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Darwinism in a flutter

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  • Andreas Peterson
    Group, Here is a review of Hooper s new book Of Moths and Men from The Guardian. Here is an apt quote from the article: In the 1970s, the American
    Message 1 of 1 , May 14 3:29 PM
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      Group,

      Here is a review of Hooper's new book "Of Moths and Men" from The Guardian.
      Here is an apt quote from the article:

      "In the 1970s, the American lepidopterist Ted Sargent
      highlighted serious problems with Kettlewell's experiment. But
      no one wanted to know: his research was ignored by the
      scientific community and his career stymied. The peppered moth
      experiment was "sacred"; critics were "demonised", their views
      dismissed as "heresy". But the evidence grew and in 1998 a
      prominent biologist, reviewing it in Nature , said his shock at
      the extent of the doubts was like discovering as a child "that
      it was my father and not Santa who brought the presents on
      Christmas eve"." (See tagline!)

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      http://education.guardian.co.uk/higher/books/story/0,10595,713497,00.html


      Darwinism in a flutter

      Did a moth show evolution in action? Peter D Smith searches for answers in
      Of Moths and Men: Intrigue, Tragedy & the Peppered Moth by Judith Hooper

      Saturday May 11, 2002
      The Guardian

      Of Moths and Men: Intrigue, Tragedy & the Peppered Moth
      Judith Hooper
      377pp, Fourth Estate, �15.99

      Before he became famous, Albert Einstein remarked that "the foolish faith in
      authority is the worst enemy of truth". Few wanted to listen to the
      revolutionary ideas of an unknown patent office clerk who dared to challenge
      the godlike authority of Sir Isaac Newton. Progressive science is sometimes
      more conservative than people think.

      The story of the peppered moth is a case in point, according to Judith
      Hooper. Biston betularia is a species of moth familiar to anyone who has
      studied biology. "You will have glimpsed them in textbook photographs, posed
      on tree trunks, immortalised and still as figures in a classical frieze."
      For this otherwise unremarkable moth proved Darwin right - or at least,
      that's what everyone thought.

      The problem with Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is that
      it describes events that occur over thousands of years, and is therefore
      difficult to prove empirically. But the industrial revolution seemed to
      offer scientists a perfect example of rapid environmental change, forcing
      organisms to adapt quickly.

      In 1848, a black or melanic form of the peppered moth appeared in
      Manchester. At the time, 50 tonnes of industrial fallout were deposited
      annually on each square mile of the city. These pollutants killed the
      lichens on tree bark, and in 1896 a naturalist linked this with the decline
      of the lighter form of the moth. In polluted areas the black moths were
      better camouflaged against the dark tree trunks, and so less likely to be
      eaten by birds. It was evolution in action, a perfect demonstration of the
      survival of the fittest. There was just one problem: no one had seen birds
      eating moths from tree trunks.

      In 1953, Bernard Kettlewell, "a loud, eager man" who was invariably dressed
      in shorts and sandals, began an experiment that would transform the peppered
      moth into "evolution's number one icon". Camping in woods near Birmingham
      and sustained by a diet of gin and cigars, Kettlewell set out to prove that
      birds really did eat more pale moths in darkened, polluted woods. His
      results were striking. The black moths were twice as likely to survive in
      the polluted woods as lighter moths. It was one of those rare "eureka"
      moments: Kettlewell's experiment was what scientists had been waiting for,
      "living proof of Darwin's theory of natural selection".

      In the 1970s, the American lepidopterist Ted Sargent highlighted serious
      problems with Kettlewell's experiment. But no one wanted to know: his
      research was ignored by the scientific community and his career stymied. The
      peppered moth experiment was "sacred"; critics were "demonised", their views
      dismissed as "heresy". But the evidence grew and in 1998 a prominent
      biologist, reviewing it in Nature , said his shock at the extent of the
      doubts was like discovering as a child "that it was my father and not Santa
      who brought the presents on Christmas eve".

      Like any good journalist, Hooper knows a scandal when she sees one. "The
      unspoken possibility of fraud hangs in the air," she says, noting that
      Kettlewell's field notes have conveniently disappeared. According to
      Sargent, one thing is certain: the famous photos of moths on tree trunks
      were faked, using dead moths and a log. In the wild, peppered moths don't
      hang around on exposed tree trunks long enough to be eaten, preferring the
      shady undersides of branches. And then there's the nagging question of
      whether birds actually eat moths on tree trunks. Several experts claim that
      it does not happen in the wild. By placing moths on the tree trunks,
      Kettle-well was effectively laying out a smorgasbord for the watching birds,
      who soon learned when it was feeding time. This was not natural but
      unnatural selection.

      The question Hooper sets out to answer is why such a shoddy piece of
      scientific research was so readily accepted by the scientific community and
      allowed to attain iconic status in evolutionary biology. Her answer: because
      scientists wanted to believe it. Once it had been cited enough times, it
      became an irrefutable article of faith. Hooper's meticulous research
      provides a fascinating insight into the fallibility of scientists - after
      all, as she points out, they are only human.

      To prove the point, she explores the amusing eccentricities of moth men: "we
      are complete nutcases", says one, with disarming honesty. Surprisingly, she
      sympathises with Kettlewell, whom she portrays as an outsider in the
      rarefied atmosphere of Oxford University ("he was not an intellectual"). The
      villain of the story, in Hooper's view, is his bullying boss at the Oxford
      School of Ecological Genetics, E B Ford, who exploited Kettlewell's findings
      and "behaved as if he were auditioning for the Great Book of Eccentric Dons
      ".

      Hooper's absorbing account of a flawed if not fraudulent experiment reveals
      an all-too-human side to scientists that will annoy professionals and
      enthral laypeople in equal measure. One thing is clear, though - science is
      much more than a collection of objective facts and figures. Ambition,
      jealousy, and megalomania are all part of this complex equation.


      EducationGuardian.co.uk � Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002
      ========================================================================


      ------------------------------------------------------------------------
      In Christ,
      Andreas

      "Finally, the results of Kettlewell's behavioural experiments were not
      replicated in later studies: moths have no tendency to choose matching
      backgrounds. Majerus finds many other flaws in the work, but they are too
      numerous to list here. I unearthed additional problems when, embarrased at
      having taught the standard Biston story for years, I read Kettlewell's
      papers for the first time. ... My own reaction resembles the dismay
      attending my discovery, at the age of six, that it was my father and not
      Santa who brought the presents of Christmas Eve." (Coyne J.A., 1998, "Not
      black and white", Nature 396:35-6, p. 35)
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