Eric Pianka

Eric Pianka
Eric Pianka
Born Eric Rodger Pianka
January 23, 1939 (1939-01-23) (age 72)
Siskiyou County, California, USA
Other names "The Lizard Man"
Occupation Biologist
Title Professor of Biology at
University of Texas at Austin.
Eric Pianka

Eric Rodger Pianka[1] (born 23 January 1939) is an American biologist, whose work includes herpetology and evolutionary ecology.[2] 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.[citation needed]




Pianka was born in Siskiyou County along the California-Oregon 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.[3] 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).[3]


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 the famed 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.[4] 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".[5] Pianka frequently mentions MacArthur in his lectures and keeps a webpage for his deceased mentor and colleague.[6] 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.[7]

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).[citation needed]

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.[8] His favorite lizard is a small Australian goanna, Varanus eremius.[9] 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 [10] and Raymond Huey, a professor at the University of Washington.[11] Additionally, he teaches a range of popular undergraduate courses; he received an award for excellence in teaching from UT Austin in 1999.[12]

Texas Academy of Science speech

Pianka's acceptance speech for the 2006 Distinguished Texas Scientist Award from the Texas Academy of Science resulted in a controversy in the popular press when creationist and amateur scientist Forrest Mims claimed in the Society for Amateur Scientists Ezine The Citizen Scientist that Pianka had "endorsed the elimination of 90 percent of the human population" through a disease such as an airborne strain of the Ebola virus.[13] Mims claimed that Pianka said the Earth would not survive unless its population was reduced by 90% suggesting that the planet would be "better off" if the human population were reduced and that a mutant strain of Ebola (which has up to a 90% mortality rate) would be the most efficient means.[14] 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.[15] This resulted in the Federal Bureau of Investigation interviewing Pianka in Austin.[16]

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 of the speech, released a statement asserting that "Many of Dr. Pianka's statements have been severely misconstrued and sensationalized."[17]

Pianka has appeared on NBC-affiliate KXAN Austin[18] and "be on two cable talk shows Tuesday ... to try and clear his name". Pianka has posted an explanation on his University of Texas website (excerpt of longer statement):[19]

"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, 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 humanity. However, I am convinced that the world WOULD clearly be much better off without so many of us... 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.[20][21] According to Pianka, "His daughters are now worried about his and their safety, and says his life has been flip turned upside-down by 'right-wing fools.'"[22]

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, one lizard and two lizard parasites, are named after him.[23] 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.[24] 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.


Pianka has produced over 100 scientific papers, many highly cited and influential, and a classic textbook, Evolutionary Ecology.[25] He also writes for the general public; his book "Lizards-Windows to the Evolution of Diversity," coauthored with longtime collaborator Laurie Vitt, won both the Robert W. Hamilton Faculty Author Award at The University of Texas at Austin and the Oklahoma Book Award from the Oklahoma Center for the Book.[26]


  • Pianka, Eric R. (1983), Evolutionary Ecology (Fourth Edition), ISBN 0-06-045216-1
  • Pianka ER (1994). The Lizard Man Speaks. University of Texas Press. ISBN 0-292-76552-5. 
  • Pianka ER (1986). Ecology and Natural History of Desert Lizards. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-08148-4. 
  • Pianka, Eric and Dennis King (2004), Varanoid Lizards of the World, Indiana University Press.
  • Pianka, Eric and Laurie Vitt (2003), Lizards: Windows to the Evolution of Diversity, University of California Press.



  1. ^
  2. ^ "Eric Pianka". Biology Department at University of Texas at Austin. 2009. Retrieved 2009-07-15. 
  3. ^ a b Bazooka Injuries
  4. ^ Pianka and Vitt, 2003.
  5. ^ MacArthur and Pianka, 1966.
  6. ^ Robert MacArthur website
  7. ^ Pianka lab site
  8. ^ Current research
  9. ^ Varanus eremius
  10. ^ Winemiller lab
  11. ^ Home - Raymond B. Huey
  12. ^ Undergraduate courses
  13. ^ Dealing with Doctor Doom The Citizen Scientist April 2, 2006
  14. ^ The Citizen Scientist - "Meeting Dr. Doom"
  15. ^ Uncommon Descent (by William Dembski) - "Eric Pianka: The Department of Homeland Security needs to interview you"
  16. ^ "Professor's population speeches unnerve some". Austin American-Statesman. 2006-04-05. Retrieved 2009-07-15. [dead link]
  17. ^ "Texas Academy of Science statement on Pianka". The Panda's Thumb. Retrieved 2006-04-08. 
  18. ^ "UT Professor Clearing The Record On Speech". NBC. 2006-04-03. 
  19. ^ What nobody wants to hear, but everyone needs to know - Eric R. Pianka
  20. ^ Associated Press (2006-04-04). "Professor criticized over comments about impending pandemic". KTRK Houston, TX (ABC). 
  21. ^ Myers, Paul Z. "Texas Academy of Science getting death threats over Pianka" Pharyngula (blog)
  22. ^ "Professor's population speeches unnerve some". American Statesman. 2006-04-05. 
  23. ^ Honors and awards
  24. ^ ASIH Resolution on Piankification
  25. ^ Eric Pianka's "obituary"
  26. ^ Awards for "Lizards-Windows to the Evolution of Diversity"

External links

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