27 of 35 people found the following review helpful
on August 26, 2002
Why does the theory of evolution matter? And what demonstrable evidence can we point to that shows its mechanism operating within the life-span of a living organism? Anyone who took high school biology in the latter half of the 20th century is familiar with the photos of moths that "prove" the adaptive changes at work in this species, favoring the survival of black moths in industrially polluted England and the increased predation suffered by their lighter-hued cousins. The research, the experiments, and the resultant glory were centered around a tiny group of scientists at Oxford; the theoretical geneticist at the heart of the endeavor was E.B Ford, the field experimenter was Bernard Kettlewell. Until quite recently their evidence, and their theories, have gone unchallenged, but lately there has been a significant shift in the paradigm of adaptive evolution that they held sacred. Moreover, many of their experimetnal techniques, data, and conclusions have come under serious question by a new generation of scientists.
In her engrossing book, OF MOTHS AND MEN, Judith Hooper revisits the story of the theory of evolution, from Darwin's masterful insight to later refinements and controversies around the basic assumptions. This in itself is no small accomplishment, and her narrative is both lucid and compelling, but this is really just the necessary background to her real tale. Next she paints a compelling portrait of the handful of scientists at Oxford who set out to illustrate adaptive mechanisms once and for all from nature; not coincidentally, she gives us an incisive view of intellectual life at the pinnacle of the biological sciences establishment in mid-century England. And finally, she shows us how the experimental model that was so widely accepted (and so ubiquitously illustrated by all those photos of moths in textbooks) began to unravel. By the time she's done, we understand the stakes involved in keeping intact the "proof" underlying one of the principal tenets of the modern view of the world, and the tenacity, ambition, and intrigue of the major players.
Along the way Hooper manages to keep clear to the reader, miraculously enough, all the science and personalities and facts and sequences. Make no mistake, the story is complex, but Hooper keeps it from being confusing. You don't read this five pages at a time before dropping off to sleep, but once you understand the fundamental issues involved, it's very hard to put down.
This book works on many different levels: a real pot-boiler, full of venality and small-mindedness on all sides; a clear and thoughtful exposition of the central principles behind the oh-so-short field of evolutionary biology; a look at the sometimes whacky world of "moth people" (mostly men, as it happens); and a textbook example of how, when you're dealing with human beings, even on the frontiers of science, black-and-white usually refine themselves into shades of grey as complex motives and loopy behavior keep things chaotic. And, in between the lines, it's a strange and occasionally hilarious history of the recent past and of how many pieces of social quirkiness have (mercifully) fallen out of the puzzle. (For instance, we are given the almost surreal image of the departmental secretary at Oxford having to work in a shed in the garden, and having to go to the warmer moth shed just to answer the phone... )
Hooper has a wonderful gift for mordant understatement combined with serious questions that lets the reader discover the importance of the matters at hand without her ever having to talk down. Quite an accomplishment when you're juggling so many weighty facts, competing theories, and weird personalities. And of course I have my own favorites among her gems: "...(W)as 'Darwin's missing evidence' just an empty demonstration, a red-faced wino in a Santa suit?"; "It might be said that the birds in Tinbergen's famous film were like conventioneers gorging on roast beef and shrimp and leaving the aspic and stewed cabbages for later." My wife had to shut me up for out-loud laughing more than once.
Hooper avoids facile conclusions about intentions, preferring to suggest motives and practical constraints rather than see villains and heroes. Virtually none of her real-life characters come across as anything other than human, which is to say flawed, in various degrees, and therefore fascinating. I hope this will be a great cross-over book, a look at why science and a search for the truth matter, and why human foibles will always skew results. It should be a textbook, too: History of Science; Philosophy of Science; Ethics; and plain old Biology -- why not? Highly recommended.
54 of 75 people found the following review helpful
on August 27, 2002
The fundamental rule of science journalism should be "first, get the science right". Unfortunately, Hooper's book is marred by One Big Mistake: namely, Hooper misrepresents the state of the scientific question on Kettlewell's explanation for industrial melanism in the peppered moth, namely differential predation by birds against moth morphs more or less cryptic in polluted woodlands. Reading Hooper's book, one would think that this thesis, what I call the "Bird Predation Theory" (BPT), was on the rocks. But this just ain't so -- if we read peppered moth researcher Michael Majerus' (2002) book Moths, we find him writing on page 252,
[E]very scientist I know who has worked on melanism in the Peppered moth in the field still regards differential predation of the morphs in different habitats as of prime importance in the case. The critics of work on this case and those who cast doubt on its validity are, without exception, persons who have, as far as I know, never bred the moth and never conducted an experiment on it. In most cases they have probably never seen a live Peppered moth in the wild. Perhaps those who have the most intimate knowledge of this moth are the scientists who have bred it, watched it and studied it, in both the laboratory and the wild. These include, among others, the late Sir Cyril Clarke, Professors Paul Brakefield, Laurence Cook, Bruce Grant, K. Mikkola, Drs Rory Howlett, Carys Jones, David Lees, John Muggleton and myself. I believe that, without exception, it is our view that the case of melanism in the Peppered moth still stands as one of the best examples of evolution, by natural selection, in action.
Hooper, however, presents the peppered moth case as if it were falling apart, a story which of course the press reviews have uncritically repeated.
Hooper's hero in the book is the one critic of the bird predation thesis who is actually a moth expert, Ted Sargent, although even here Sargent is actually an expert on an entirely different family of moths (the Underwings, e.g. Catocala) and has done almost no work on peppered moths. Hooper, however, gives Sargent a huge platform and gives his numerous critics, and their published rebuttals to Sargent, very short shrift. Hooper portrays Sargent as a lone rebellious American taking on the dogmatic British establishment, but of course American peppered moth researcher Bruce Grant, who supports the BPT and has done numerous studies on peppered moths specifically, is not given the same chance to make his case.
As for Sargent's actual arguments against the bird predation thesis, both Bruce Grant and Laurence Cook wrote articles rebutting Sargent's critique, but Hooper gives Cook's article merely a brief brush-off in a paragraph, completely ignoring, for example, Cook's statistical analysis of all the previous peppered moth experiments, proving a correlation between moth fitness and morph frequency with a >99% confidence. This was a direct rebuttal to Sargent's most important argument, that the statistical support for the bird predation thesis was weak, but Hooper doesn't deal with it directly like she should if she is going to advocate an alternative view.
Hooper does come up with a few arguments that not even the creationists have proposed -- most importantly, that Kettlewell faked his results, or almost as bad, unconsciously mislead himself. This is despite the fact that the predation and mark-release-recapture experiments have been repeated by other researchers and have in the main confirmed his results (see the articles by Cook, Grant, and the books by Majerus 1998 and 2002 for detailed reviews). The most astounding passage in Of Moths and Men occurs when Hooper spends a paragraph "squinting" at the tables in Kettlewell's paper, and she notes that Kettlewell's moth recapture numbers increase suddenly on July 1, 1953. The implication is that Kettlewell fudged things somewhere.
But a modicum of investigation shreds Hooper's fraud hypothesis. What Hooper fails to look at seriously was that when Kettlewell released more moths, he recaptured more. Kettlewell started releasing far more moths on June 30th, and started catching far more moths on the morning of July 1st. In fact, when one does a linear regression, one discovers that "number of moths released" explains 80% of the variance in "number of moths recaptured". This is a nice strong linear relationship. Fraud is not a necessary explanation. Why didn't Hooper realize the obvious answer? Later in the book, Sargent keys off the same change in numbers, and he too mysteriously ignores the obvious explanation -- as in most of the book, Sargent's word is taken as gospel and is substituted for rigorous scientific evaluation.
In addition to the major issues discussed above, Hooper's book is peppered with small but disturbing mistakes of logic and science; there is a particularly nasty one about genetics that shows up Hooper's amateurishness (and frankly, that of her editors and glowing reviewers) rather blatantly. I will, however, leave these as exercises for future reviewers to acknowledge or not, so that readers of the reviews may distinguish the critical thinkers from the whatever-a-science-journalist-says-must-be-true types.
The peppered moth story is an awfully good story; but just as this doesn't make it true, it doesn't make it too good to be true either. Hooper's story, the story of a rebel (Sargent) overturning an oppressive orthodoxy is a "good story" also. As Hooper should know, the only way to tell if a "good story" is a true one is by a careful, balanced and weighted review of the evidence. The peppered moth researchers have and are doing this repeatedly, as every bit of new evidence comes in; this is their job as scientists; and their scientific conclusion is that Kettlewell's central finding, that bird predation is the agent of selection, remains firm. Hooper, however, chooses sensationalism, psychoanalysis, and a very selective review of authorities and evidence to reach her conclusion that the bird predation thesis is unsupported; this is the central flaw of her book.
15 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on June 21, 2004
I've been reading Nature for over 30 years, primarily for articles of medical or chemical interest. Each week the News and Views section attempts to explain papers appearing in the more technical sections of the journal to the general scientific public. Usually these artricles discuss the findings of a given paper, its implications for past work and suggestions for future work. From time to time, News and Views items about evolution (and natural selection) would appear. They were quite different. The whole area was extremely contentious, and the articles were written in a semi-theological fashion with various princes of the church holding forth on the correct interpretation of Darwinian doctrine.
No one with a biochemical background can doubt the unity of life, and its likely common descent, as we are all built of basically the same DNA, RNA, amino acids, sugars and metabolites. So I passed the articles by without getting too involved. On retirement, I did buy Gould's book on the structure of evolutionary theory -- it certainly needed a vigorous editor, but reading the book cold is like coming into the middle of a debate. I gave up after 80 or so florid pages.
The only reason I bought the present book, is that we had moved to the Amherst area, and the book was in the local authors section. Scientific training tends to be very ahistorical, and I knew very little about the controversies which have embroiled evolutionary theory since (except for great debate between Bishop Wilberforce and TH Huxley described in the book). When Steve Jones' book came out updating "The Origin of Species" chapter for chaper (Darwin's Ghost), I read both (chapter for chapter). Although Jones is very clever and much easier to read, Darwin wins each round hands down. He wrote for the educated layman (as almost nothing was known about chemistry or genetics at the time), and the power of his thought processes is stunning even today, and should be accessible to anyone with a high school education. It's definitely worth a read, although the prose style of 150 years ago takes some getting used to.
What Hooper's book does, is describe the subsequent history and the controversies which have embroiled the field (and continue to do so). I had no idea, that evolution was accepted but natural selection pretty much rejected in 1909, 50 years after the publication of the Origin of Species. At this point, there were naturalists who looked at the birds and bees (much like Darwin) and the geneticists (who bred fruitflies in milk bottles). Neither side talked to each other. This and the subsequent union of genetics and evolution in the 30's and 40's is very well described.
Darwin thought that no one would ever 'see' natural selection occurring in their lifetime as the process was far too slow. The appearance of darkly colored moths in the mid 1800s in industrial England appeared to be an example of it occurring (particularly after their numbers gradually increased over 100 years). The book describes the first flawed attempts to 'prove' that natural selection was occurring and that it was occuring by a particular mechanism (selective predation by birds).
The work was done in the 50's and was a product of its time. It was unfortunately all too typical of of the way medical research (not just evolutionary research) was done back then. At about that time 4 pillars of American & English Neurology wrote papers promoting the use of anticoagulants (blood thinners) in the treatment of warning attacks of strokes (transient ischemic attacks). None would be publishable today -- they lacked proper controls, how patients were selected, how long they were followed etc. etc. Lots of patients were treated, lots of complications ensued (of which I saw plenty as a practicing physician), until studies were done showing which patients (those with atrial fibrillation) would benefit, and which would not (just about everyone else).
Closer to the present, the first decent paper (prospective, randomized with controls) on the use of Estrogen in the treatment of Alzheimer's disease appeared in 2003 (no benefit was found). There had only been 3 proper papers prior to that all with too few patients to be significant. Noises had been made about estrogen 'protecting from' and even treating Alzheimer's disease for most of the 25+ years prior to that. Meanwhile patients, families and physicians were in the dark about what to do for a common and debilitating disease. All these studies could have been done in the 70s but weren't. So medicine's hands are no cleaner than the work described in this book (well Neurology's hands at least).
The book is extremely well written, and contains great turns of phrase, such as describing the hideous towers of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst as a 'cut rate Brasilia'. It inadvertently limns a rather depressing picture of academic life (both in the USA and at Oxford) -- anyone contemplating such a career should read it.
My only criticism of the book is that not much attention is given to subsequent experiments which demonstrate natural selection fairly well. Endler's work with guppies in Trinidad is discussed (but in a footnote in the back of the book) and the work of the Grants with Darwin's Finches in the Galapagos is not mentioned at all. Both (rigorously and convincingly < if they aren't out and out lying > ) demonstrate natural selection in action. To be fair, Hooper is telling one story (the peppered Moth) not all stories, and telling that one story very well.
Anyone reading this book should also read "The Beak of the Finch" -- also extremely well written. As for me, I'm going to hold my nose at Gould's undisciplined and rather Rabelaisian prose and tackle his book again.
15 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on May 12, 2003
Forget evolution. Just for a second, OK?
This is as engaging a book as you will ever come across. Judith Hooper is a terrific writer who has something to say to anyone remomtely interested or associated not only in science, but in pride and belief and truth and faith.
There is a review below (from a reader in Paris, France!) that has it all bang-on. You're left with many questions after reading this book. Is an idea/theory only as good as the people behind it and the examples they proffer? Are all scientists misogynists or liars or manic-depressives?
Hooper humanizes this sordid tale, and even with the tragic bits we can celebrate the triumph of scientific review. Debunking and revisionism are loaded terms, but as long as they're driven by a pursuit for the truth we should all be on the same team.
Let's remember evolution now, OK?
Even if moths did have a propensity to rest on tree trunks where enterprising birds could pick them off, what does that have to do with the grand unifying theory of evolution? Yes, certain phenotypes have better chances of getting you killed than other phenotypes, but does that explain speciation? The peppered moths have nothing to do with speciation.
And Of Moths and Men have nothing to do, essentially, with evolution. It has every thing to do with the natural tendency of human beings to believe what they want to believe, and this desire will drive us to do just about anything, including play with moths.
10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on August 6, 2002
The story of the peppered moths is presented here in an engaging manner and with ample references to the original literature. The author has interviewed many persons and studied the various aspects very carefully. Much information is brought together for the first time. The problem faced by the Darwinists at the middle of the 20th century was that there was no convincing case study in support of their theory. Ambitious academic scientists seized upon the peppered moths as offering the best hope for such an example. The moths were thought to shift over the generations from a light-colored version to a dark-colored one as the degree of industrialization increased and soot accumulated on trees making them darker, due to birds preferentially eating the light ones that stood out against the background of the trees on which they rested.
The troubles with this are many-fold, and the author deserves credit for bringing them out so clearly. She notes for example, that the peppered moths had already been offered up in the 1890s to the Darwinists, but they had then rejected the example since they knew that birds don¹t eat these moths. In fact bats are the major predators, since the moths are only active at night and during the day rest under branches of trees where birds can�t see them.
The case history was created by the Darwinists of the mid 1950s through careful fudging of experiment design and the author lays out the case for this conclusion. She even has checked the weather records to see if a change in conditions could have caused the abrupt change in the results observed in the field in the critical experiments, and finds that the weather was very stable. She describes many aspects of bad design, points that today would inevitably cause an experiment to be rejected, such as using different proportions of laboratory-raised moths for the light and the dark strains and putting out densities of moths far greater than occur in nature. As the author notes, one expert called the experiments an example of �unnatural selection�
The person who carried out the experiments, Bernard Kettlewell, is painted by the author as a victim of the pressures from the people above him, especially Prof. Henry Ford of Oxford. The desire of the Darwinists for a good example supporting their theory for the celebration of the centenary of The Origin of the Species in 1959 also was a factor.
The review in the headnote of this listing from the respected Publishers Weekly captures the essence of the book very well.
17 of 23 people found the following review helpful
Geoffrey Norman, whose book review in the Wall Street Journal entitled "A Flight from the Truth" enticed me to purchase this text, wrote that "for some, the fall of the peppered moth was better than Christmas morning. Creationists have had a field day with the news, especially on the Web, where a lot [of] bare-knuckles brawling occurs these days. Anyone who thought that the truth of Darwin's theory was settled in Dayton, Tenn., by Clarence Darrow--or in Beacon Wood by Bernard Kettlewell--is sure to be disabused by Ms. Hooper's fascinating book. But of course the theory of evolution will survive the collapse of Kettlewell--though some biologists cling to him with the avidity of the true believer[.] "Of Moths and Men" is a wonderful reminder that science is done by human beings, who are as flawed as the ideas they sometimes possess." Well said. Note that although this work is not a science book, per se, as other reviewers have correctly noted, the narrative includes extensive details on moths that some readers may find annoying. But if these same readers enjoy the good human character development that is interspersed throughout these details, they can definitely handle this annoyance. And because, in my opinion, Part III of this book (comprising two chapters of 12), is written so well, it is worth the time of the average reader to get through the first 10 chapters of the narrative in order to understand the implications of the faulty science of the peppered moth. Although for some reason Hooper has chosen within her discussion to ignore the modern intelligent design movement, she does note that she is "not a creationist, but to be uncritical about science is to make it into a dogma". Very well said.
11 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on December 2, 2002
Like many others, I was convinced of the power of natural selection via the peppered moth story in introductory college biology. I heard about this book in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Discover, and Science, and thought I'd better give it a read, for my own education. I did get an education, but more than that. "Of Moths and Men" reads like a novel. I loved the real-life characters--Bernard Kettlewell, EB Ford, Ted Sargent. A real pleasure to read, even if you don't care about evolution, and a tale about how science is really done. A cross between Crime and Punishment and A Confederacy of Dunces.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Judith Hooper (born 1949) is an American journalist, who has written/co-written other books such as The 3-Pound Universe,Would the Buddha Wear a Walkman?: A Catalogue of Revolutionary Tools for Higher Consciousness, etc.
She wrote in the Prologue to this 2002 book, "In Darwinian language, natural selection favoured the black appearance in the grimy mill towns and the light one in rural, unpolluted woodlands... For fifty years, this interpretation... was only a theory, until Kettlewell ventured out into the English countryside to prove it in 1953... these twin demonstrations became the most celebrated experiment ever in evolutionary biology... It is the slam dunk of natural selection... the thundering left hook to the jaw of creationism. Craig Holdredge, a young American biology teacher... dug up H.B.D. Kettlewell's original journal articles... He was appalled... he began to realize that the standard theory of industrial melanism... was full of holes. As it turned out, Holdredge was not the only one to notice the cracks in the icon. Before long the peppered moth had kindled a smouldering scientific feud... away from the public eye... What was it about this one case that was so sacred? Perhaps it was a symbol of something... and that was why some people were defending it so tenaciously. This book grew out of those questions. Behind the story, like a monster lurking under a five-year-old's bed, is the bogeyman of creationism... For the record, I am not a creationist, but to be uncritical about science is to make it into a dogma." (Pg. xvii-xix)
Of the famous photos/film that ethologist Niko Tinbergen took with Kettlewell, she recounts, "In his paper, Kettlewell would admit to putting out huge concentrations of moths on these closely watched trees in order to get the photographs... Still more intoxicating, perhaps, was the realization that they were the first people on Earth to catch evolution in action---on film! What the biology textbooks would fail to mention, and what passed unnoticed by their peers for at least a decade, was that [Kettlewell] had done a little tweaking in this experiment, too, just as he had at the aviary and in Birmingham in 1953." (Pg. 136)
She notes, "In Caldy Common, which had birches, sycamores and oaks, Clarke and Sheppard performed a predation experiment similar to [Kettlewell's]. They wanted to confirm the two key elements of [Kettlewell's] work: that the color of the morphs really did provide crypsis, and that there was differential predation by birds. They avoided the inconvenience of getting moths to pupate at just the right moment by using dead, frozen moths... the light-coloured typical; morph should have had and ADVANTAGE of about 23 percent... but in their predation experiments typicals still had a selective DISADVANTAGE of about 20 per cent. It didn't add up... [Kettlewell] was prickly and defensive about his friends' experiment. The rough draft that Philip sent to him was returned riddled with marginal notes and long-winded, often irrelevant objections." (Pg. 192-193)
She points out, "There was an evident gap between the predictions founded on Kettlewell's model, based on bird predation and crypsis, and actual observations. `The discrepancy may indicate,' Jim Bishop and Laurence Cook reflected in a 1975 Scientific American article, `we are not correctly assessing the true nature of the resting sites of living moths when we are conducting experiments with dead ones. Alternatively, the assumption that natural selection is entirely due to selective predation by birds may be mistaken.' Even then some people knew that the stories and pictures in the textbooks were not quite true, yet it would be another two decades or more before the icon was seriously challenged." (Pg. 218)
She cites Ted Sargent who notes, "Unconscious bias, he says, could easily have tainted Kettlewell's background experiments... `The moth is a little too high, but you tell yourself, "Well, it's mainly on the black." If you have an idea in your mind it's very easy to eliminate what you don't want. Kettlewell always seemed to find what he expected to be true... So many subtle things could enter. You might put the black ones closer to the collecting area, or hide the black ones a little better, unconsciously...' He pauses, looks pained: `His stuff is too neat! A two-to-one ratio and then two-to-one the other way, and nobody else gets anything like that? It's suspicious... Kettlewell's colleagues didn't want to shoot him down because they loved the idea. It was an example of Darwinism.'" (Pg. 256)
She summarizes the critiques: "By the early 1990s, if not before, it was known to a small circle of scientists that what every textbook in the Darwinian universe said about industrial melanism was untrue. There were some fundamental discrepancies, not least that birds may not be the major predators. The question is... whether in nature birds are major predators of peppered moths. Equally damaging to the `authorized version' was the fact that moths do not normally rest on tree trunks... but in shaded areas under branches, where colour differences would be muted... Additionally, the experimental densities were too high... When [Kettlewell] and Tinbergen were making their historic film, they laid the spread on even thicker... Furthermore, the method of release was faulty. Peppered moths fly at night and settle into their daytime resting places at dawn. [Kettlewell] released his moths in daylight because if he had released them at night they would have made a beeline for the light traps... the bird predation purportedly demonstrated by Kettlewell could easily have been an artifact of the experiment... there was also the question of what [Kettlewell] put out. He mixed lab-bred and wild-caught specimens... the lab-bred moths were possibly `more vulnerable'..." (Pg. 265-267) She adds, "With all these defects, one might suppose that `Darwin's missing evidence' had lost a little of its lustre. On the contrary, the leading lights of the industrial melanism field still cling to it, even while admitting that there are all sorts of confounding factors." (Pg. 271)
She concludes, "The accumulation of fifty years' research has built a monument that researchers in the field are understandably loath to dismantle. The worst-case scenarios, such as the possibility that the rise of melanic peppered moths may not have demonstrated natural selection, are unthinkable... If the major predators should turn out to be bats or beetles, instead of birds hunting by sight, or alternatively if birds are picking the moths out of the air, the standard model is in trouble again. But almost no one really wants to re-examine the theory itself. Those few who do so are demonized." (Pg. 276-277)
She adds, "H.B.D. Kettlewell advanced his hypothesis and tested it, though perhaps not as rigorously as one might have wished, and it seemed fine for a time. Today new evidence, a rigorous examination of old evidence, and further tests of the hypothesis... have suggested that it may be incorrect... We could fill in the blanks: [Kettlewell's] desperate need to please E.B. Ford, Ford's fanatical belief in the power of adaptation, everybody's craving for merit badges... Then there were [Kettlewell's] family problems, his insecure finances, his craving for recognition at Oxford, the `turns' he suffered during his experiment, his exhaustion, sleep deprivation and mood swings, even the emotional aridity of his childhood... Traditionally, these human factors are deemed irrelevant to the scientific process, as if scientists were a race of hard-wired robots." (Pg. 298-299)
While Hooper's work is subject to criticism [e.g., geneticist Michael Majerus's paper, `Industrial Melanism in the Peppered Moth, Biston betularia'], this book contains a wealth of information not easily available elsewhere; it will be "must reading" for anyone studying the peppered moth experiments.
5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on July 24, 2013
I started reading this book as part of a research project on Kettlewell, its subject, who is described in it as a fraud. No pleasure was involved, because of the book's overwritten novelettish style. Fortunately, I did not have to persevere, since I discovered that Majerus, Kettlewell's severest critic on technical grounds (in chapter 6 of his book "Melanism, Evolution in Action"), describes this work as "littered with errors, misrepresentations, misinterpretations and falsehoods" (lecture, 12 Feb 2004 at LSE, through [...] while Coyne, who famously repeated Majerus's criticisms in a book review (Nature 1998), has dismissed Hooper's work as "a flimsy conspiracy theory ... [which] unfairly smears a brilliant naturalist (Nature 2002)."
There are further ironies. Majerus was personally responsible (numerous papers, leading up to Cook et al., Biology Letters 2012) for vindicating Kettlewell's principal thesis of evolution as driven by camouflage against predation. Coyne, in addition to his technical work, is the author of "Why Evolution is True." Meantime creationists in their literature continue to cite Kettlewell's work as evidence that evolution science is fraudulent.
13 of 19 people found the following review helpful
If you got any exposure to evolution in school, it is quite likely that you saw the evolutionists' prime example of survival of the fittest, the peppered moth, _Biston betularia_. These were a visual hit; moths came in light colored and dark colored (melanic) forms. The light colored were hard to see on natural trees covered in lichen, and the melanic ones were hard to see on trees darkened by decades of soot from the British version of the Industrial Revolution. Research in the 1950s showed that as the trees darkened, so did the moths; predator birds couldn't see the melanic forms as well, so their race prospered, produced progeny, and overtook the typical light colored ones. (There is an important subtext to this manifestation, that of human degradation of the environment.) The great problem with the theory of evolution by natural selection is that it describes changes over thousands of years, but the moths' changes over decades was an example of rapid environmental change that proved Darwin right. The problem was that they did no such thing. There were quiet objections to the research as it was being done, but it was such a hit that only in the past few years have biologists seriously cried foul by showing its many flaws. Now a clear and informative book, _Of Moths and Men: The Untold Story of Science and the Peppered Moth_ (Norton) by Judith Hooper tells the story of the personalities involved, how the mistakes came to be made, how they were eventually uncovered, and what the outcome of the affair was.
In 1953, Bernard Kettlewell started the experiments to give numbers to the speculation that melanic moths were being naturally selected. He was a brilliant amateur moth expert, a tall, loud man, full of boisterous enthusiasm for his work, but the loudness hid deep insecurity. This was seized upon by the villain in this piece is E. B. "Henry" Ford, a misogynic and overbearing dandy who personified a type of Oxford academic. He was known for grabbing moths and eating them, for he said that was the only way to test its palatability. He strongly believed in classic Darwinism, and took Kettlewell under his wing as he realized that the experiments were a perfect field demonstration of Darwin's ideas, a demonstration that had been lacking. He leaned on Kettlewell for more results, and got them, and made them the centerpiece of his own book. When Kettlewell later took his own life, Ford unkindly pronounced him a coward. Ford and Kettlewell initially heaped scorn on anyone who challenged their work, and there were few challenges. The most formidable challenge came from American lepidopterist Ted Sargent who showed in the 1970's that Kettlewell's work had serious problems. The debunking didn't take, because the peppered moth was too entrenched. It has only been in the past five years that there has been serious and accepted opposition to evolution's shining example.
Not letting the peppered moth go are the creationists, who are delighted with this story. "If this is the best the evolutionists can do," they seem to say, "Darwin must have been wrong all along." It is not so simple, of course. Those who worked on debunking the peppered moth story are all evolutionists, as is almost every single biologist in the world. There are religious objections to evolution, but although its details may be subject to argument, it is as well founded as any other scientific theory. Hooper's lesson is decidedly not that evolution is somehow science called into question. It is instead that scientists are humans, that without proper supervision and checking and repeat experiments by others, they may see just what they want to see, and they may play power games that advance themselves rather than scientific truth. Hooper tells of science derailed by very human failings. Her descriptions of the personalities involved and the history of their interactions are detailed and entertaining. It may have taken too long in this spectacular case, but it is the duty of scientists, rather than religious enthusiasts, to steer research right when it goes wrong.