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"These are the days when the Christian is expected to praise every creed except his own." G.K.Chesterton

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Monday, February 03, 2003

More moths and men

I am going to make a prediction. Despite the fact that for well over a century the peppered moth has been touted as undeniable evidence - if not the "best" proof - for Darwinian and Neo-Darwinian evolution ( 'the prize horse in our stable' according to evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne) we will now see evolutionists in print and online distancing themselves from such a claim, and even denying that it was ever made.

The fact is that the "peppered moth" (biston betularia) is universally used as evidence for the theory of evolution. Almost all biology textbooks talk about it. Can I suggest that one check out existing editions of general encyclopedias, popular books on evolution, science encyclopedias and biology textbooks to confirm exactly what is enthusiastically claimed for this little moth.

What will probably occur now, as well as a re-writing of the texts, is a lot of splitting hairs over the definition of just what "evolution" was demonstrated in the peppered moths. There are at least five definitions of "evolution" I can think of that can be made to fit just about any form of change in existence. Thus there will always be an "out" but this will appear suspicious to those who are not as committed to the Neo-Darwinian paradigm.

I predict we will start to see comments claiming that it merely confirmed ONE aspect of the Darwinian theory and NOT the whole model itself. (Yes, I know that's a pretty obvious and sensible approach but it has not been the one taken generally up until now.) This process is already well advanced on some evolution/design sites in the light of the impact of Jonathan Wells' "Icons of Evolution" and "Of Moths and Men" by Judith Hooper - not to mention Michael Majerus’ "Melanism -Evolution in Action" (Please don't post a message telling me I'm misrepresenting Majerus who is a committed evolutionist who can't stand ID or Wells. That is not the issue.)

So what have the experts and reference sources said about Biston betularia and "industrial melanism":

H.B. Kettlewell commenting on his on work on the peppered moth wrote that if Darwin had seen this, 'He would have witnessed the consummation and confirmation of his life's work.'
H. Kettlewell, 'Darwin's missing evidence' in Evolution and the fossil record, readings from Scientific American, W.H. Freeman and Co., San Francisco, 1978, p. 23.

"A species of moth in the family Geometridae, Biston betularia, which rests by day on tree trunks where the usual black-mottled white colour form of B.b. typica acts as camouflage among lichens. In industrial areas, where tree trunks are blackened and bare, an all-black form, B. b. carbonaria, is more frequent, a phenomenon known as industrial melanism. This moth is one of the few documented cases of 'evolution' in response to a change in its environment."
Oxford Paperback Encyclopedia, Oxford University Press 1998

'Industrial melanism has occurred in certain moth populations, in which the predominant coloration has changed pale gray to dark-coloured individuals. This is a striking example of rapid evolutionary change; it has taken place in less than 100 years. It occurs in moth species that depend for their survival by day on blending into specialized backgrounds, such as lichened tree trunks and boughs. Industrial pollution, in the form of soot, kills lichens and blackens the trees and ground, thus destroying the protective backgrounds of light- coloured moths, which are rapidly picked off and eaten by birds. Melanic moths, by their camouflage, then become selectively favoured. "Industrial" melanic moths have arisen from recurrent mutations and have spread via natural selection.'
"melanin" Britannica Online.

"Industrial melanism refers to the evolution of dark body colours in animal species that live in habitats blackened by industrial soot. The phenomenon has been documented notably in species that hide from predators by blending in with their backgrounds"
"Industrial Melanism",Grant, Bruce S and Clarke, Cyril A; encyclopedia of life sciences

"We should expect to find the most rapid evolutionary changes in populations suddenly exposed to new conditions. It is therefore natural that one of themost striking changes which has been observed in a wild population ... is the phenomenon of 'industrial melanism', the appearance and spread of dark forms of a number of species of moths."
The Theory of Evolution, J. Maynard Smith. Penguin Books, Harmondsworth:1966 (2nd ed.). p.137

"[the case of the peppered moths] is the most striking evolutionary change ever to be witnessed by man."
The International Wildlife Encyclopaedia, M. and R. Burton (eds.). Marshall Cavendish, New York:1970. p.2706.

"The peppered moth is a striking example of evolution in action. ... but, sadly for Darwin, no one knew it at the time. This is just the evidence he needed to show the effectiveness of natural selection."The illustrated Origin of Species, Richard Leakey. Faber and Faber, London:1979. p.30

"... we have abundant, direct, observational evidence of evolution in action [including] the famous populations of British moths that became black when industrial soot darkened the trees upon which the moths rest."
Hen's Teeth and Horses' Toes, Stephen Jay Gould. Penguin Books, Harmondsworth:1984. p.257.

"Industrial melanism: recent example of evolution"
from the University of North Dakota online biology webpage

"An example of evolution in action. Evolution is still occurring. A good example of Natural selection can be seen in maintaining the balance between the speckled grey - white coloured and the black forms of the peppered moth Biston betularia."
The Guardian's online website, winner of the "best educational site of 2001".

"In fact, if any confirmation of Darwinism were needed, it has
turned up in examples of natural selection that have taken place
before the eyes of mankind (now that mankind knows what to
watch for). A notable example occurred in Darwin's native land. In
England, it seems, the peppered moth exists in two varieties, a light
and a dark. In Darwin's time, the white variety was predominant
because it was less prominently visible against the light lichen-
covered bark of the trees it frequented. It was saved by this
'protective colouration' more often than the clearly visible, dark
Variety from those animals who would feed on it. In modern,
industrialized England, however, soot has killed the lichen cover
and blackened the-tree bark. Now it is the dark variety that is less
visible against the bark and therefore protected. It is the dark
variety that is now predominant - through the action of natural
(Asimov I., "Asimov's Guide to Science: The Biological
Sciences," [1960], Penguin: Hartmondsworth, Middlesex, Vol. 2,
1978, reprint, p.314)

"There is empirical evidence of the evolution by natural selection of
new characteristics of existing species, such as the camouflaging
darkness of the small peppered moth in grimy industrial areas in the
19th century."
(Vesey G. & Foulkes P., "Collins Dictionary of
Philosophy," HarperCollins: Glasgow UK, 1990, p.74)

"Thus the peppered moth, Biston betularia, has evolved in the last
hundred years from gray to black, but to the creationist Duane
Gish, this is not really evolution: `These moths today not only are
still moths, but they are still peppered moths, Biston betularia,' and
no `real' evolutionary change occurred. "
(Futuyma D.J., "Science
on Trial: The Case for Evolution," Pantheon: New York NY, 1982,

"Artificial selection is experimental evolution; natural evolution has
been studied as well. The best known examples have been provided
by the school of ecological genetics, which studies natural changes
of gene frequencies in natural populations. H.B.D. Kettlewell's
work on the change of the peppered moth Biston betularia from
peppered white to brown coloration during the past century is the
most famous of many such studies."
(Ridley, Mark, "Who doubts
evolution?," New Scientist, Vol. 90, pp.830-832, 25 June 1981, p.831)

But lo and behold this is not what we're now being told by evolutionary
biologists like Jerry Coyne and Kenneth Miller:

"For years the story of the peppered moth, Biston betularia, has provided one of the best-known examples of natural selection in action. The story of the moth was outlined on pages 297-298 of the Elephant Book, and highlights the field experiments of British ecologist H. B. D. Kettlewell. However, a recent book by Michael Majerus (Melanism -Evolution in Action) makes it clear that the peppered moth story will need to be rewritten. Joe Levine and I will post a revision of pages 297-298 here just as soon as we can... The Peppered Moth is routinely used as an example of evolution. But is this well-known story wrong."
Professor Kenneth Miller

And biologist, Professor Bruce Grant felt it necessary to write a paper entitled, "Fine Tuning the Peppered Moth Paradigm"
Evolution 53 (3), 1999, pp. 980-984,

"Fine tuning" - what an exquisite term.

But most enlightening is what one of the America’s leading anti-Creationist campaigners, Eugenie Scott, Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education, Inc., a pro-evolution science education organization now tells us:

"A good example of a confused understanding of evolution is even found in some textbooks. How many times have you seen the peppered moth or other cases of industrial melanism used as an example of evolution? It is an example of change, but fluctuating change. Remember that the frequencies of melanic genes shifted back to their pre-industrial lows after scrubbers were placed on smokestacks and air pollution was reduced. Industrial melanism is an example of natural selection, not of evolution. A good exercise would be to have the students figure out whether industrial melanism could be an example of evolution (as in our definition of 'descent with modification.')" Eugenie C. Scott, Dealing with Antievolutionism

So according to Ms Scott, Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Leakey, Gavin De Beer, Maynard Smith, Bruce Grant, and Cyril Clark et. al. have a "confused understanding" of evolution - not to mention the "confused understanding" which she openly admits exists in so many biology textbooks - and, it must be added, in encyclopedias and popular science books. Why? And why has this been allowed to happen?

I could not agree more with Scott that "industrial melanism is an example of natural selection, not of evolution" and every anti-Darwinian, creationist and ID writer on the subject now seems to be in complete agreement with her assessment also. The peppered moth demonstrates nothing more than gene frequencies shifting back and forth, by natural selection, within one species. Industrial melanism + millions of years will not add the sort of complex information needed for molecules to man macroevolution. Even L. Harrison Matthews, the distinguished biologist who wrote the foreword for the 1971 edition of Darwin's "Origin of Species', stated there that the peppered moth example showed natural selection, but not "evolution in action".

So is it an example of "evolution in action" or is it not? That's the $64,000 question.

We all know that Darwin proposed natural selection as the mechanism of
evolution so what exactly is Neo-Darwinian Scott (not to mention
Matthews) trying to say here? Is she herself perhaps possessed of a
"confused understanding" of evolution? Is "natural selection" an essential part of "evolution" or not? Is "macroevolution" just microevolution writ large or not? Is "adaptation" an essential component of "descent with modification" or not? When is "natural selection" an evolutionary mechanism and when is it not?

But of course as laymen, we are perhaps too ignorant to understand these things.

In light of these comments I would just like to re-affirm my hunch that we are going to see a lot of back-peddling and soft-peddling about the peppered moth from many Darwinian evolutionists. They will do two things: 1) claim that it is a piece of creationist disinformation or even "another creationist lie" that any reputable scientist or text ever posited it as the best example of evolution in action; and 2) attempt to downplay its role in the evolutionary pantheon by dismissing it as being insignificant, a trifle, of no real importance, or an irrelevance to the evolutionary theory, etc. Which it may certainly be. But which it was certainly not presented as by the various luminaries quoted above...

Now I am more than happy to recognise that no one is perfect, that science should be self-correcting and scientists should learn from their mistakes in order to push forward the frontiers of knowledge. But how many of them will honestly admit they were too dogmatic about biston betularia? And how many will opt to play the "spin game"?

6:57:00 pm