September 8, 2005


One side can be wrong: Accepting 'intelligent design' in science classrooms would have disastrous consequences (Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne, September 1, 2005, Guardian)

It sounds so reasonable, doesn't it? Such a modest proposal. Why not teach "both sides" and let the children decide for themselves? As President Bush said, "You're asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, the answer is yes." At first hearing, everything about the phrase "both sides" warms the hearts of educators like ourselves.

One of us spent years as an Oxford tutor and it was his habit to choose controversial topics for the students' weekly essays. They were required to go to the library, read about both sides of an argument, give a fair account of both, and then come to a balanced judgment in their essay. The call for balance, by the way, was always tempered by the maxim, "When two opposite points of view are expressed with equal intensity, the truth does not necessarily lie exactly half way between. It is possible for one side simply to be wrong."

As teachers, both of us have found that asking our students to analyse controversies is of enormous value to their education. What is wrong, then, with teaching both sides of the alleged controversy between evolution and creationism or "intelligent design" (ID)? And, by the way, don't be fooled by the disingenuous euphemism. There is nothing new about ID. It is simply creationism camouflaged with a new name to slip (with some success, thanks to loads of tax-free money and slick public-relations professionals) under the radar of the US Constitution's mandate for separation between church and state.

Why, then, would two lifelong educators and passionate advocates of the "both sides" style of teaching join with essentially all biologists in making an exception of the alleged controversy between creation and evolution? What is wrong with the apparently sweet reasonableness of "it is only fair to teach both sides"? The answer is simple. This is not a scientific controversy at all.

Indeed, it's just a clash of faiths, as Mr. Coyne hilariously acknowledged, even if unknowingly, in the past, Of moths and men (STEVE CONNOR, September 2003, Independent)
This is the story of the moth that turned black when Britain had its Industrial Revolution. It is a story told in any school biology book as the canonical example of evolution in action. The light and dark varieties of this moth were key players on the Darwinian stage. That was until someone decided that it was time to rewrite scientific history and declare the story of the peppered moth a myth. A myth, furthermore, based on fraudulent research.

Doubts about the veracity of the peppered moth story first surfaced about five years ago. Leading evolutionists began publicly to question the landmark experiments that were supposed to demonstrate how the dark and light forms of the moth were each better camouflaged against being eaten by birds. When unpolluted trees were covered in lichen - which is very sensitive to pollution - it was the light or "peppered" form of the moth that more easily escaped the notice of predatory birds. When trees were covered in soot or devoid of lichen, the black "melanic" form was better disguised. [...]

Ironically, the roots of the dispute can be traced to a man who arguably knows more about the peppered moth than anyone. Michael Majerus, reader in genetics at Cambridge University, has made industrial melanism one of his specialisms and has spent hours poring over scientific papers - and many more hours scrambling around trees at all times of day and night, watching and wondering about Biston betularia.

"For 45 years I have bred, collected, photographed and recorded moths, butterflies and ladybirds in Britain," he says. "I have run one or more moth traps almost nightly for 40 years. I bred my first broods of the peppered moth in 1964. I found my first peppered moth at rest in the wild in the same year. As far as I am aware, I have found more peppered moths at rest in their natural resting position than any other person alive. I admit to being, in part, a moth man."

Oxford University Press asked Majerus to write a book on industrial melanism for publication in 1998 to mark the 25th anniversary of another book, The Evolution of Melanism by Bernard Kettlewell. It was Kettlewell who carried out the seminal experiments in the 1950s that were supposed to have demonstrated the role of predatory birds and pollution in the evolution of the two forms of peppered moth.

Dressed in khaki shorts and fortified with a supply of gin and cigars, Kettlewell would camp out for weeks doing what he enjoyed most - studying moths and butterflies. Although he carried out the earliest and most important field experiments on the peppered moth, and was widely viewed as a brilliant naturalist, this former medical doctor with a lacklustre degree in zoology was not considered a particularly good scientist.

"Bernard Kettlewell was a highly gifted amateur lepidopterist," says Professor Bryan Clarke, a geneticist at the University of Nottingham who knew him personally. "He was not a trained scientist. He never got to understand the refinements of theory, as can be seen in his book, which is embarrassingly bad. None the less, he had an extraordinary capacity for organising and executing studies in the field. More or less single- handedly, he accomplished what was then the largest and most demanding set of experiments ever carried out under natural conditions." [...]

In perhaps his most famous field experiment, Kettlewell released large numbers of light and dark peppered moths - marked with dots of paint - into two woods, a polluted one with no lichens near Birmingham, and a lichen-festooned wood in Dorset. After recapturing the marked moths using a light trap, Kettlewell found that the dark melanics had survived better in the Birmingham wood and the light form had survived better in Dorset. When he released moths on to the trunks of polluted and unpolluted trees, he witnessed how easy it was for birds to eat the melanics against the lichen-covered bark, and the light form against the sooty, lichenless bark. His colleague Niko Tinbergen even managed to record the predation on 16mm film.

"It was the reciprocal nature of the results from the two woods, together with the visual record on film, that had such an impact on the scientific community and finally convinced the sceptics," Majerus says. There was no doubt that the two forms were better suited to the different environments, with the melanics having a greater chance of survival in a polluted environment. Furthermore, Majerus says: "The mechanism of selection - differential bird predation - had been identified and demonstrated."

For Kettlewell and Ford, the experiments were a triumph. They showed that the rise of the black moth since the 19th century was due to the spread of environmental pollutants, which had progressively blackened British trees, so giving the melanic moth a cryptic advantage over its light cousin, which was mostly confined to unpolluted woodland in the West Country until its recent re- emergence after the Clean Air Act. It became the standard story of evolution by natural selection, illustrated with photographs of the two moths on the trunks of polluted and unpolluted trees.

But nearly 50 years later, Majerus began to spot flaws in the design of Kettlewell's experiments and the way they had been simplified for schools. Peppered moths do not usually rest during the day on the trunks of trees - where Kettlewell released them in the bird predation experiment - preferring higher branches tucked out of sight. Photos in schoolbooks showing peppered moths resting on tree trunks are staged, sometimes using dead moths. They bear little resemblance to what occurs in nature.

Then there was the problem of how Kettlewell did his experiment. He released far too many moths in a small area for natural population densities to be represented, making any feeding trial highly unnatural. The moths were also a mixture of laboratory-bred and wild- caught individuals, which he failed to distinguish: an important omission, as each might behave differently. He released his moths in daylight rather than during the night, when moths are normally active. Worse, he began to release more moths halfway through his experiment when he failed to recapture enough individuals to make his results valid. It is a cardinal error in science to change an experiment's design midway through.

When Majerus listed these deficiencies in his 1998 book, Melanism: Evolution in Action, one reviewer for the journal Nature, Professor Jerry Coyne, an evolutionist at Chicago University, concluded that for the time being evolutionists must discard the peppered moth as a well-understood example of natural selection. "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," Coyne wrote.

They don't want to teach both faiths because theirs can't prevail.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 8, 2005 5:51 PM

It's not a matter of faith. The reason I.D. is making headway is because it is an intelligent criticism of Neo-Darwinism, and therefore perfectly scientific.

Posted by: jd watson [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 9, 2005 6:34 AM

I am not a monkey's uncle!!!!!

Posted by: Steve at September 9, 2005 12:18 PM


ID isn't science until it can define what intelligence is, and what it does, and clearly distinguish those from what it isn't and doesn't.

Posted by: Anon at September 9, 2005 12:27 PM


Yes, that's the same reason Darwinism isn't science. both theories are obviously intelligent though.

Posted by: oj at September 9, 2005 12:33 PM

"The reason I.D. is making headway is because it is an intelligent criticism of Neo-Darwinism, and therefore perfectly scientific."

The notion of Intelligent Design consists of intelligent criticisms - irreducible complexity, specified complexity - that deserve to be addressed accordingly, and in many ways are or already have been.

There is no overall ID theory in the scientific sense, nor is there even as much as an ID hypothesis, which would need to be testable in some way:

Darwin's Influence on Modern Thought (Ernst Mayr, September 23, 1999, delivered in Stockholm on receiving the Crafoord Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Science (Ernst Mayr)

Evolutionary biology, in contrast with physics and chemistry, is a historical science - the evolutionist attempts to explain events and processes that have already taken place. Laws and experiments are inappropriate techniques for the explication of such events and processes. Instead one constructs a historical narrative, consisting of a tentative reconstruction of the particular scenario that led to the events one is trying to explain.

ERNST MAYR: WHAT EVOLUTION IS: Introduction by Jared Diamond (Edge, 10.31.01)
One of the surprising things that I discovered in my work on the philosophy of biology is that when it comes to the physical sciences, any new theory is based on a law, on a natural law. Yet as several leading philosophers have stated, and I agree with them, there are no laws in biology like those of physics. Biologists often use the word law, but for something to be a law, it has to have no exceptions. A law must be beyond space and time, and therefore it cannot be specific. Every general truth in biology though is specific. Biological "laws" are restricted to certain parts of the living world, or certain localized situations, and they are restricted in time. So we can say that their are no laws in biology, except in functional biology which, as I claim, is much closer to the physical sciences, than the historical science of evolution.

Posted by: creeper at September 10, 2005 3:25 AM

It would be considerably less confusing, Orrin, if you simply pasted your response in a comment of your own, instead of deleting part of my post, editing your response into mine and falsely attributing the whole to me.

Posted by: creeper at September 10, 2005 8:25 AM

Two posts of mine went missing yesterday. Is their a problem with your site?

Posted by: Anon at September 11, 2005 6:35 AM

No, with the comments.

Posted by: oj at September 11, 2005 8:49 AM

In case you don't know this, Anon, Orrin is not the most ethical blogger around, and will gladly delete (or alter without proper attribution) any posts he disagrees with, even if they are civil and contain honest argumentation.

Posted by: creeper at September 11, 2005 1:36 PM

When they're inaccurate or non-responsive. It would be unethical to leave your comments uncorrected.

Posted by: oj at September 11, 2005 2:37 PM

"When they're inaccurate or non-responsive. It would be unethical to leave your comments uncorrected."

It is good, proper and ethical to correct comments by responding to them in a properly attributed comment of your own or, if in an extreme case you feel that you must edit someone else's comment because you think it contains a falsehood, to identify clearly what you altered and why.

It is not ethical to simply alter someone else's comment without proper attribution, ie. falsely attributing the comment in its entirety to the original author; nor is it ethical to delete someone else's post without warning and for no good reason, just because it happens to disagree with you.

You have deleted and/or altered quite a few posts of mine that were civil and argued honestly; from what I've seen of Anon, he argues civilly as well, and I doubt his deleted comments were in any way offensive.

As for non-responsive, many of your own posts fall under that description, like your insistent misrepresentation that Mayr said evolutionary biology is philosophy, not science. The mistake has been pointed out to you more than once, and you non-responsively keep making the claim, without being able to lay your hand on a quote that doesn't rest on that misrepresentation.

Posted by: creeper at September 11, 2005 3:11 PM

They offend truth and therefore I edit them. If you Darwin fanatics want to troll around then you'll be corrected. Ypou spread enough disinformation without doing so here.

Posted by: oj at September 11, 2005 4:48 PM

A case in point are the obfuscations you've added to my comment from Sept. 10, 3:25 a.m. above (only the first three paragraphs are mine, you deleted another paragraph and added the rest): I pointed out that in order for ID to become a hypothesis, it would have to be testable in some way. You shoehorn a paragraph in in which Mayr says that laws and experiments are not suitable for use in evolutionary biology.

Posted by: creeper at September 11, 2005 5:54 PM


Posted by: oj at September 11, 2005 6:22 PM