Joined: May 2002
Well, as predicted, the people who actually know something about peppered moths are much more critical of Judith Hooper's book Of Moths and Men. All I'm waiting for now is a review from M.E.N. Majerus.
David Rudge, Untitled book review of Judith Hooper's Of Moths and Men, Journal of the History of Biology, Spring 2003, pp. 207-209
Judith Hooper, Of Moths and Men: An Evolutionary Tale: Intrigue, Tragedy and the Peppered Moth (New York: W.W. Norton; London: Fourth Estate, 2002), xx + 377 pp., illus., $26.95.
[note weird inversion of "Of Moths and Men" in first sentence. Guess the journal editor is a bit overworked...]
Of Men and Moths is a popularized account of Bernard Kettlewell’s investigations of the phenomenon of industrial melanism, the rapid rise in frequency of dark forms of many moth species downwind of manufacturing centers that occurred as an apparent consequence of large-scale air pollution associated with the industrial revolution. Kettlewell’s experiments are widely cited as demonstrating that this change is due to natural selection, and, in particular, the selective advantage of dark coloration against birds in sootdarkened environments. Hooper accuses Kettlewell of committing fraud and members of E.B. Ford’s Oxford School of Ecological Genetics of conspiring to hide details of outstanding problems surrounding the phenomenon to advance their own pan-selectionist agenda. The book concludes by reviewing how the career of a lone dissenter, Ted Sargent, was derailed as a result of his heresy. The subtitle is apt, but not for reasons the author intends. The intrigue surrounding this book rests in making sense of why someone with Hooper’s gift for science writing would stoop to the trumped-up fiction of scientific fraud to sell a book; the tragedy is the pernicious effects this book will have on biology education and the history of science community.
While Kettlewell was highly regarded as a naturalist, his colleagues had less respect for him as a scientist. It is also fair to say that the phenomenon is more complicated than textbooks would have us believe and that several of the techniques and assumptions Kettlewell used have been called into question. Hooper’s evidence that Kettlewell committed fraud, a claim neither historians nor any of the numerous researchers on industrial melanism who have attempted to extend Kettlewell’s work have *ever* made, is an apparent discrepancy in his 1953 recapture results. Calling attention to the fact that the figures went up the day Ford wrote a letter sympathizing with Kettlewell’s results thus far, Hooper alleges that as a result of exhaustion, sickness, alcohol, tobacco, and his own insecurities, Kettlewell resorted to falsifying his data to placate Ford. Using historical meteorological records, she considers and triumphantly rejects one alternative explanation. There are many other reasons for why the recapture figures might have risen (for example, on this day Kettlewell began using three times as many moths). Significantly, not even Ted Sargent, one of Kettlewell’s most vocal critics who Hooper interviews, agrees with Hooper’s claim that Kettlewell committed fraud (p. 255).
The portrayals of Kettlewell’s and Ford’s scientific work are distorted by Hooper’s obvious agenda and littered with interpretive errors (see B. Grant, “Sour Grapes of Wrath,” Science 297 : 940–941). Much of the book is devoted to spreading gossip. While some use of anecdotes is warranted to humanize the story, the emphasis on details of their private lives results in caricatures that make the respect and affection their colleagues had for Kettlewell and Ford (both privately and publicly) a complete mystery. The relevance of these anecdotes to Hooper’s accusations is also unclear. Repeated references to Ford’s reputation as a misogynist, his homosexuality, his mysterious young ward, and the sordid circumstances surrounding the suicide of Kettlewell’s daughter suggest that, in lieu of evidence, Hooper has resorted to dredging up every bit of dirt she could find on Kettlewell and Ford to coax the reader into believing they were capable of committing fraud.
Hooper’s second thesis is more problematic. She alleges that researchers on industrial melanism have conspired to hide outstanding problems and ostracize those who dare to question the standard story. This elite group centered in Britain supposedly have the power to jeopardize Ted Sargent’s candidacy for tenure at Amherst in the U.S., yet curiously cannot prevent the publication of articles that raise questions about the standard account. Surely the primary source of Sargent’s tenure problems has to do with the excessive stress science departments place on external funding, a concern his British colleagues no doubt share.
Sadly this book will undoubtedly be used by creationists and intelligent design theorists in their ongoing assault on the teaching of evolution. The several outstanding interpretive problems surrounding the phenomenon of industrial melanism and Kettlewell’s work do not imply it should be removed from textbooks and indeed may augment its value for the teaching of science (see D.W. Rudge, “Does Being Wrong Make Kettlewell Wrong for Science Teaching?” Journal of Biological Education 35 : 5–11). The most pernicious effect of this book however, will be upon the history of science community. It is a warning to scientists of what can happen to the memories of you and your loved ones if your papers fall into the wrong hands.
David Wÿss Rudge
David Rudge links for those interested in his other work:
Dave Rudge's Home Page
Rev Biol Trop 2002 Mar;50(1):1-7
Cryptic designs on the peppered moth.
Department of Biological Sciences, Institute for Science Education, Western Michigan University, 3134 Wood Hall, Kalamazoo, MI 49008-5410, USA. email@example.com
In a provocative recent book, Jonathan Wells (2000) decries what he discerns as a systematic pattern in how introductory biology textbooks "blatantly misrepresent" ten routinely cited examples offered as evidence for evolution. Each of these examples, according to Wells, is fraught with interpretive problems and, as such, textbooks that continue to use them should at the very least be accompanied by warning labels. The following essay critiques his reasoning with reference to one of these examples, the phenomenon of industrial melanism. After criticizing Wells's specific argument, the essay draws several conclusions about the nature of science lost in his account.
Edited by niiicholas on Mar. 21 2003,00:31