January 10, 2004


Mothballed Science (Philip E. Johnson, December 2003, Touchstone)

The trouble started in 1998 when a moth expert named Michael Majerus published a book that Oxford University Press had, ironically, commissioned to commemorate Kettlewell’s achievement. Majerus disclosed enough of Kettlewell’s many departures from proper scientific practice to inspire a reviewer to examine the original papers and then to write in Nature that the situation was even worse than Majerus had suggested, so that “for the time being we must discard the peppered moth as a well-understood example of natural selection in action.”

Subsequently, Darwinists, including the reviewer himself, were horrified to learn that “creationists” were publicizing the Nature book review all over the Internet. (The word “creationist” in Darwinist usage has no fixed definition and is mainly an insult that Darwinists apply to anyone who challenges some tenet of Darwinism in an unacceptable or dangerously effective manner.) Even more ominously, shocking newspaper stories began to appear. For example, a headline in the London newspaper The Independent asked bluntly if the moth’s iconic status is based on fraudulent research.

I don’t have space to go into all the scandalous details, but one of the juiciest is that the moths, which are nocturnal, do not rest on tree trunks during the day but prefer to fly up into the branches. The textbook photographs were staged, often by pinning or gluing dead moths in place.

You can read the entire story in Judith Hooper’s wonderful book, Of Moths and Men. It is a bombshell. Dava Sobel, the acclaimed author of Longitude and Galileo’s Daughter, describes the book on the dust jacket as a riotous story of ambition and deceit, about scientists who “arrange the evidence to arrive at the desired result.” Another jacket endorsement is by Ernst Mayr, the dean of living Darwinists. A Mayr endorsement is the nearest thing to a papal imprimatur that biology can provide.

The first reaction of biologists to the moth revelations is usually unconcern, because they assume that Darwinism is by now past all danger of refutation. A delayed panic typically follows, once the biologist realizes the likely consequences if publishers were to take the Nature reviewer’s advice and either drop Kettlewell’s bogus proof from the textbooks or admit all the embarrassing circumstances. For the Darwinists to hand the hated creationists a victory of that magnitude would be unthinkable, and possibly fatal.

For comparison, try to imagine the likely effect on the outcome of the Civil War if the Union Army had been forced at some point to abandon the national capital to the Army of Northern Virginia. The District of Columbia had little military value, and the northern states would still have had much greater resources than the Confederacy, but the symbolic effect, and eventually the tangible effect, of the setback would have been incalculable.

There is a colossal scandal in the peppered moth saga, and it goes far beyond anything that the over-enthusiastic Kettlewell may have done in the 1950s. The real scandal is that the most influential biologists overlooked the defects in the Kettlewell studies when they were first published, because the appearance of “Darwin’s missing evidence” was so convenient for them, and they continue to deny the facts today, to the extent of vilifying the messengers who bring them the bad news.

Even Michael Majerus, who provided the first disclosures that set off the scandal, has become a diehard defender of the official story, now that the delayed panic has set in.

Not black and white: a review of Melanism: Evolution in Action by Michael E. N. Majerus (Jerry A. Coyne, Nature)
Criticisms of this story have circulated in samizdat for several years, but Majerus summarizes them for the first time in print in an absorbing two-chapter critique (coincidentally, a similar analysis [Sargent et al., Evol. Biol. 30, 299-322; 1998] has just appeared). Majerus notes that the most serious problem is that B. betularia probably does not rest on tree trunks — exactly two moths have been seen in such a position in more than 40 years of intensive search. The natural resting spots are, in fact, a mystery. This alone invalidates Kettlewell's release-recapture experiments, as moths were released by placing them directly onto tree trunks, where they are highly visible to bird predators. (Kettlewell also released his moths during the day, while they normally choose resting places at night.) The story is further eroded by noting that the resurgence of typica occurred well before lichens recolonized the polluted trees, and that a parallel increase and decrease of the melanic form also occurred in industrial areas of the United States, where there was no change in the abundance of the lichens that supposedly play such an important role.

Finally, the results of Kettlewell's behavioural experiments were not replicated in later studies: moths have no tendency to choose matching backgrounds. Majerus finds many other flaws in the work, but they are too numerous to list here. I unearthed additional problems when, embarrassed at having taught the standard Biston story for years, I read Kettlewell's papers for the first time.

Majerus concludes, reasonably, that all we can deduce from this story is that it is a case of rapid evolution, probably involving pollution and bird predation. I would, however, replace "probably" with "perhaps". B. betularia shows the footprint of natural selection, but we have not yet seen the feet. Majerus finds some solace in his analysis, claiming that the true story is likely to be more complex and therefore more interesting, but one senses that he is making a virtue of necessity. My own reaction resembles the dismay attending my discovery, at the age of six, that it was my father and not Santa who brought the presents on Christmas Eve.

Peppered Moths - in black and white (Kevin O'Brien, 30 Mar 1999)
****** Response from Majerus regarding use of his book ************

Dear D*****, thank you for your e-mail. I am afraid that I do not have much
time this week, but your interest and points do demand some brief reply.
Below, following each point I give a response. You may use these as you see
fit, but please do not put my e-mail address on any discussion group

>Could you tell me:
>Do you think Coyne's review accurately represents your book and the status
>of pepper moth studies?

No. The review in Nature does not reflect the factual content of the book,
nor my own views. Indeed, Coyne tries to put words in my mouth by saying I
should have used "perhaps" rather than probably, in relation to the
evolution of melanism in Biston involving pollution and bird predation. I
do not even say probably. Indeed, on page 155, I say that my view is that
bird predation is of primary import, possibly to the exclusion of
averything else.

>What do you think of Coyne's claims in the _Telegraph_ that "Dr
>Kettlewell's widely-quoted experiments are essentially useless" and that
>"There is a lot of wishful thinking and design flaws in them, and they
>wouldn't get published today"?

My response to this can be gleaned from reading Chapters 5 and 6. Bernard
[Kettlewell] was a first rate entomologist and scientist. His experiments
were meticulous and generally well designed. In my opinion, many of his
experiments were among the best that have been conducted on melanism and
bird predation. The 'design flaws' in some of the experiments, if you want
to call them that were primarily a result of practical expediency because
Kettlewell wanted to be able to see birds taking moths, and to film them.
The only real flaw may have been his resting site selection experiments,
where he MIGHT (we do not actually know) have used moths from different
populations (see pages 142-143).

The Tyranny of a Concept: The Case of the Peppered Moth (Craig Holdrege, Praxagora)
In the mid 1980s I had a peppered moth epiphany. A peppered moth researcher described in an article that during twenty-five years of research he had found exactly two peppered moths resting on trees. How could that be? How could the moths' color in relation to the tree bark figure so prominently in evolution if the moths almost never rested on trees? Something strange was going on here. What had I been teaching? I began a search of the primary literature and over the next decade the solid and gleaming edifice of the peppered moth story dissolved into a shimmering illusion. What the textbooks were presenting and what all of us teachers were teaching was simply not true. This led me to write an article on the peppered moth (Holdrege, 1999). During the process I discovered that a growing number of scientists were writing about the same problems I'd discovered. The time was ripe for the myth of the peppered moth to be shattered.

A free-lance science writer, Dick Teresi, having read my article in Whole Earth, became interested in the story and interviewed me for an article in the New York Times Magazine. The article was never published. (At the very moment it was to appear, the Kansas School board "outlawed" the teaching of evolution, and an article critical of a central Darwinian example might have given the appearance that the Times supports creationism. Creationists have latched onto the peppered moth in their efforts to discredit evolutionary thought.)

Of course, even setting aside the inability of science to handle the fraud and the truth straightforwardly and things like the Times spiking a story because it confirms criticisms of Darwinism, the best part of the whole mess is that the original peppered moth story wasn't necessarily evidence of evolution anyway. There's no reason to believe the darker moths did not pre-exist the pollution but get predated more easily and then the situation merely reversed over time, after all, the lighter colored moths didn't get hunted to extinction. Darwinists seem to have looked at mere fluctuations in a population and then let their desires turn it into a case of evolution.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 10, 2004 4:21 PM

This is very little to do about melanism; it's a whole lot to do about people.

The anti-Darwinists, as in so many situations, are desperate.
. . . ...

Please pardon me for not going back to a couple recent pieces - - about Howard Dean's insufficient humor; and Laura Bush's kidding about her husband's supposed "poem." When Dean appeared with Bill Bradley, how come they didn't have BRADLEY stand on a podium, to further accentuate the difference in height? That might have defused the claim about stature anxiety. By posting this I do not mean to assist Dean in getting his act together.

Posted by: Larry H at January 11, 2004 8:03 AM

Only the naive ever treated the moths as examples of evolution, but there were plenty of naives. It was presented as evidence of natural selection and it was, though not as good an example as many others.

It's appeal was its simplicity, unfortunate, because living systems are seldom simple.

The idea that it is important is nonsense. It is significant only to people who know only one natural history example of natural selection.

I promise you, Orrin, darwinians are not going back to rethink the concept of natural selection based on the peppered moth.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at January 12, 2004 12:10 PM