Eric Pianka is no stranger to bizarre conversations. As a public figure in evolutionary biology, he has engaged in numerous perplexing discussions with vociferous dissenters from the Creationist and Intelligent Design camps. On September 26, 2011 Eric Pianka received what was possibly the strangest phone call yet from David Hillis, a friend and fellow Professor at the University of Texas, Austin. Hillis informed him that rumor had it that Eric had died. Pianka learned that his obituary had been emailed to the herpetological community through the Center for North American Herpetology (CNAH), in memory of his recent passing. This is certainly not the first instance of bilocation for Eric, whose self-written obituary has been around for over two decades and available on his laboratory webpage for nearly as long. Most readers know that it is a spoof. The heading says so and the obituary ends with “Eric Pianka can be reached at eric.pianka@heaven/hell.com,” but every now and then he gets an uncomfortable email. However, this was the first time that a year of death was added to the obituary and emailed en masse to the thousands of subscribers.
The reaction to this news was predictably catastrophic. Although Hillis’ call came in time for Pianka to inform his family that was alive and well, a cascade of emails, calls, and visitors ensued. Several of Pianka’s colleagues, who wondered if the man they had seen the very same day was a bearded doppelganger, congregated outside of his office, pondering whether a dead man was inside. Finally, one worked up the courage to use his master key and all were relieved not to see a corpse slumped over Pianka’s desk.
Unfortunately, the avalanche did not end there, as others have been capitalizing on the sensationalism and making false Facebook pages about him. Pianka suspects that many old dissenters from the Creationist camp are to blame. Someone also altered his Wikipedia biography by entering a death date to make it look as if he had passed, but this was quickly corrected. Nevertheless, many people thought Pianka was indeed gone. A flip retraction by Joe Collins was eventually emailed out to the CNAH subscriber base several hours after the Memoriam, but most of the damage was already done. Collins was cavalier about the retraction, giving out Pianka’s home phone number and encouraging people to call him or “Better yet, visit him in Austin and touch him.”
Pianka says, “I am partially to blame as I wrote my own ‘obituary’ and have had it posted on my website online for the past 25 years, ever since 1986, headed with ‘He’s not dead, yet!’” Although the mortuary tribute is humorous, the motive in writing it was originally less tongue-in-cheek, as Pianka sought to provide a thorough obituary for potential writers to build upon at the time of his death. He intended for the obituary to be read only by his close friends, but it eventually found a home on the web, along with his now famous “Ten Commandments,” which hangs on many laboratory doors, because one of his graduate students thought they would be humorous additions to the lab site.
As to the source of the misinformation, there are few known facts, except that social media was likely involved in spreading the announcement. A message was posted on Facebook a few days ago saying Pianka had passed, which may have been from one of the people who occasionally think the web obituary is legitimate. The message on Facebook may have snowballed, leading to the email sent out by Joe Collins at the CNAH, who has not responded to inquiries regarding the origin of this information. It is also possible that the origin may have been more malicious, as his public image in Evolution and Conservation Biology has garnered him many enemies in fringe groups, and Pianka has had his share of death threats. The magnitude of this debacle is enough to make one wonder why the information was not verified before being emailed to thousands of friends and colleagues, and why a retraction should take so long.
But of course the most important news is that, as Pianka states on his obituary, “He’s not dead yet!” As could be expected from a man who published his own obituary online, Pianka has shown a good measure of perspective and humor on the issue. The experience has had some positive consequences, as Eric says it has motivated him to seek a full-time assistant to catalog a lifetime’s worth of data. “Perhaps this false alarm will help me get somebody to assist in getting my life’s work finished and saved properly before I actually do mort.” We are glad he is, indeed, still kicking, and hope he will be for years to come. Long live the Lizard Man!