Distribute this one widely, it's a gem...
Copyright 2003 TSL Education Limited
The Times Higher Education Supplement
August 8, 2003
SECTION: OPINION; No.1601; Pg.14
LENGTH: 815 words
HEADLINE: A Wing And A Prayer
BYLINE: Michael Majerus
Creationists should stick to discourse on religion and leave the peppered
moth to get on with evolution, says Michael Majerus
We biologists in Britain have long felt superior to some of our US
counterparts because we do not suffer from legislation forcing us to teach
creationist creeds in biology. However, our self-satisfaction has now been
exploded. As of last year, one local education authority mandated that
creationism be taught in British schools as an alternative to evolution to
explain the diversity of life. At the root of that decision was a moth.
The peppered moth is the most famous example of Darwinian evolution - the
survival of the fittest. It is normally white with a dusting of black
speckling. But in 1848, a black, or melanic, form was found in Manchester
and spread rapidly in industrial areas. By 1895, 98 per cent of Mancunian
moths were black. The following year, the great Victorian lepidopterist J.
W. Tutt theorised that birds found these black moths harder to spot than
pale ones on trees denuded of their lichens by sulphur dioxide and darkened
by soot. In unpolluted regions, the white form was still better camouflaged
and remained predominant. Bernard Kettlewell verified this with his famous
bird predation experiments in the 1950s.
For 40 years thereafter, the story of the melanic moth was the example par
excellence of Darwinian evolution in action. But over the past five years,
its reputation, and that of scientists who worked on it, has been unfairly
In 1998, Oxford University Press published my book Melanism: Evolution in
Action, which details the complex evolutionary ecology of industrial
melanism. Jerry Coyne reviewed the book in the journal Nature. His article
was in essence favourable. But Coyne's main message was that "for the time
being we must discard the peppered moth as a well-understood example of
natural selection in action". I did not recognise this as a review of my
book and I had certainly not made such a claim.
Coyne's review, and a follow-up article in The Sunday Telegraph became
grist for the creationists' mill. This culminated in last year's
publication of Judith Hooper's Of Moths and Men: Intrigue, Tragedy and the
Peppered Moth. This book purports to give the untold story of the humble
creature's rise to fame. But it does not.
What it gives is an ill-informed, quasi-scientific, subjective potted
history of the peppered moth story, undermined throughout by Hooper's
relentless, unfounded suspicion of fraud, aimed at Kettlewell and his
mentor, E. B. Ford.
The book contains many factual errors, and Hooper demonstrates that she
understands little of evolution, and even less about the moth that is her
subject. Yet she deems herself capable of providing a more cogent critical
assessment of the case than a cohort of evolutionary geneticists and
entomologists who have spent years researching the moth. Moreover, she
smears the reputations of two dead scientists who cannot defend themselves.
Anti-evolutionists now argue that if the peppered moth story is dead, then
Darwinism is too. Nonsense. Evolution is defined as the change in frequency
of inherited traits over time. The black peppered moth, which inherited its
colouring according to Mendel's laws of genetics, did increase in
frequency, and now, following anti-pollution law, is declining.
This is proof of evolution. Furthermore, the speed and direction of the
changes can be explained only by natural selection. Hence, proof of
The only question that remains is whether Tutt's bird predation hypothesis
is sound. All the experimental work to date suggests that it is.
Kettlewell's work, and eight other independent studies, all point to bird
predation as the main factor in the rise and fall of the black peppered moth.
I have studied peppered moths for 40 years, have found more in the wild
than any other person alive, and have read more than 200 scientific papers
on the case. My conclusion is simple - this is still a perfect illustration
of evolution by natural selection.
The earth faces huge problems of overpopulation, diminishing resources,
loss of habitats and species extinctions. More than ever before, biologists
with an understanding of the complexities of ecological systems are needed.
Darwinian evolution is fact and, as Theodius Dobzhansky famously said,
"nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution".
Hooper, and the anti-evolutionists who cite her, should stick to topics
they know something about. Their creationist faiths belong in religious
education classes, not biology lessons.
Michael Majerus is a reader in evolution at Cambridge University. He spoke
on the peppered moth controversy at the Royal Entomological Society's
international symposium on evolutionary entomology at Reading University