March 23, 2004


Darwin Day and the Peppered Moths (Marek Kohn, 29 February 2004, Independent on Sunday)

Richard Dawkins was looking magisterial, his demeanour and his dark suit apt for an occasion devoted to an eminent Victorian. This was Darwin Day, February 12, the anniversary of the great scientist's birth in 1809. The international Darwin Day Program urges its celebration around the world; the British Humanist Association, for whose event Dawkins was acting as chair, wants it to be a public holiday. It feels that if believers have saints' days, non-believers should have a ceremonial day off too.

How should we spend such a day, though? There are no obvious traditions, like maypole-dancing and marches for May Day. Over in Shrewsbury, Darwin's birthplace, they were having "a night of fine food and revelry" on the grounds that as a Cambridge student, Darwin had belonged to a 'Glutton Club' devoted to dining on "strange flesh". At the London School of Economics, by contrast, the atmosphere was more chapel than feast. Darwin Day was an occasion for sober dress and righteous ire. [...]

These are the two main forms of the peppered moth, emblems and textbook examples of evolution in action. The dark form appeared in Victorian Manchester, described at the time as "the chimney of the world", and had almost taken over from the speckled by the century's end. An entomologist named J.W. Tutt suggested that the dark ones were better concealed from birds in industrial districts, where pollution had stripped the lichen from the trees and covered them in soot. Half a century later, experiments by Bernard Kettlewell, of Oxford University, supported Tutt's hypothesis and made the peppered moths famous as a demonstration of evolution at a pace humans could observe. Then the dark forms duly went into decline along with smokestack industries and coal fires, making the textbook story complete. Yet in the past few years, Creationists and other anti-evolutionists have taken up the peppered moth as a stick with which to beat Darwinians. The LSE event was a rally in defence of the peppered moths' tarnished reputation.

And it was personal - relentlessly, vehemently, entirely personal. The speaker was Dr Michael Majerus, who leads the Evolutionary Genetics group at Cambridge University. Some years ago, he published a book in which he reviewed the studies done on the peppered moths. There were some anomalies, such as the appearance of dark moths in unpolluted areas, and it remained infernally difficult to do experiments which did not distort the untidy reality of life in the wild. These difficulties did not, however, shake his confidence in the story that Tutt had started a century before. But reviewing the book in the journal Nature, Jerry Coyne, an American evolutionist, compared his reaction to Majerus's discussion with the dismay he had felt when he discovered the truth about Santa Claus. He considered that the moth should be discarded as "a well-understood example of natural selection in action". [...]

Given a platform, Majerus took his revenge. For an hour he refuted, denounced and mocked. He closed with an impassioned invocation of over forty years' experience, man and boy: "I have caught literally millions of moths in moth traps. And I have found in the wild more peppered moths than any other person alive or dead. I know I'm right, I know Kettlewell was right, I know Tutt was right."

But, he acknowledged, anyone else needs scientific proof.

There's something almost sublime about a Darwinist religious event where the faithful acknowledge that it is the dubious who are more scientific in their skepticism.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 23, 2004 7:25 AM

You do love Dawkins, don't you.

It's great sport when the "Darwinist" position is presented by a rodeo clown.

Not fair, but fun.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at March 23, 2004 1:22 AM

He's their Pope.

Posted by: oj at March 23, 2004 7:28 AM

I should point out that this Majerus guy looks like loads of fun.

Posted by: Chris at March 23, 2004 7:41 AM

Mayr is also a lot of fun since he's an obvious fanatic.

Posted by: DW at March 23, 2004 9:39 AM


Mayr's actually at least honest about it, terming Darwinism a historical narrative rather than a science. Hard to see him going to a Communion with the mothmen.

Posted by: oj at March 23, 2004 10:52 AM

Orrin likes to pick at Dawkins not because Dawkins is the pope but because Dawkins is the Billy Sunday of Darwinism.

I defy him to do the same with, for example, Mary Kilbourne Matossian, "Poisons of the Past."

Posted by: Harry Eagar at March 23, 2004 1:21 PM


Why would I? She's right that the witchcraft trials were justified because the behavior of the witches was so aberrant as to be beyond what a society can tolerate. I'm agnostic as to whether the witches were tripping and practicing withcraft or just the latter.

Posted by: oj at March 23, 2004 3:28 PM

That's not what the book says, Orrin.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at March 23, 2004 7:54 PM