Interdisciplinary World Conference on Monitor Lizards, Phranakhon Rajabhat University, Bangkok
Eminent Ecologist, Ecological Society of America, 2015
Website Eric Pianka

Eric Rodger Pianka (born January 23, 1939) is an American biologist, whose work includes herpetology and evolutionary ecology.[1] His textbook, Evolutionary Ecology (1983) is considered a classic, and his writings for the general public and television appearances have made him an influential figure.

Early life

Pianka was born in Siskiyou County along the CaliforniaOregon border in 1939. At age 13, he was seriously injured in a bazooka blast in the front yard of his childhood home in Yreka, California.[2] His left leg became gangrenous, and he lost 10 cm of his tibia, as well as the terminal digit of the middle finger on his right hand. Pianka's childhood injury left him with a short and partially paralyzed leg. In later life, his short leg resulted in spinal scoliosis and cervical spondylosis (an S-shaped spine and a pinched brachial nerve between neck vertebrae).[2]

Pianka graduated from Carleton College (B.A., 1960) and earned his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 1965. He went on to do postdoctoral work with ecologist Robert MacArthur at Princeton University. This period, during which he worked closely with the temporarily studentless MacArthur, had a major influence on Pianka's thinking.[3] Together, the two ecologists discussed the basic theoretical aspects of community ecology. The fruits of their collaboration included the classic paper "On optimal use of a patchy environment".[4] Pianka frequently mentions MacArthur in his lectures and keeps a webpage for his deceased mentor and colleague.[5] In some ways, Pianka's own research program expands upon and continues the work that he and MacArthur began.


Since 1968, Pianka has been on the faculty of the University of Texas at Austin. His interests are broad and his research includes empirical and theoretical components of natural history, systematics, community and landscape ecology.[6]

Despite his injuries he is one of the world's most accomplished field ecologists and has performed extensive ecological investigations on vertebrate communities in three desert systems on three continents: the Great Basin, Mojave, and Sonora Deserts in North America; the Kalahari in Africa; and the Great Victoria desert in Western Australia. His monographic treatment of this work is a landmark ecological synthesis (Pianka, 1986).

Pianka's current work focuses on lizard communities in Australia. His research projects include study of the phylogeny and ecology of a number of groups of Australian lizards and an extensive study of the unique biotic landscape produced by Australian brush fires.[7] His favorite lizard is a small Australian goanna, Varanus eremius.[8] In his research, Pianka combines traditional field biological methods with recent technological innovations in statistical analysis, phylogenetic reconstruction, and imaging of the Earth's surface in attempts to answer major questions about evolution and ecology.

Pianka has trained other scientists and twelve of his former graduate students are professors at major universities, including Kirk Winemiller, a professor at Texas A&M University [9] and Raymond Huey, a professor at the University of Washington.[10] Additionally, he teaches a range of popular undergraduate courses; he received an award for excellence in teaching from UT Austin in 1999.[11]

Texas Academy of Science speech

Pianka's acceptance speech[12] for the 2006 Distinguished Texas Scientist Award from the Texas Academy of Science[13] resulted in a controversy in the popular press when Forrest Mims, vice-chair of the Academy's section on environmental science, claimed in the Society for Amateur Scientists e-journal The Citizen Scientist that Pianka had "endorsed the elimination of 95 percent of the human population" through a disease such as an airborne strain of the Ebola virus. Mims claimed that Pianka said the Earth would not survive unless its population was reduced by 95% suggesting that the planet would be "better off" if the human population were reduced and that a mutant strain of Ebola would be the most efficient means. Mims' affiliate at the Discovery Institute, William Dembski, then informed the Department of Homeland Security that Pianka's speech may have been intended to foment bioterrorism.[14] This resulted in the Federal Bureau of Investigation interviewing Pianka in Austin.[15]

Pianka has stated that Mims took his statements out of context and that he was simply describing what would happen from biological principles alone if present human population trends continue, and that he was not in any way advocating for it to happen. The Texas Academy, which hosted the speech, released a statement asserting that "Many of Dr. Pianka's statements have been severely misconstrued and sensationalized."[16] However, Dr. Kenneth Summy,[17] an Academy member who observed the speech, wrote a letter[18] of support for Mims' account, saying "Dr. Pianka chose to deliver an inflammatory message in his keynote address, so he should not be surprised to be the recipient of a lot of criticism from TAS membership. Forrest Mims did not misrepresent anything regarding the presentation."

Pianka appeared on NBC-affiliate KXAN Austin[19] and on two cable talk-shows "to try and clear his name". He posted a statement on his University of Texas website that said in part:[20]

I have two grandchildren and I want them to inherit a stable Earth. But I fear for them. Humans have overpopulated the Earth and in the process have created an ideal nutritional substrate on which bacteria and viruses (microbes) will grow and prosper. We are behaving like bacteria growing on an agar plate,[21] flourishing until natural limits are reached or until another microbe colonizes and takes over, using them as their resource. In addition to our extremely high population density, we are social and mobile, exactly the conditions that favor growth and spread of pathogenic (disease-causing) microbes. I believe it is only a matter of time until microbes once again assert control over our population, since we are unwilling to control it ourselves. This idea has been espoused by ecologists for at least four decades and is nothing new. People just don't want to hear it.

I do not bear any ill will toward people. However, I am convinced that the world, including all humanity, WOULD clearly be much better off without so many of us. Simply stopping the destruction of rainforests would help mediate some current planetary ills, including the release of previously unknown pathogens. The ancient Chinese curse "may you live in interesting times" comes to mind – we are living in one of the most interesting times humans have ever experienced. For example, consider the manifold effects of global warming. We need to make a transition to a sustainable world. If we don't, nature is going to do it for us in ways of her own choosing. By definition, these ways will not be ours and they won't be much fun. Think about that.

As a consequence of the controversy, Pianka and members of the Texas Academy of Science have received death threats.[22][23] According to Pianka, his daughters are now worried about his and their safety, and his life has been "turned upside-down by 'right-wing fools'."[24]

Awards and accolades

Pianka was a 1978 Guggenheim Fellow, a 1981 American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellow, and a 1990 Fulbright Senior Research Scholar. He has received numerous awards, and at least three species, an Australian lizard (Ctenotus piankai )[25] and two lizard parasites, are named after him.[26] A symposium in his honor was held by the Herpetologist's League in 2004. The American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists passed a resolution on the word "Piankafication" to describe Pianka's influence on evolutionary biology and ecology at their business meeting in 2004.[27] In this resolution, they noted that he has had "vast and immeasurable influence on several fields of evolutionary ecology" and that his "years in the field have set the standard for both natural history and for ecological studies, resulting in publications that have lain the foundation for research programs..."

Pianka received the 2006 Distinguished Texas Scientist Award from the Texas Academy of Science. He and his research were featured in a wildlife documentary on monitor lizards — "Lizard Kings" — which premiered nationally on the PBS NOVA series in October 2009.

In 2015, Pianka was awarded the Auffenberg Medal in recognition of his extensive research on monitor lizards by the Monitor Lizard Specialist Group. In the same year, he received the highest award of the Ecological Society of America, the Eminent Ecologist Award.[28]


Pianka has produced about 200 scientific papers, many highly cited and influential, and a classic textbook, Evolutionary Ecology, which has gone through seven editions and has been translated into five languages. He also writes for the general public; his book Lizards: Windows to the Evolution of Diversity, coauthored with longtime collaborator Laurie Vitt, won the Grand Prize at the Robert W. Hamilton Faculty Author Award at The University of Texas at Austin as well as the Oklahoma Book Award from the Oklahoma Center for the Book.[29]

Selected bibliography




  1. "Eric Pianka". Biology Department at University of Texas at Austin. 2009. Retrieved 2009-07-15.
  2. 1 2 Bazooka Injuries
  3. Pianka and Vitt, 2003.
  4. MacArthur and Pianka, 1966.
  5. Robert MacArthur website
  6. Pianka lab site
  7. Current research
  8. Varanus eremius
  9. Winemiller lab
  10. Home – Raymond B. Huey
  11. Undergraduate courses
  12. Pearcey, Rick (April 4, 2006). "Dr. "Doom" Pianka speaks: transcript from the speech that started it all". The Pearcey Report. Retrieved February 26, 2012.
  13. "109th Meeting of the Texas Academy of Science: Program and Abstracts (2006)". Texas Academy of Science. Retrieved February 26, 2012.
  14. William Dembski (April 2, 2006). "Eric Pianka: The Department of Homeland Security needs to interview you". Uncommon Descent.
  15. "Professor's population speeches unnerve some". Austin American-Statesman. 2006-04-05. Archived from the original on July 5, 2007. Retrieved 2009-07-15.
  16. "Texas Academy of Science statement on Pianka". The Panda's Thumb. Retrieved 2006-04-08.
  17. "Kenneth R. Summy". Biology Department of the University of Texas, Pan American.
  18. Pearcey, Rick (April 12, 2006). "Support for Mims on Dr. "Doom" speech". The Pearcey Report. Retrieved February 26, 2012.
  19. "UT Professor Clearing The Record On Speech". NBC. 2006-04-03.
  20. What nobody wants to hear, but everyone needs to know – Eric R. Pianka
  21. Reference provided by Dr Pianka in his text: "Exponential Population Growth", from Pianka, E. R. Evolutionary Ecology; 6th edition; Addison–Wesley; 2000; last updated online on 7 July 2007
  22. Associated Press (2006-04-04). "Professor criticized over comments about impending pandemic". KTRK Houston, TX (ABC).
  23. Myers, Paul Z. "Texas Academy of Science getting death threats over Pianka". Pharyngula (blog).
  24. "Professor's population speeches unnerve some". American Statesman. 2006-04-05.
  25. Beolens, Bo; Watkins, Michael; Grayson, Michael (2011). The Eponym Dictionary of Reptiles. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. xiii + 296 pp. ISBN 978-1-4214-0135-5. ("Pianka", p. 207).
  26. Honors and awards
  27. ASIH Resolution on Piankification
  28. "Eminent Ecologist Award". Ecological Society of America. Retrieved 14 August 2015.
  29. Awards for "Lizards-Windows to the Evolution of Diversity"

External links

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