Of Moths and Men: An Evolutionary Tale

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Overview

"As almost every high school biology student once learned, the peppered moths of England were the most renowned insects in the world. Featured in nearly every science textbook, they acquired their fame through the pioneering work of H. B. D. Kettlewell, a British physician and amateur lepidopterist who went into the woods in the 1950s to use this population of moths to capture "evolution in action." He wanted - needed - to prove that the moths were evolving to a darker color in response to industrial pollution, for this would put the finishing
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Overview

"As almost every high school biology student once learned, the peppered moths of England were the most renowned insects in the world. Featured in nearly every science textbook, they acquired their fame through the pioneering work of H. B. D. Kettlewell, a British physician and amateur lepidopterist who went into the woods in the 1950s to use this population of moths to capture "evolution in action." He wanted - needed - to prove that the moths were evolving to a darker color in response to industrial pollution, for this would put the finishing touches on Darwin's theory. As Judith Hooper reveals in this groundbreaking work, Kettlewell's ambitions would exceed the strength of his science, and the story of the "peppered moth" would become one of the most pervasive myths in the history of evolutionary biology." "About a century earlier, when a dark ("melanic") form of the peppered moth appeared in the smoky industrial towns of the British Isles, some people proposed that evolutionary theory might explain why. Resting against the sooty backgrounds, these melanic moths were nearly invisible to birds, and so escaped being preyed upon. Thus more of them survived to reproduce. In rural areas, it was just the opposite. In Darwinian language, natural selection favored the black moths in the grimy mill towns and light moths in rural, unpolluted woodlands. For many decades, this was only a theory, until Kettlewell arrived. He succeeded beyond anyone's expectations, becoming the hero of natural selection, a celebrated figure in a rarefied pantheon of world-class scientists, for his proof of "industrial melanism."" Behind the success story, however, lay a darker tale. Based on original documents and interviews with scientists on both sides of the Atlantic as well as friends and relatives of the principal characters, Of Moths and Men chronicles the bitter rivalries, academic jealousies, botched science, and emotional heartbreak of the scientists involved. Kettlewell had been
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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.
Evening Standard
[Hooper] tells her story with sensitivity and grace...[a] skillful synthesis of scientific and human detail.
Frank Ryan
A mesmerising book....I have no doubt it will be a classic.
Guardian
[Hooper's] absorbing account of a flawed if not fraudulent experiment reveals an all-too-human side to scientists.
Lynn Margulis
A stunning revelation of evolutionary theory and practice. Hooper contributes significantly to the history of science scholarship.
Scotland on Sunday
[C]onsiderable narrative gusto while painting vivid portaits of key players....the book is never dull.
Sunday Times
[A] timely and intriguing tale.
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

  • ISBN-13: 9780641709760
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 8/1/2002
  • Edition description: 1 AMER ED
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.64 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.26 (d)

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