Mike Majerus passed away

| 24 Comments | 2 TrackBacks

I am shocked and very saddened to have just gotten the news that Michael E. N. Majerus, Cambridge lepidopterist and world expert on the peppered moth and the evolution of melanism (and many other topics, e.g. ladybirds), has unexpectedly died after a short illness. This is very hard to understand, as he was quite young and in the midst of a very productive career.

I admit that I was interested in his work mostly from evolution/creationism angle, and there is a lot more to his life and his work than that, but I want it noted that Majerus on many occasions went out of his way to not just do good science but to help improve the public understanding of science and evolution. For example, he communicated helpfully with several of us on PT who wrote on the peppered moth issue, he wrote and talked for scientists, educators, and the public on the issue, including this great radio interview and this just-published piece in Evolution: Education, and Outreach, “Industrial Melanism in the Peppered Moth, Biston betularia: An Excellent Teaching Example of Darwinian Evolution in Action.” Google PT on Majerus for many other discussions. Finally, Majerus maintained an amazing sense of composure in the face of what was a pretty ridiculous set of attacks on the peppered moth example from the media and creationists (which resulted, I am convinced, in the peppered moth getting inappropriately dropped from several textbooks). Instead of getting mad and indignant, which would have been perfectly appropriate and understandable responses, Majerus went back to the field and gathered more data, tested the mainstream hypothesis again, and even changed the mind of some of his scientific critics.

Here is the abstract of Majerus’s E:EO article:

Industrial Melanism in the Peppered Moth, Biston betularia: An Excellent Teaching Example of Darwinian Evolution in Action

Michael E. N. Majerus

(1) Department of Genetics, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge, CB2 3EH, UK

Contact Information Michael E. N. Majerus Email: [Enable javascript to see this email address.]

Published online: 6 December 2008

Abstract The case of industrial melanism in the peppered moth has been used as a teaching example of Darwinian natural selection in action for half a century. However, over the last decade, this case has come under attack from those who oppose Darwinian evolution. Here, the main elements of the case are outlined and the reasons that the peppered moth case became the most cited example of Darwinian evolution in action are described. Four categories of criticism of the case are then evaluated. Criticisms of experimental work in the 1950s that centered on lack of knowledge of the behavior and ecology of the moth, poor experimental procedure, or artificiality in experiments have been addressed in subsequent work. Some criticisms of the work are shown to be the result of lack of understanding of evolutionary genetics and ecological entomology on the part of the critics. Accusations of data fudging and scientific fraud in the case are found to be vacuous. The conclusion from this analysis of criticisms of the case is that industrial melanism in the peppered moth is still one of the clearest and most easily understood examples of Darwinian evolution in action and that it should be taught as such in biology classes.

Keywords Industrial melanism - Bird predation - Evolution in action - Natural selection - Genetic polymorphism - Peppered moth - Biston betularia

Here is another recent article from Majerus, which rebutted the pretty clueless speculations by Judith Hooper and Jonathan Wells that the fact that bats eat many moths somehow invalidated the idea that differential predation by birds caused the change in peppered moth color from light to dark and back again:

Majerus MEN. Non-morph specific predation of peppered moths (Biston betularia) by bats. Ecol Entomol. http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/[…]amp;SRETRY=0, 2008.

Majerus’s E:EO article and various other sources mention his seven-year experiment re-doing Kettlewell’s predation experiments, which, to the dismay and ignorant denial of IDists/creationists, have re-validated Kettlewell’s initial conclusion, and Majerus’s consistent opinion, that bird predation was the cause of change of color in peppered moths. To my knowledge, the actual paper describing Majerus’s experiment has not yet been published. I assumed it was due out any time, likely in some special Darwin issue of some journal this year. But if anyone in Majerus’s circle is reading, and the article is not already in press, please make absolutely sure it and his data get published. His experiment was essentially the last, best chance to re-do the experiment in England, as melanic moths are now almost gone (as predicted, and expected by the bird predation hypothesis). From Majerus’s E:EO article:

The results of this experiment showed that the frequency of carbonaria declined from 12% of the carbonaria + typica population in 2001 to just over 1% in 2007. This is equivalent to a mean selection coefficient of 0.29 against carbonaria over this period. In the predation experiment, proportionately more carbonaria were eaten than typica, the difference being equivalent to a selection coefficient of 0.22 against the black form. The difference between these selection coefficients is not statistically significant. The conclusion from this experiment is that differential bird predation of the forms is sufficient to explain the changes in the frequencies of the forms in Cambridge between 2001 and 2007 (Majerus 2007).

[…]

Majerus MEN. The peppered moth: the proof of Darwinian evolution. Available at http://www.gen.cam.ac.uk/Research/M[…]lk220807.pdf, 2007.

So Majerus, and the carbonaria form of the peppered moth, have left the scene at about the same time. Although not an adequate tribute to a man’s life and his work, it will be a significant and appropriate partial legacy if Majerus’s work results in the return of the peppered moths to the introductory textbooks of thousands of young biologists.

For further discussion and links see Wes’s post.

2 TrackBacks

Mike Majerus from Stranger Fruit on January 28, 2009 11:37 PM

Nick Matzke over at PT has just made me aware that Mike Majerus had passed away after a sudden illness. Those of us who have followed the ID issue will know Majerus from the studies he did of melanism in... Read More

I just got home from running a lot of errands and discovered the sad news that Mike Majerus has passed away. Majerus, for those were unacquainted with his work, was an evolutionary biologist who studied insects ladybird beetles, parasitoid wasps,... Read More

24 Comments

This is very sad news. Majerus was a wonderful scientist, and his studies on melanism were first rate. Although consistently misinterpreted by creationists (what a surprise!), he did great work on one of natural selection’s clearest and most compelling systems.

This is very sad indeed. I did not know Dr. Majerus personally, but I invited him to contribute the paper to E:EO and was the associate editor in charge of it, so I did have a chance to interact with him. I am grateful that the paper is available as it is a testament to how careful and patient he was as a researcher and educator. He will be greatly missed.

I too was very sad to read that obituary. Dr. Majerus and I communicated once or twice by e-mail: he was very pleasant and very helpful to me, and allowed me to use one of his photographs in a talk I gave last summer. Though not a biologist, I know about enough to have been very impressed with his work and was gratified when he conclusively refuted criticisms of the earlier work on the peppered moth. He was a fine scientist, more or less at the peak of his career, and we will miss him.

I did not know him but I read his publications from time to time.

Always sad when someone is cut down in the prime of life.

Condolences to his family.

PvM said it all.

-DU-

Has anyone else seen Gary Larson’s interpretation of how entomologists pass away?

Gary Larson

In memory of a great scientist.

In addition to the comments above (which I do agree with), I hate it when people younger and more productive than I am die.

PvM said:

Gary Larson

In memory of a great scientist.

Y’know, I’ve always thought that PT was unimaginative and humorless but you just proved me wrong. And honestly, when I check out myself, I wish someone gives me half as witty a tribute.

Cheers – MrG / http://www.vectorsite.net/gblog.html

This is terrible news. I met Mike briefly at the international Wolbachia conference in 2006. He was one of those rare people who could do many things well, research-wise. I remember him as being very approachable and friendly to junior scientists.

Damn shame. He will be missed.

Please thank Stanton for remembering the Larson cartoon. I just did the search.

mrg (iml8) said:

PvM said:

Gary Larson

In memory of a great scientist.

Y’know, I’ve always thought that PT was unimaginative and humorless but you just proved me wrong. And honestly, when I check out myself, I wish someone gives me half as witty a tribute.

Cheers – MrG / http://www.vectorsite.net/gblog.html

I share the sentiments. I have greatly valued his work in demolishing the lies about dear peppered moth coming from creationists.

Just last week we had school inspectors into the primary school of which I am chair of geovernors . in 2007 the school won an award for environmental work which was presented by Majerus and I showed them a book which had Michael’s signiture on the front page (not written by him)

This is sad indeed.

I tend to assume that scientists would rather spend their time on ground breaking work rather than validating the work of others, especially when they can see the amount of hard work involved - but Mike Majerus proved that this can be a fruitful exercise. Unlike creationists - Peppered Moths continue to evolve, so documenting the demise of the melanic form must have been a satisfying way of bringing ‘closure’ to this particular chapter in it’s evolution.

Wow, I am shocked and saddened.

I never had a chance to interact with him myself (as a close friend of mine did) but I did read several of his papers and was grateful for the work he did on peppered moths (helping to counter creationist nonsense).

I wonder what his illness could have been? They have a picture of him from just last year taken in Africa on the obit web-page. In it he is dressed in full bug collecting regalia and certainly looked quite healthy.

This is indeed a tragedy.

Troy Britain said:

I wonder what his illness could have been?

According to this blog entry by a friend of his, it was an aggressive mesothelioma.

http://www.surfbirds.com/blogs/rjhall/

Dave Wisker: According to this blog entry by a friend of his, it was an aggressive mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma? How odd. It is usually (though not always) associated with asbestos exposure.

Sad, sad, sad.

Gary Hurd Wrote:

In addition to the comments above (which I do agree with), I hate it when people younger and more productive than I am die.

Or in my case, born the same year and more productive. I also don’t think I could have displayed his “…amazing sense of composure in the face of what was a pretty ridiculous set of attacks…from the media and creationists.”

I was lucky enough to be lectured by Mike during my undergraduate, and was very saddened to hear of his death. Mike was always an incredibly dynamic, and enthusiastic lecturer, and managed to pass this on to his students.

he also lectured me at Cambridge and did my entrance interview. in addition to being a wonderful research scientist and lecturer he was a very kind and warm man.

Mike’s death is a huge blow to the entomological world. I have a copy of his Collins book ‘moths’. To be taken away at the age of 54 is incomprehensible.

mike mccrea said:

Mike’s death is a huge blow to the entomological world. I have a copy of his Collins book ‘moths’. To be taken away at the age of 54 is incomprehensible.

His death is indeed sad and a great loss to evolutionary science and entomology. However, “incomprehensible” is an odd reaction. The raw fact that people get sick and die (at all ages) is not that hard to comprehend. If you are looking for a more metaphysical understanding - “why him, when he had so much to give?” - that would seem a strange question for an evolution forum!

Some time before, I really needed to buy a car for my organization but I did not earn enough cash and could not order something. Thank goodness my friend adviced to try to take the mortgage loans from reliable bank. Therefore, I acted so and used to be happy with my financial loan.

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This page contains a single entry by Nick Matzke published on January 28, 2009 6:32 PM.

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