Peppered Moths - in black and white (part 2 of 2)
I like to cover all bases when I make a point. Before submitting my own
evaluation of how Michael Majerus's book has been used (or abused), I
decided to contact him. I explained how his book is being used by
creationists, and asked a series of questions. These questions were either
rather rhetorical - already answered in his book - or points I was
suspicious of because the representation of Majerus's views didn't square
with his book. The latter case specifically refers to the interview Majerus
gave for the Telegraph article cited in the first half of this post.
This is, as they say, from the horse's mouth. ;-)
****** 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
>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).
>Since you make no mention of it in your book, did you say (in the
>_Telegraph_): Dr Majerus said: "He stuck them on low branches because he
>wanted to sit in his hide and watch them being eaten. They actually seem to
>rest in the shadows under branches, which makes even the black ones
>difficult to spot by birds."? This has been translated by
>to mean either pinned or glued (neither of which are necessarily "faked" if
The Sunday Telegraph article was a terrible bit of journalism. Indeed, one
might say that it is a series of journalistic blunders. I spoke to Robert
for over half an hour. He had not read my book, so I had to explain many
details of the story to him. Even then, he got nearly everything wrong.
For example, the decline in carbonaria frequencies did not start in the
1950s. The two quotes attributed to me were both not quotes from me, and
both are factually wrong. Bernard [Kettlewell] released live moths onto
tree trunks where they were visible from his hide where he worked with Niko
Tinbergen. This is purely a case of experimental necessity.
The suggestion that Kettlewell ever 'faked' a result is offensive to his
memory. He was an honourable, good scientist who reported his findings
with honesty and integrity. I would suggest that before writing this type
of misleading and error strewn report, journalists should read the book
that has drawn attention to the matter.
[I would say the same for creationists on this listserv as well. KLOB]
>Coyne makes complaints to the _Telegraph_ about Kettlewell's rearings and
>"warming" specimens. I don't see what his problem is here, particularly
>since you indicate Kettlewell's moths behaved nicely by remaining in
>as I expect resting moths would. Am I missing some important point Coyne is
>making, or is he nit-picking as I perceive him to be?
This is a spurious argument. All investigative interaction between man and
other organisms has the possibility that the observer influences the
organism to some extent. However, this does not negate the result as long
as one is aware of the possible influences when interpreting the results.
I see nothing wrong with the procedure.
>Lastly, I just received a creationist newsletter that claims associates of
>Kettlewell "admitted" that his famous photographs of the typica and
>carbonaria pepper moths on a tree were "faked" by gluing the specimens in
>place. Again, the complaint does not necessarily follow even if the
>description is true, but do you know if Kettlewell glued these specimens
The photographs are not part of science, they are educational aids to
illustrate the diffence in crypsis of the forms on different backgrounds. I
see nothing wrong in this. Most of the natural history films that appear on
our televisions, including those of our beloved Sir David Attenborough
involve considerable manipulation of organisms to enable footage to be shot.
As long as the behaviour filmed is what actually happens in true life, and
the organisms are in no way mistreated, there is nothing wrong with this.
To end, may I put on record to you, that my view is that the rise and fall
of the carbonaria form of the peppered moth has resulted from changes in the
environments in which this moth lives. These changes have come about as a
result on changes in pollution levels which have altered the relative crysis
of the forms of this moth. The main, if not the only selective factor that
has lead to changes in the frequencies of the forms over time is
differential bird predation. The case of melanism in the peppered moth IS
ONE OF THE BEST EXAMPLES OF EVOLUTION IN ACTION BY DARWIN'S PROCESS OF
NATURAL SELECTION that we have. In general it is based on good science and
it is sound.
To any objective person who wants to consider the evidence themselves, I
would suggest that they read the book, and if in doubt on any points, then
tract them back through the reference section to the original papers.
With my best wishes, and hoping that you can help at least some people
understand the true situation, rather than the distorted, subjective and
unscientific one that has been put forward in the last couple of weeks.
So it would appear that we can draw three conclusions from this episode:
1) Far from being critical of Kettlewell, Majerus in fact praises him and
2) Far from being an example of evolutionary bad science or even fraud, the
peppered moth is still one of the best (and not the only) example of both
evolution in general and natural selection in particular; and
3) Selective predation based on environmental changes caused by pollution
is still the best explanation for what happened.
I believe that we can in fact further conclude that any attempts by
creationists to use Majerus's book to critique pepppered moth research,
natural selection or evolution is yet another example of how creationists in
general allow themselves to either deliberately or through ignorance distort
legitimate scientific information in support of evolution into "evidence" in
support of creation. This is not a scientific attitude and no evolutionary
scientist emulates this behavior, though it appears to be quite common among
creation scientists, even those on this listserv.
Kevin L. O'Brien