Peppered Moths and Creationists

Donald Frack (
Fri, 16 Apr 1999 09:22:47 -0700

Peppered Moths and Creationists

This is posted to the Calvin College Evolution discussion group. Some
references may be to that group and its members. Below are my observations
on the relationship between the "peppered moth story controversy" and
creationists' attempts to capitalize on its supposed meaning. It follows
from a creationist lecture, reading the literature, and a series of
exchanges between me and Jonathan Wells of the Discovery Institute over the
last three weeks. Mine side have all been posted to the above-named
discussion group. Wells's have been "imported" by supporters. The whole
arrangement has been rather unusual.

Jonathan Wells has made these comments at the end of his reply to me:

"On a personal concluding note, I would like to add that my objections to
the textbook peppered myth have nothing to do with creationism, despite
Frack's repeated attempts to discredit me with that label. Even if the
classical peppered moth story were 100% accurate, it would pose no threat
to creationism -- including the young-earth variety -- so why would anyone
oppose it on "creationist" grounds anyway?"

"Is "creationism" versus "evolutionism" at issue here? If it is, it's not
because I brought it up. If Frack thinks it is, perhaps he should explain

Again, I remind readers of Wells's remarks at the end of his first posting.
At this point I want to emphasize the reference to textbooks and biology


MOTHS DO NOT REST ON TREE TRUNKS IN THE WILD. This means that every time
those staged photographs have been knowingly re-published since the 1980's
constitutes a case of deliberate scientific fraud. Michael Majerus is
being dishonest, and textbook-writers are lying to biology students. The
behavior of these people is downright scandalous."

"Fraud is fraud. It's time to tell it like it is."



I mentioned when I first wrote the evaluation comparing Jerry Coyne's review
with Michael Majerus's book, that I was lead to stop sitting on my hands
after attending a seminar in which creationist lecturer Phillip Johnson was
one of the speakers. I think I should describe this situation in more detail

The seminar was held on March 13, 1999 in Santa Ana, California. It's title
was "140th Anniversary of Darwin's Origin of Species - EVOLUTION or
CREATION". Phillip Johnson and William Demski of the Discovery Institute
were the two featured speakers, with panel discussions including others.

The following comments are from my observations of the lecture. For anyone
interested, it was videotaped (and probably audiotaped), I assume formally
from the equipment.

Johnson claimed he was not there to talk about science. Immediately, he did
just that. The peppered moth story was brought up within six minute after
the lecture started. Johnson gave the standard story briefly, then said that
the moths "do not sit on tree trunks", "moths had to be glued to the trunks"
for pictures, etc. and that the story was "fraudulent" and a "scam." There
were no qualifications placed on these conclusions. It was mentioned again
in the body of the lecture.

A main feature of the lecture was Johnson's description of his metaphorical
"Wedge Strategy". A wedge, he described, is used to split logs that at
first seen impenetrable. By placing the sharp edge against a crack or other
weak spot you hammer the narrow end in, the broad end follows, and the
seemingly impenetrable log is split. He said you cannot start with the
broad end, which his colleague William Demski (Senior Fellow at the
Discovery Institute) would explain later. He described his books and
lectures as the narrow edge of the wedge. Once a crack is found and a split
started, the broad end goes in too. A common topic was educational reform,
including comments about the need to battle "Mom and Dad didn't tell me
that!" referring clearly to evidence for evolution as taught in public
schools. He talked about "attracting and recruiting" the right people to get
the wedge started. The metaphorical "log" includes what Johnson variously
calls "naturalism", "Darwinism", "atheism" in his lectures and books, the
distinctions between which are always blurred if he does not actually treat
them as synonymous. "Darwinian science" usually means ALL main-line science.

An audience member stood up during the Q&A, stating that there were 900
full-time ministers there ready to carry out Johnson's Wedge plan. He asked
for Johnson to "flesh out objectives in the community", i. e., the tactical
details. Johnson's reply included teaching children "more about evolution
than the science educators want them to know", and that "home school moms
are allies". This clearly meant the "hidden" evidence against evolution
commonly claimed in creationist lectures. The peppered moth was mentioned
specifically as an example here. Johnson said "You want them [children to
teachers] to say 'We learned about that!'", followed by "You're joking.".
After the Q&A, Johnson offered an anecdote about how he got interested in
evolution research. This involved an apparently "creative" description of
Isaac Asimov's _Asimov's Guide to Science_. Johnson names the section
entitled "Proof of evolution" (not in my copy for some reason), which
contains a single example [pause], "THE PEPPERED MOTH!" (followed by the
expected gasps and laughter from the audience.) He continued, contrasting
thinking ability with education (even Nobel laureates don't necessarily know
how to think straight, etc.). In the space of a little over a minute of
this, Johnson used the peppered moth three more times. Note that this
anecdotal story was given *after* the Q&A, at the very end of the lecture.
Furthermore, Asimov's actual one paragraph description of peppered moths
does not mention tree trunks, or even bird predation. The inappropriate
example appears to me to have been interjected to combine Johnson's anecdote
about "getting started" with a last shot at peppered moths. This left that
image clearly placed in the audiences' minds as he stepped down. It was very
clear that the peppered moth was important to Phillip Johnson's lecture.

The peppered moth story is hardly essential for scientists. It is, however,
an icon for textbooks representing natural selection. This is because the
example is very easy for students to grasp. The story is therefore found in
essentially every high school and college textbook in this country. If
Johnson wants his crack, one here would be perfect. Students, parents, and
community groups can easily be set against teachers, textbooks, and school
boards in a controversy over using "fraudulent" stories and photographs to
teach the false doctrine of evolution. The fact that changes within
populations are not denied by creationists offers protection from claims
that they are pressing a creationist agenda. Attack can therefore be made
with seeming impunity.

I attended Johnson's lecture two months after Jerry Coyne's review of
Michael Majerus's book discussing the peppered moth, and its reported
demise, appeared on this discussion group (posted by a creationist member).
During that time, I wondered how this story could be true, based on what I
knew from a general background in biology and the study of Lepidoptera
(butterflies and moths). I knew that several other researchers had continued
Kettlewell's pioneering work, and found it hard to believe that things were
this bad. My impression from Johnson's lecture was that creationists were
"gearing up" for an assault on both natural selection, and specifically on
high school biology textbooks. Two weeks later, I posted the first document
that started this unexpected mess. My purpose was simply to show that
Majerus's book differed from the impression given in the book review. The
rest, as they say, is history.


Thanks to pointers from list members, I found that Jonathan Wells is a
Senior Fellow at the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture (CRSC), a
division of the Discovery Institute. Paul Nelson, to whom my original
evaluation (and Majerus's email to me) was privately sent by a mutual
acquaintance, holds the same position as Wells. Phillip Johnson is on the
staff of the same organization. When Wells response was sent to me privately
(made public within hours), it included a comment that showed Johnson
already had seen it. I take the fact that my postings went straight to these
people as just chance. I had no idea who Wells and Nelson were, or of the
organization they belong to. Since Wells, Nelson and Johnson apparently
don't accept chance, but attribute things to Design, I leave it for them to
figure out what the Designer intended.

Wells biography and article list at the CRSC web site show that he is an
active anti-evolution author, sensu Intelligent Design creationists (contra
"naturalism", Darwinism", etc.). I suggest that any reader who doubts this
find the Discovery Institute web site and check it out (see especially
CRSC). Also found there are Fellows the list of which forms a Who's-Who of
Intelligent Design creationists. I found I already had one published article
by Wells, in the book _Mere Creationism_. Wells claimed that I was trying to
discredit he by referring to creationists. I was just being accurate.

Thanks to readers of this exchange, I was informed that Wells posted his
article "Second thoughts ..." on an overtly anti-evolution web site the same
day as his last reply was posted to this list (April 6); pointed out to some
of them by the same creationist correspondent. The banner above Well's name
reads "The True Origins Archive - Exploding the Myth of Evolution". Readers
also pointed out that Wells already had two other articles on the same site.
In the same reply to me he challenged me to show that this is a
creation/evolution issue. Wells research is sponsored by the Discovery
Institute. I find it interesting to ponder how Wells became so passionately
interested in the moths and why the Discovery Institute funded this new
love. The fact that Wells demanded for me to show that this is a
creation/evolution issue the same day he posted his article to True.Origins
appears truly hypocritical.

As further evidence that this is perceived to be a creation/evolution issue
by creationist members of this group, Coyne's book review, the _Telegraph_
article, and Wells response have all been submitted by our most ardent

Wells has demanded to know why creationists would care about the peppered
moth story, since even young earth creationists do not deny population
changes. This is an interesting and important point. The problem the
scientific community has is not with creationists, but with
anti-evolutionists. Since the two are so often synonymous, the distinction
is often lost. Most evolutionists study evolution, and could care less if
creationists exist or not. This is, in fact, of great advantage to
anti-evolutionists, because it leaves defense against attacks in the hands
of a very small minority willing to waste time opposing them. Creationists
could, by comparison, study creation, without relying on attacks on
evolutionists, although I realize that some conflict would occur as it does
with any difference of opinion. I have attended a great many creationist
lectures. Almost invariably, these consist of little more than attacking
evolution and its supporters. The purpose of these lectures is not to
educate the audience about creationism, but to offer attacks on the
opposition. ANY topic that adds to the repertoire of attack is therefore
welcomed, since that is the point of the lecture. Wells use of the peppered
moth story easily fits into this pattern.

In addition to all of this, as I was finishing my original evaluation of
Majerus's book, I received the latest Acts & Facts and Back to Genesis from
the Institute for Creation Research. Enclosed was an article by President
John Morris on the demise of the peppered moth story (April 1999).

I assume that these facts will convince most readers that this is really a
creation/evolution issue for creationists. I think Wells knew it all along,
and that he has been trying to conceal the fact. Unless I am mistaken, if
you look at the tip of Johnson's wedge, you'll see Wells there trying to
sharpen it and trying to thrust it into a perceived crack. I have a clear
conscience that I have been candid with readers of these exchanges. I have
doubts that Wells can say the same. If I am mistaken, I apologize now. But I
have to go with the evidence.

Wells was supported by a grant from the Discovery Institute. Over the last
three weeks, I have been sponsored by the Frack "up with peppered moths"
Society, president, my wife. What this organization lacked in funds and
resources, it made up for in understanding.

Don Frack