April 22, 2002

MOTH BALLED :

REVIEW : Of Moths And Men: Intrigue, Tragedy and the Peppered Moth by Judith Hooper (Marek Kohn, This is London)
As every schoolchild knows, given a passing acquaintance with the inside of the biology lab, peppered moths are nature's way of telling us Darwin was right. Originally, these insects were all pale, but then, as the Victorian era began, black specimens began to appear. By the end of the 19th century, they had replaced the pale forms in the smoke-blackened industrial regions of England; while the pale kind held on in the countryside. In the 1950s, the Oxford researcher Bernard Kettlewell showed that birds picked out the dark ones on tree trunks in unpolluted areas, but ate more of the pale kind in urban areas where trunks were bare of lichen.

With the aid of the Clean Air Acts and the decline of heavy industry, nature then completed the story. Pollution decreased, and so did the black moths. The textbooks celebrated this example of "evolution in action".

Evolutionists had a trophy case-study that they could brandish at creationists, and at other scientists who considered them inferior because they could only interpret things that had already happened. For once in nature, the story was simple and the case was closed.

As with human celebrities, though, the moths look chequered in hindsight. Revisionists have pointed out anomalies in the evidence, such as the prevalence of black moths in unpolluted East Anglia. They have scrutinised the design of Kettlewell's experiments and found them sadly wanting - not least because the moths don't actually sit on tree trunks during daytime. They have failed to reproduce his neat results, and some believe that these were too neat: sloppy procedure may have allowed unconscious bias to massage the figures. Some scientists now feel that the peppered moth should be suspended from the textbooks. For creationists, as Judith Hooper observes in this absorbing account, it is like capturing the enemy flag.


As an evolution skeptic, it's always seemed peculiar to me that the evolutionists made such a big deal out of these moths. For one thing, the mere fact that everyone had to seize the same dubious example just served to prove how sketchy the evidence for evolution truly is. For another, even if the most extravagant claims for this study were true they'd not reveal much in the way of evolution taking place. We'd assume that the moths that were easiest to see would tend to get eaten first, so why be surprised that there are at any given moment more of the kind that are hard to see? Even worse, it seems to be a case where human action was causing the change in the population. No reasonable skeptic doubts that Man can make changes within a species via breeding; give me a German Shepard today and in a few thousand years I'll give you back his poodle-like descendants--big deal. Most importantly though, this greatest of all evolution observations only alleged that a moth changed colors, not that it had truly evolved in any significant way, not that it had changed species or in any way had its basic mothness change.

But despite all these problems, the true believers in Darwinism clung to these poor damn moths like drowning men to chunks of flotsam. Darwinists whip out those moths to fend off criticism in precisely the same way that Van Helsing kept Dracula at bay with a crucifix. It gives me indescribable pleasure to read that the evidence was apparently falsified to begin with. Judith Hopper's right--it is very much like being twelve again and capturing the enemy flag.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 22, 2002 1:09 PM
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