Of Moths and Men: An Evolutionary Tale

Of Moths and Men: An Evolutionary Tale

by Judith Hooper

Mutant moths and feuding scientists—the real story behind the most famous experiment in twentieth-century evolutionary biology. H. B. D. Kettlewell was a British doctor who caught butterflies and moths as an all-consuming hobby. He went into the English woods with a mission—to catch "evolution in action" among the now-famous peppered moths. His work became …  See more details below


Mutant moths and feuding scientists—the real story behind the most famous experiment in twentieth-century evolutionary biology. H. B. D. Kettlewell was a British doctor who caught butterflies and moths as an all-consuming hobby. He went into the English woods with a mission—to catch "evolution in action" among the now-famous peppered moths. His work became "Darwin's missing evidence," a fixture in biology textbooks for half a century. Only recently has new research brought a different story to light. Compellingly told, Of Moths and Men reveals Kettlewell as a deluded scientist who distorted facts and suppressed evidence he didn't like. Tyrannized by his mentor, the powerful E. B. Ford—an imperious misogynist and eccentric Oxford don who was a Darwinian zealot determined to crush all enemies in his path—Kettlewell ended his life a suicide. A story of hubris and heartbreak, Of Moths and Men reveals as much about the internecine battles of science as it does about the mysteries of evolution. 16 pages of b/w photographs.

Author Biography: Judith Hooper has written for the Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times Book Review, and many other publications, and is the author of The Three-Pound Universe. She lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.

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Editorial Reviews

Dava Sobel
A riotous story of ambition and deceit....demonstrates delightfully how the theory of evolution evolved.
Ernst Mayr
A fascinating account a story of hard work, brilliant insights, and human foibles.
Sunday Times
[A] timely and intriguing tale.
[Hooper's] absorbing account of a flawed if not fraudulent experiment reveals an all-too-human side to scientists.
Evening Standard
[Hooper] tells her story with sensitivity and grace...[a] skillful synthesis of scientific and human detail.
Scotland on Sunday
[C]onsiderable narrative gusto while painting vivid portaits of key players....the book is never dull.
Frank Ryan
A mesmerising book....I have no doubt it will be a classic.
Lynn Margulis
A stunning revelation of evolutionary theory and practice. Hooper contributes significantly to the history of science scholarship.
Publishers Weekly
Journalist Hooper offers an engaging account of H.B.D. Kettlewell's famous field experiments on the peppered moth, which were widely known as "Darwin's missing evidence," proof of natural selection in action until 1998, that is, when biologist Michael Majerus showed Kettlewell's findings to be falsified and wrong. Hooper peers into the lives of Kettlewell and his mentor and eventual adversary, the imperious and brilliant E.B. Ford, revealing the human factors that don't get written into the research papers "recriminations, intrigue, jealousy, back-stabbing and shattered dreams." Ford, a Darwinian zealot hell-bent on proving natural selection, serves as a foil for the broader questions raised here about dogmatism in science. Natural selection had the dubious distinction of being as widely accepted as it was short on evidence, and the moth experiments were greeted as a pivotal victory; indeed, despite evidence to the contrary, many scientists today still embrace Kettlewell's findings, in part because denying them opens the door to "the bogeyman of creationism." As Hooper writes, the peppered moths provided "a damned good story, a narrative so satisfying, so seductive, that no one can bear to let it go. But a story alone is no substitute for truth." Hooper's lively history also traces the extinction of old-school natural history, embodied by Kettlewell, who was very much left behind with the synthesis of Darwinism and Mendelian genetics, and who died a suicide. (Aug.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Recalling challenges to Mendel's statistical data or the veracity of the Piltdown man, this book places another scientific icon on the slippery slope of suspicion. The peppered moth said to have adapted its coloring to fit the environment, thus insuring its survival has been used to validate Darwin's theory of natural selection for almost 50 years. Now, this classic textbook case is being contested. In this absorbing historical account, reporter Hooper (The Three-Pound Universe) tracks initial efforts to meld Darwinism and evolutionary theory. Among the many contributors to this quest were Darwinian fanatic E.B. Ford and his prot g , outstanding lepidopterist H.B.D. Kettlewell, who performed the legendary experiment with light and dark moths that supposedly caught natural selection in the act. In fact, there have been doubts about the peppered moth experiments for the past 20 years or more, and Hooper shows how the scientists inadvertently sought to confirm their belief in natural selection rather than actually testing the hypothesis, changing methods when results did not agree with the selection hypothesis. As Hooper ably demonstrates, our understanding is molded by subjective as well as objective factors; self-interest, personality, contrasting worldviews, and human foibles influence the construction of scientific tests and the interpretation of evidence. An engaging detective story that elegantly brings the characters to life; suitable for public and academic libraries. Rita Hoots, Woodland Coll., CA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Knowledgeable freelance journalist Hooper (Would the Buddha Wear a Walkman?, 1990) shoots down an icon of evolution in action-in a well-written account of the life and times of the peppered moth and the eccentric lepidopterists who chased it. De rigueur in biology textbooks for a generation is the story of Biston betularia, a moth that appeared in a typical peppery gray form and in a black version. The alternate form paralleled the rise in England of the industrial revolution, during which pollutants spread to woodlands near factory towns. The surmise by latter-day Darwinists was that a gene for blackness had appeared or been turned on, allowing black moths to be camouflaged on soot-coated tree trunks and avoid predation by birds, while in nonpolluted areas the peppery form remained predominant, concealed against lichen-coated barks. This theory became an idée fixe in the minds of Oxford polymath moth-man E.B. Ford and his field researcher, rugged physician H.B.D. Kettlewell, who laid out marked numbers of moths in both forms on tree trunks, set traps to recapture the moths, and counted which ones survived. Invariably, the blacks did well in polluted areas and vice versa elsewhere. There was no question that Kettlewell was a superb field naturalist, but did the "proofs" he and Ford published have any basis in reality? Statistically, the data was almost too good, and in due course the pair's tactics were questioned. Far too many moths were laid out, stated critics; birds might not be the moths' chief predators (but knew a good food thing when they saw it); moths actually preferred to hang on the underside of branches, and so on. Eventually, Kettlewell, suffering from back pain,humiliation, personal slights, and depression, committed suicide. Ford outlived him and remained a diehard adaptationist to the end. The mystery of why black forms appeared when they did remains unsolved. By no means anti-evolutionary fodder for creationists, but rather a cautionary tale of how science gets done-and undone.

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Product Details

Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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6.44(w) x 8.52(h) x 1.27(d)

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