June 25, 2004 | David F. Coppedge

Angry Evolutionist Seeks to Revive Peppered Moth Story

Michael Majerus has had it with creationists who leaped onto his 1998 book and used it for ammunition against Darwinism.  He had confessed that the simplified textbook story of the peppered moth was inaccurate, but he never meant to cast doubt on evolution.  Majerus (U. of Cambridge) is highlighted in a profile in the June 25 issue of Science1 by Fiona Proffitt.  He is determined to get to the truth about the peppered moths.  Proffitt writes, “After a severe drubbing, the famous example of the peppered moth is getting refurbished.”
    Majerus, a researcher in sexual selection and the evolution of melanism (darkening), was among several biologists who began to question the validity of Bernard Kettlewell’s experiments on light and dark forms of Biston betularia that adorn most biology textbooks as “the most famous example of evolution in action.”  When he stated his reservations about the story, he set off a firestorm:

Through his research, Majerus found himself embroiled in the scientific debate over the evolutionary forces behind melanism in the peppered moth.  Experiments by British lepidopterist Bernard Kettlewell in the 1950s claimed to show that bird predation, coupled with pollution, was responsible for a color shift in the moth population.  But problems with Kettlewell’s methodology led some scientists to doubt his conclusions.  Majerus was not the first to point out the flaws, but by doing so, he inadvertently set off a wave of anti-evolutionist attacks.  While acknowledging that Kettlewell made mistakes, Majerus believes Kettlewell was right in his conclusions and has taken it upon himself to prove it.

Majerus is making thousands of moth observations with hundreds of thousands of lab-grown moth pupae to test the peppered moth story with better data and procedures.  To his credit, he is seeking to really develop a feel for the moths and let them tell their own story, rather than impose a preconceived conclusion on them.  Working three years on this project, he is going to “great lengths” to overcome the procedural errors made by Kettlewell:

But doubts emerged over Kettlewell’s methodology in recent decades as researchers failed to replicate some of his results.  His predation experiments were chiefly criticized for their artificiality: He placed the moths on exposed parts of trees in broad daylight, when they don’t normally fly, rather than allowing them to settle naturally; he released them in large numbers, thereby inflating moth densities and possibly creating a magnet for predatory birds; and he used a mixture of lab-reared and wild-caught moths without checking to see whether they behaved the same way.  Majerus summarized these criticisms in a book on the evolution of melanism in 1998 and stated that the simplified textbook story of the peppered moth was inaccurate, while asserting that Kettlewell’s conclusions were qualitatively sound.  Majerus had no idea at the time what a furor his book would cause.

That furor was intensified when Jerry Coyne wrote Nature in 5 November 1998 that “for the time being, we must discard Biston as a well-understood example of natural selection in action, although it is clearly a case of evolution.”2  Anti-evolutionists were quick to capitalize on this admission.  Judith Hooper wrote a “scathing” account in her book Of Moths and Men, and Jonathan Wells listed it as one of 10 discredited Icons of Evolution in his book.  Quoting Coyne and Majerus, creationists have been celebrating the downfall of this highly-touted example of Darwinism, even though they had long criticized its relevance to Darwinian theory.
    His tedious work on peppered moth ecology has another purpose; ammunition.  Majerus is preparing to do battle.  His defense is to resuscitate the reputation of Kettlewell; his offense is to disarm those who use doubts about peppered moths to question evolution itself.  There is one group he considers particularly dangerous, and he is going to employ his widely-admired communication skill on a lecture circuit:

It’s a talent Majerus hopes to put to good use in defending the reputation of Kettlewell and the peppered moth in a road show, which he aims to take around Britain–and possibly the United States–later this year.  He is motivated by growing concern over attacks on Kettlewell’s character, most notably writer Judith Hooper’s scathing account of the men behind the peppered moth story in her 2002 book Of Moths and Men: The Untold Story of Science and the Peppered Moth, which helped fuel an anti-evolutionist campaign to remove Biston from school textbooks.  “A lot of [the campaign] is pointed at the peppered moth as being the example that Darwinism is debunked,” says Majerus, who wants to make a public stand against teaching creationism and “intelligent design” in biology classes.  “To have people believe the biology of the planet is controlled by a Creator, I think that’s dangerous.”

At this stage in his experiments, he has a hunch Kettlewell was right about bird predation being a driver of changes in peppered moth populations, but doesn’t feel he has enough data to call it proof.  Some of his colleagues think it’s too labor-intensive a task in light of other worthwhile pursuits.  Majerus himself doesn’t want to get stuck working on peppered moths all his life, but is determined to get a definite answer on the bird predation issue before taking his message on the road.


1Fiona Proffitt, “Michael Majerus Profile: In Defense of Darwin and a Former Icon of Evolution,” Science, Vol 304, Issue 5679, 1894-1895, 25 June 2004, [DOI: 10.1126/science.304.5679.1894].
2For a later opinion by Jerry Coyne, including a link to his 1998 article, see his review of Judith Hooper’s book mentioned in the 07/05/2002 headline.

Darwinists, for your own good, give it up.  Peppered moths are not going to help you.  Yes, it was funny when Coyne described hearing the truth about Kettlewell’s experiments was like finding out that Santa Claus was really his dad.  Yes, it was damaging to learn that Kettlewell’s coworkers glued peppered moths to the trunks of trees for some of the famous photographs.  It was Far Side comic book material to find out this most famous example of evolution was based on flawed experiments.  All that aside, even if all the experiments had been done perfectly by scientific saints, and even if bird predation actually did shift the populations of moths according to the rise and fall of industrial soot on tree trunks, so what?  What does it prove?  Both varieties of moths already existed.  Both are members of one species, Biston betularia.  The only change was in relative numbers of pre-existing dark and light moths.  Kettlewell’s blunders are amusing in hindsight, but they have little to do with the real issue: Nothing evolved.  No new structures, organs or abilities emerged.  No genetic information was added.  Evolutionists need far better evidence than this to convince high schoolers that humans have bacteria ancestors.
    More significant is what this episode reveals about the lack of solid evidence for Darwinian evolution.  For decades, evolutionists pointed to Kettlewell’s moths as one of the best, if not the best, examples of natural selection ever found.  One 60s high school biology text called it “one of the best examples of the impact on a species of a change in the environment,” and “a classic example of evolution in action” (Otto and Towle, Modern Biology 1969, pp. 193-194); “Industrial melanism is a demonstration of the importance of natural selection in the process of evolution.”  Despite the recent uproar over Kettlewell, the spiel goes on.  The same spin doctoring, and the same photos, can still be found in today’s high school textbooks, along with other debunked examples like Haeckel’s embryos (see 07/25/2003 and 10/30/2003 headlines).  Not only is it past time for Darwinists to clean up their act, it is incumbent upon them to find better evidence than shifting populations of existing subspecies if they expect anyone to become convinced that natural selection can produce giraffes from slime.
    Advice to the Darwin Party: let the peppered myth have a solemn funeral, admit you made a big mistake, document the lessons learned, and move on to real empirical evidence.  Prove your theory, don’t expect people to just believe it.  Find an animal developing a new organ, like a wing or an eye.  Enumerate all the links in an actual chain of evolution from one organism lacking a complex structure to another having it, including the genetic and developmental pathways and the mutations involved.  Without resorting to just-so stories, provide an example of complex specified information or irreducible complexity arising purely from a purely naturalistic Darwinian mechanism.  Peppered moths are not up to the challenge.  While it is admirable that Majerus is attempting to accumulate definitive data on the little insects and their behaviors, and prove once and for all whether or not birds eat more of them on contrasting backgrounds, peppered moths are a dead issue to evolution.  Like the Sioux proverb advises, the best strategy when riding a dead horse is to dismount.
    Now to an even more serious aspect of this story.  Majerus correctly connects the dots; he knows that the peppered moth tale symbolizes a battle over the soul of science.  Why do the Darwinists cling so tenaciously to any minuscule piece of evidence, no matter how inconsequential, that might be used to bolster the idea that natural selection can account for all of biology?  Why the initial confident rejoicing over Kettlewell, and the anguish over his downfall?  Listen to what Majerus said: “To have people believe the biology of the planet is controlled by a Creator, I think that’s dangerous.”
    Phillip Johnson hit the nail on the head.  He has written repeatedly that the problem in the creation-evolution issue is not over evidence, but rather that evolutionists are committed to a materialist philosophy before the evidence has a chance to speak.  Science, to them, is no longer a search for the truth, a commitment to follow the evidence wherever it leads; it is a naturalistic philosophy that cannot stomach the thought of a Creator.  The issue is not whether this or that flimsy just-so story really supports Darwin’s theory or not.  It is that it must support it, because the alternative, that there really is a God who made the world and the things in it, is philosophically repugnant to them.  Their atheism demands a philosophy of science that can describe an unbroken chain of natural causes in a closed system.  To suggest otherwise is “dangerous” to them because it threatens their chosen world view.
    Thus it is necessary to go to great lengths to prove Kettlewell right.  It is necessary to go on the road and oppose the dangerous creationists.  It is necessary to keep the peppered moths in the textbooks and prevent the students from hearing the problems with the moth myth.  It is necessary to “make a public stand against teaching creationism and ‘intelligent design’ in biology classes.”  The end justifies the means, because to have people believe that the biology of the planet is controlled by a Creator is “dangerous.”
    Is it, really? It would seem that what is dangerous to science is dishonesty, cover-up, lack of scientific rigor, just-so storytelling, extrapolation, and obscurantism.  Is belief that the world is controlled by a Creator detrimental to scientific investigation?  Let’s ask Bacon, Kepler, Newton, Boyle, Maxwell, Pasteur, Carver, von Braun and a few other minor players in the history of science for their opinions.

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Categories: Terrestrial Zoology

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