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Everyone old enough to be reading this was likely taught Biology in 8th/9th grade from a textbook that featured just one example of Darwinism in action, those famous photos of Bernard Kettlewell's Peppered Moths (Biston betularia). They were purported to demonstrate industrial pigmentation--the notion was that moths which had once been light in color, so as to blend into their environment and be harder for predatory birds to see and feed on, had responded to the rise of pollution that darkened trees by becoming darker in their own turn. Presto chango! Bad enough that the moths were not alleged to have speciated and that it had been known even in the 19th century that peppered moths come in a range of pigmentation depending not just on the shades of their environs but on such variables as diet, even worse it turned out that Kettlewell's experiments and observations were of such dubious quality as to raise the question of whether he purposefully perpetrated a hoax or just allowed his desire to see his theory vindicated overcome scientific ethics. Whatever may have been the case, his work has been so discredited that it is gradually being removed from textbooks and classrooms and even folks who study the moths today, in hopes of rehabilitating Kettlewell's thesis, are forced to acknowledge they no longer have scientific proof for the proposition.

This is the story that Judith Hooper tells in her immensely amusing scientific tragedy, Of Moths and Men. In a sense the drama begins with Charles Darwin's own devastating admission, in his May 22, 1863 letter to the botanist George Bentham:
When we descend to details, we can prove that no one species has changed (i.e. we cannot prove that a single species has changed): nor can we prove that the supposed changes are beneficial, which is the groundwork of the theory. Nor can we explain why some species have changed and others have not.
The race has been ever since for Darwinists to find just one example to support the theory. At opportune moments, when the theory has seemed about to be discarded, examples have been produced and have revived interest--though from Piltdown Man to the moths they've eventually been debunked. So the pressure on Kettlewell to find the evidence the theory needed, one way or another, was immense and his findings were seized upon with desperation:
By the close of the 1950s, the peppered moth would be the poster child for evolution -- 'Darwin's missing evidence' -- and Sir Gavin De Beer, director of the British Museum, would write that '[...] Biologists are...fortunate in that they have a cast-iron example of how adaptation has arisen, under man's eyes in the last hundred years. It is the Peppered Moth Biston betularia...'
But as Ms Hooper reveals the wide range discrepancies and open questions that surround Kettlewell's data and methods the cast-iron crumples up like aluminum foil. To take just one of the most notorious examples, Kettlewell's supervisor sent him a letter dated July 1 that expressed disappointment in how few moths he was recovering, upon which the rate of recovery soared. Even allowing for improvements in his techniques and the number of moths he was releasing, such a surge in recoveries seems quite possibly to reflect what was being required of him rather than what was happening in reality. But given what he was trying to prove, perhaps nothing can be more damning than something Kettlewell himself wrote in 1955:
[A]fter more than twenty-five years of observation and constant enquiry, I have found no single instance in this country in which anyone has witnessed a bird detecting and eating a moth belonging to a protectively coloured (or cryptic) species while sitting motionless on its correct background.
Birds and bats (since moths generally come out in the dark) may eat moths in flight, but the predation he'd ostensibly been studying doesn't even occur.

While Ms Hooper doesn't push the evidence, or lack of same, any further than it will bear and doesn't make open accusations against Kettlewell, her straightforward presentation of the known facts is enough to undercut him thoroughly. And the language she uses to discuss Darwin, Darwinsts, and Darwinism does, whether intentionally or not, make it all seem a matter of religious doctrine. Here are just some of the terms I jotted down as I read: scriptures, priesthood, messianic, prophet, agenda, heresy, article of faith, worshiped, summa theologica, parable, scriptural authority..... those of us who are skeptical of Darwinism will agree with the characterization, but the adherents are likely to take offense. At any rate, the book should be required reading for anyone who wishes to discuss evolution on an informed basis.


Grade: (A)


Judith Hooper Links:

    -ESSAY: The Transcendental Tourist (Judith Hooper, Jan., 1994, Mirabella)
    -INTERVIEW: Paul Ewald - evolutionary biologist (Judith Hooper, March, 1995, Omni)
    -Peppered moth (EvoWiki)
    -ESSAY: The peppered moth: a black and white story after all (Jim Mallet, Preprint from Genetics Society News)
    -ESSAY: Mothballed Science (Philip E. Johnson, December 2003, Touchstone)
    -Books & Culture Corner: Of Moths and Men Revisited: A Darwinian debate. (Kevin Padian and Alan Gishlick, 11/04/2002, Christianity Today)
    -ESSAY: Darwin Day and the Peppered Moths (Marek Kohn, 29 February 2004, Independent on Sunday)
    -ESSAY: Desperately Defending The Peppered Myth: A Response to Bruce Grant (Jonathan Wells, October 2, 2002, Discovery Institute)
    -ESSAY: EVOLUTIONISTS AND THE MOTH MYTH (Henry M. Morris, Ph.D., Institute for Creation Research)
    -ESSAY: The case of the peppered moth illusion: science teaching needs to challenge traditional views of science (Craig Holdrege, Spring 1999, Whole Earth)
    -ESSAY: The butterfly flap: In 1999, research suggested that genetically-modified corn might be killing off the monarch butterfly. What followed was exactly the kind of argument that is good for public health (Peter Pringle, July 2003, Prospect uk)
    -ARTICLE: Hybrid owl upsets politics of threatened species (JEFF BARNARD, 6/21/04, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)
    -ESSAY: Piltdown Man: The Bogus Bones Caper (Richard Harter, Talk Origins)
    The rise and fall of Piltdown Man, a 20th-century hoax (Guy Gugliotta, November 9, 2003, Washington Post)
    -ESSAY: Dino Hoax Was Mainly Made of Ancient Bird, Study Says (Hillary Mayell, November 20, 2002, National Geographic News)
    -REVIEW: Searching for the missing link: Birds? Reptiles? Fakes? Archaeopteryx fossils have been generating controversy since 1861. Paul Chambers investigates a very strange creature in Bones of Contention (Chris Lavers, October 5, 2002, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: Planet with a Purpose: If Earth is an organism getting ever more complex, doesn't that mean humans might have been made for a reason? (Robert Wright, BeliefNet)
    -REVIEW: of Of Moths and Men (Phillip E. Johnson)
    -REVIEW: of Of Moths and Men (Arthur M. Shapiro, Evolution)
    -REVIEW: of Of Moths and Men (Sunni Maravillosa, Townhall)
    -REVIEW: of Of Moths and Men (Alison Motluk, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of Of Moths and Men (Peter D Smith, Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Of Moths and Men (Bruce S. Grant., Science)
    -REVIEW: of Of Moths and Men (Gabby Dover, Embo Reports)
    -REVIEW: of Of Moths and Men (Marek Kohn, Evening Standard)
    -REVIEW: of Of Moths and Men (Karl Sabbagh, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of Of Moths and Men (Jonathan Wells, Christianity Today)

Book-related and General Links: