The recent exchanges provoked by the publication of 'Scientists pick
holes in Darwin moth theory' (Sunday Telegraph,14 March, 1999), have
lacked one thing, viz a response from its author, Robert Matthews, to
derogatory comments made by Dr.Majerus concerning the article. In a Q&A
session instigated by Donald Frack the following dialogue took place:
F > 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."?
M > My response to this can be gleaned from Chapters 5 and 6. Bernard
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).
F > 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 the branches, which makes even the black
ones difficult to spot by birds."? This has been translated by
anti-evolutionists to mean either pinned or glued (neither of which are
necessarily "faked", if true).
M > 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 not quotes
from me, and both are factually wrong. Bernard 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.
F > 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 place - as I expect resting moths would. But am I missing
some important point Coyne is making, or is he nit-picking as I perceive
him to be?
M > 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.
F > 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 down?
M > The photographs are not part of science, they are educational aids
to illustrate the difference 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 film 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 of changes in pollution levels which have altered
the relative crypsis of the forms of this moth. The main, if not the
only selective factor that has led 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.
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.
This attempted rubbishing of the ST article prompted me to contact
Robert Matthews and acquaint him with the situation. He has now
responded, and I append his comments.
R Matthews wrote:
> Hi Vernon
> I'm sorry about the delay in responding.By way of introduction, may I
> say that I'm rather surprised by all this fuss within the evolution
> and creation communities, for while researching the article I got the > sinking feeling of the view that the shakiness of the Biston story
> is actually "old news". For example, Prof Steve Jones described
> Kettlewell's experiments to me as "pure Dave Allen" - Dave Allen being
> a popular Irish stand-up comedian, for the uninitiated. He added that
> he doesn't even teach Kettlewell's experiments anymore - they're too
> "hokey". he said, describing HK's whole approach as "sloppy and
> unrealistic and optimistic".
> That said, I guess creationists are bound to make something out of
> these sorts of issues, but I can hardly be held responsible for that.
> On Dr Majerus's comments:
> > Even then, he got nearly everything wrong. For example, the
> > decline in carbonaria frequencies did not start in the 1950s.
> Where do I say that it did ? And what other supposed blunders does the
> article contain ?
> > The two quotes attributed to me were not quotes from me, and both
> > are factually wrong. Bernard 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.
> I can see only one quote in the article, which refers to the sticking > of the moths to low branches. My contemporaneous notes of our
> conversation of 10 March do show Dr Majerus using the word "stuck" -
> though whether "stuck" means "pinned" - as I assumed for the
> interpretative previous paragraph - is, I would concede, open to
> question. If I misunderstood Dr Majerus in that prior paragraph, I
> > 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.
> Others appear to disagree with the "good scientist" bit (vide Jerry
> Coyne, also quoted in the article, and Steve Jones, above).
> > 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.
> As, practically and generally speaking, that is unlikely to happen, Dr
> Majerus would probably be better advised to put an annotated version
> of my article on the WWW. I would certainly be interested to see all
> the "blunders" in it made clear.
[Perhaps Don Frack would convey this excellent suggestion to Dr Majerus.
> >F > 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 place - as I expect resting moths would. But
> > am I missing some important point Coyne is making, or is he
> > nit-picking as I perceive him to be?
> >M > 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.
> Again, others seem to disagree.
> I'm sorry not to have time for a more detailed rejoinder, but in
> conclusion I must say I find the level of outrage at my own article
> rather hard to comprehend, Certainly I do not see any evidence that my > article gets "nearly everything wrong". Unless, that is, "wrong"
> includes "not toeing the party line". After more than a decade
> reporting on disputes in a wide variety of sciences for everyone from
> Science magazine to women's weeklies, I've noticed that scientists in
> the life sciences, especially gene-related fields, seem to expect
> total unquestioning acceptance of "the party line". As far as I can
> see, this stems from paranoia that anything else plays straight into
> the hands of "The Enemy" (ie. creationists). Coming from a background
> in physics and mathematics, I must admit to being bemused by this
> paranoia. There are still some people out there who believe Einstein
> was wrong. But when articles appear (as they are doing) saying that
> Einstein's theory is currently under challenge from new astronomical
> evidence, physicists don't feel a need to shriek at journalists for
> "giving comfort" to those who've always claimed Einstein was "wrong".
> I very recently wrote an article about how Robert Millikan, the
> American physicist who won the 1923 physics Nobel for his work on the
> electron, is now known to have fiddled his results to make them look
> much better than they were, and thus beat a rival to prior
> publication. Number of letters from outraged physicists berating me
> for aiding and abetting the enemies of science: zip.
> Yet this is what much of the reaction to both my article and Jerry
> Coyne's Nature review seems to be: outrage not so much in the details
> of what is said (ie. that the Biston story is much more complex that
> K's experiments lead one to think, but Darwin's theory is still
> on-track), as outrage that such "loose talk" can and has been picked
> up by "the enemy".
> Anyhow, enough already. I was glad of a chance to comment - thank you.
> Robert Matthews
With regards to all,
"When I show a man he is inconsistent, I make him decide whether of the
two he loves better, the portion of truth he already holds, or the
portion of error." (J.H.Newman, Tract 85)
Vernon Jenkins MSc
[musician, mining engineer, and Senior Lecturer in Maths and Computing,
the Polytechnic of Wales (now the University of Glamorgan), 1954-87]