Selective bird predation on the peppered moth: the last experiment of Michael Majerus

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wikipedia_peppered_moths.jpgToday a paper came out that should get special attention from evolutionary biologists, evolution educators, and creationism fighters. It is:

Cook, L. M.; Grant, B. S.; Saccheri, I. J.; Mallet, J. (2012). “Selective bird predation on the peppered moth: the last experiment of Michael Majerus.” Biology Letters, Published online before print February 8, 2012. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2011.1136. Abstract at Journal, Supplementary Online Material.

Abstract

Colour variation in the peppered moth Biston betularia was long accepted to be under strong natural selection. Melanics were believed to be fitter than pale morphs because of lower predation at daytime resting sites on dark, sooty bark. Melanics became common during the industrial revolution, but since 1970 there has been a rapid reversal, assumed to have been caused by predators selecting against melanics resting on today’s less sooty bark. Recently, these classical explanations of melanism were attacked, and there has been general scepticism about birds as selective agents. Experiments and observations were accordingly carried out by Michael Majerus to address perceived weaknesses of earlier work. Unfortunately, he did not live to publish the results, which are analysed and presented here by the authors. Majerus released 4864 moths in his six-year experiment, the largest ever attempted for any similar study. There was strong differential bird predation against melanic peppered moths. Daily selection against melanics (s ≃ 0.1) was sufficient in magnitude and direction to explain the recent rapid decline of melanism in post-industrial Britain. These data provide the most direct evidence yet to implicate camouflage and bird predation as the overriding explanation for the rise and fall of melanism in moths.

As long-time readers of Panda’s Thumb know, I’ve had an axe to grind about the peppered moth case since the beginning of my serious involvement with creationism-fighting. Back in 2002 I wrote a long review of Jonathan Wells’s creationism/ID book Icons of Evolution for Talkorigins.org. Wells’s strategy was very clever; rather than attacking the science of evolution head-on, he attacked high school biology textbooks. He engaged in a delicate dance of selective citation and quote-mining so as to make it appear that the criticisms of standard textbook examples used to introduce various evolutionary concepts were coming from scientists.

Since everyone, including scientists and science journalists, “knows” that introductory textbooks have problems, more than a few people reacted to Wells’s book with the defensive reaction “well, sure, textbooks have problems, but the science of evolution is well-supported”. However, this was giving away the game, because (a) Wells’s attacks, read carefully, were actually aimed at the credibility of the science of evolutionary biology and evolutionary biologists, and (b) his attacks were tendentious, question-begging, and most importantly based on an amazingly selective and misleading review of the evidence and the scientific community on each question.

One Wells chapter that was particularly annoying was on peppered moths. Everyone remembers something vague from high school biology about moths sitting on tree trunks and birds eating the ones that were the wrong color. In 1998, a leading peppered moth researcher, Michael Majerus from Cambridge, published a book called Melanism which included two long chapters reviewing scientific study of the peppered moth from the initial studies by Bernard Kettlewell in the 1950s through Majerus’s own work. One message of the chapters was that textbook accounts were oversimplified and that the full story was much more interesting. For example, Majerus presented field observations which indicated that peppered moths rest not just on tree trunks but also on tree branches. But the other message of the chapters was that Kettlewell’s basic hypothesis – that bird predation on moths had caused the shift in peppered moth color from light to dark and back again, through differential predation based on camouflage – was correct and confirmed by the work that had happened since Kettlewell’s initial studies, despite various criticisms of the details of some of his experiments.

The story of what happened after Majerus’s book came out is complex and bizarre and is briefly reviewed in Supplement 1 of Cook et al., entitled “A brief history of the peppered moth debacle.” The short version is that Jerry Coyne wrote a prominent review of the book in Nature, which concluded – somehow – that the peppered moth research was all highly questionable. Coyne was and is a prominent and respected evolutionary biologist, and his debunkings of pop-ev psych, creationism, etc. are often of high quality – but there is no way to avoid the conclusion that Coyne must have had an off-day, and his review of Majerus was uncareful and made many mistakes. For example, Coyne wrote:

Criticisms of this story have circulated in samizdat for several years, but Majerus summarizes them for the first time in print in an absorbing two-chapter critique (coincidentally, a similar analysis [Sargent et al., Evol. Biol. 30, 299-322; 1998] has just appeared). Majerus notes that the most serious problem is that B. betularia probably does not rest on tree trunks – exactly two moths have been seen in such a position in more than 40 years of intensive search. The natural resting spots are, in fact, a mystery. This alone invalidates Kettlewell’s release-recapture experiments, as moths were released by placing them directly onto tree trunks, where they are highly visible to bird predators.

The only problems with this are that:

(a) Majerus himself, right there in Melanism, presented data showing that moths rested on trunks or trunk/branch joints in 32/47 moths Majerus had personally observed undisturbed in the wild, and 136/203 moths observed resting near light traps. Furthermore, Majerus’s photographs contained several unstaged photos, taken by him, of moths discovered in various natural positions, including on tree trunks.

(b) Birds that hunt on tree trunks are not somehow magically blocked from hunting on tree branches, and lichens are known to grow not just on tree trunks, but also on tree branches. Air pollution and soot, which darken trees both by killing lichens and by physically blackening surfaces (many critiques of the peppered moth example ignore that both processes happen), also manage to get to both places. (An aside – people forget what air pollution was like in 1950s England and before. Think Dickens. Black soot would fall out of the sky. That’s where the term “fallout” comes from, I believe. Sometimes the audience at the back of an opera house could not see the stage at the front. The death rate would spike on bad air days. Etc. This was not a subtle environmental change.)

(c) Not all of Kettlewell’s experiments relied solely on placing moths only on tree trunks. In fact it was Kettlewell himself who first noted in the 1950s that the moths also like branches, some of his experiments let the moths find their own resting spots.

(d) Sargent et al.’s review, which clearly influenced Coyne more than Majerus’s actual book, was on the phenomenon of melanism in moths in general – which likely does have diverse causes – and many of its criticisms did not apply to the specific case of the peppered moth. And as it turned out, Sargent and his coauthors had some very weird Lamarkian and anti-Modern-Synthesis views that have been aired in other venues.

Coyne added a few other choice quotes which rang around the world:

Depressingly, Majerus shows that this classic example is in bad shape, and, while not yet ready for the glue factory, needs serious attention.

[…]

Majerus concludes, reasonably, that all we can deduce from this story is that it is a case of rapid evolution, probably involving pollution and bird predation. I would, however, replace “probably” with “perhaps”. B. betularia shows the footprint of natural selection, but we have not yet seen the feet. Majerus finds some solace in his analysis, claiming that the true story is likely to be more complex and therefore more interesting, but one senses that he is making a virtue of necessity. My own reaction resembles the dismay attending my discovery, at the age of six, that it was my father and not Santa who brought the presents on Christmas Eve.

[…]

What can one make of all this? Majerus concludes with the usual call for more research, but several lessons are already at hand. First, for the time being we must discard Biston as a well-understood example of natural selection in action, although it is clearly a case of evolution.

Majerus and other peppered moth researchers were dismayed by Coyne’s review, and said so in various fora, but none of this attracted anything like the attention that Coyne’s review received, particularly when it was amplified by journalists and creationists. By the early 2000s, Wells and other creationists, and even some benighted journalists such as Judith Hooper, were alleging not just that the Kettlewell work was mistaken, but that it was fraud. Soon the peppered moth was disappearing from textbooks. The whole phenomenon was bizarre if one paid attention to the actual research literature by the actual people who had done fieldwork and experiments by peppered moths, e.g. Majerus himself, Cook, Bruce Grant, etc. Cook et al. write:

The attacks on the classic peppered moth story were promulgated almost entirely by people who never studied the peppered moth themselves. It is notable that no new fieldwork had ever been done that disproved the classical explanation.

There is more that could be said about the details of the criticisms leveled against Kettlewell and the peppered moth work over the years, but this would take a published article to sort out. It suffices to say that many of the criticisms contradicted other criticisms, most or all “alternative explanations”, even on the rare occasions when a critic bothered to propose one, could not explain how peppered moth color changed from light to dark and then back to light again, and many of the criticisms were obviously armchair “in the bad way” of assuming things that would be obviously wrong to anyone who went out to the field and looked at the relevant forests a bit. (I realized this when I looked at the forests around Cambridge – forests of relatively small and short British hardwoods are rather different than forests on the West Coast of the U.S. Trunk versus canopy is a huge difference in a redwood forest, but literally a matter of an arms length and a second or two of flying for a moth or bird in an English forest.)

All in all, I feel that my assessment of the peppered moth work as of 2002 was right on, and has been confirmed by subsequent developments.

However, a fantastic feature of science is that even overwrought and unreasonable criticisms can benefit knowledge and science in the end, because they aggravate scientists enough to spur them to gather more data. To this end, Majerus conducted experiments and observations on peppered moths for seven summers from 2001-2007, and did it while deliberately avoiding the criticisms that had been leveled at previous experiments – Majerus’s moths were at low density, in natural resting positions, etc. And the result? The selection coefficient against dark moths was statistically significant and approximately 0.1. This is a huge value (huge in that much smaller selection coefficients can easily be relevant in population genetics), of the same order of magnitude and direction estimated in previous work, and sufficient and adequate to explain the change in frequency of the dark morph of the peppered moth, which dropped from 12% to 1% over the course of the study, continuing the trend which had been observed ever since the clean-air laws went into effect in the 1950s. As an aside, we are very lucky that Majerus did this work when he did, since (as the classical explanation predicted), the dark morph is now almost extinct.

Majerus’s data were in by 2007 and he released the results in various talks and in an online article on his website, and reviewed the work in a 2008 article in Evolution: Education and Outreach. Jerry Coyne, to his great credit, went on the air with Majerus in a radio interview and announced that Majerus’s new work had convinced him.

The only step left would have been for Majerus to formally publish the results in a peer-reviewed journal, but Majerus unexpectedly and shockingly died of a rare illness in 2009. Such an event causes chaos for a researcher’s family and laboratory, and I was beginning to worry that Majerus’s final experiment would never be published, and thus we would be subjected to endless cycles of rehashing of the same old half-baked arguments from creationists and the like for decades to come, each time someone rediscovered the charges of scandal and fraud from the late 1990s and early 2000s. Fortunately, however, a group of Majerus’s former colleagues assembled his results and methods and conducted a new statistical analysis, which resulted in the Cook et al. paper.

Whether or not this means that peppered moths will go back into the textbooks is, perhaps, not the most important question. The most important question is getting the science correct and then conforming our beliefs and confidence to whatever the best evidence says. And the science is continuing – researchers have recently identified (van’t Hof et al. 2011) the region of the moth genome responsible for producing the melanism trait, and presumably it is just a matter of time before we know the mutation(s) responsible for producing the trait. Interestingly, Majerus (1998) argued that the evidence argued for a single origin of melanism in British peppered moths. In this he was disagreeing with Kettlewell, who argued that melanism was a “recurring necessity” that had come and gone with climate change and the like (e.g., cryptic moths in general tend to be darker in wetter regions, probably because water darkens surfaces and cloud cover reduces the amount of light on surfaces). Hopefully soon, molecular work will reveal whether or not Majerus was as correct about this as he was about other things. (Note: van’t Hof et al. 2011 already conclude this based on the linkage disequilibrium pattern they observe in the moth chromosomes, but I believe they haven’t drilled down to the specific mutation in the sequence which is responsible.)

But I have to confess that I have a soft spot for the moths and for their place in the textbooks. It is true, as is often said, that we now have many good examples of natural selection in action. So we don’t need the moths. However, that argument only has a point if you have some residual reason to doubt the quality of the evidence in the peppered moth case, probably because you “heard somewhere” that it was in doubt. Hopefully a careful review of the published research, and not second-hand armchair sources, would convince any reasonable observer that the science is perfectly decent in the case of the peppered moth. Once that conclusion is accepted, the peppered moth story lends itself to classroom use for many reasons: the evolutionary change is obvious and visual. The mechanism of bird predation, and the resulting adaptation of camouflage, is easy to understand and gives students a crucial link between the statistical action of natural selection, and the production of adaptations that “seem designed” to naive observers. And the change was the unintentional byproduct of human activity – air pollution, and furthermore the change back was due to legislation which reduced air pollution. And the change in the peppered moths back to their original peppered state was an evolutionary prediction made by Kettlewell and subsequent researchers, and which was dramatically confirmed.

Finally, the whole snafu over the peppered moth science, and the subsequent resolution of the controversy, first by review of already published work by moth researchers, and confirmed by the additional research by Majerus, is itself an excellent example of how science can succeed even in spite of the mistakes all humans and scientists make, and in spite of the difficulties imposed by inadequate journalism, pseudoscientific propaganda like creationism, etc. Since the oversimplification of the peppered moth story in textbooks originally led to some of the backlash, surely it would be fitting to make the practice of science, in all its complexity, accessible to students today, in the form of the peppered moth example along with the history of the rise, and fall, and rise of the peppered moth.

134 Comments

Many thanks for this excellent review.

Wells’s strategy was very clever; rather than attacking the science of evolution head-on, he attacked high school biology textbooks. He engaged in a delicate dance of selective citation and quote-mining so as to make it appear that the criticisms of standard textbook examples used to introduce various evolutionary concepts were coming from scientists.

Furthermore, Wells wasn’t necessarily even original in this approach.

An equally misguided but much more talented writer famously used the same approach of inaccurately attacking a few well-known examples of evolution. http://www.chick.com/reading/tracts[…]/0055_01.asp

Since the current version on the Chick site states “copyright 2002”, I can’t really be definitive about who inspired who, but I suspect that versions of Chick’s work predate “Icons of Evolution”.

Very nice write-up, Nick, and – as you say – a brilliant illustration of how the truth will out.

One of the nastiest tricks of the ID/creationists, ever since Morris and Gish started hounding scientists and teachers, is their grotesque misrepresentations of not only scientific concepts but of the process of science itself.

We in the physics community have been trying to clean up the mess they created with entropy and the second law for decades; but ID/creationist memes spread rapidly; and these memes get picked up unwittingly by the media and even by well-meaning popularizers of science.

But worse, as the science community cleans up the mess, ID/creationists are right there taking credit for “spurring on scientists to clean up their dirty act.” These ID/creationist jerks are just plain infuriating in the contorted games they play.

If the peppered moths – or any other demonstrative research suitable for introductory biology textbooks – returns to the textbooks, I hope that the textbook writers and teachers can clearly distinguish between the roles scientists played in firming up the research and the confusion generated by opportunistic charlatans attempting to hitch a ride on the backs of those scientists.

Dang journalists beat me to it…by a little bit…

Classic sooty-moth tale bolstered by new results

Backyard experiment strengthens scenario for evolutionary changes due to pollution By Susan Milius

Web edition : 12:33 pm

Results from a large experiment support the much-debated original hypothesis that industrialization favored a dark form (left) of the peppered moth over the lighter one (right) because hungry birds found light wings easy to spot against sooty backgrounds.J. Mallet

A recently criticized textbook example of evolutionary forces in action, the dark forms of peppered moths that spread with industrialization in Britain, may be on its way back.

Results of an ambitious experiment on the moths (Biston betularia) support the original hypothesis that their dark-colored forms spread in soot-coated landscapes because they are more difficult for hungry birds to spot, says evolutionary biologist James Mallet of Harvard University. He and three colleagues have published the final peppered moth experiment of Michael Majerus, who spent six years monitoring the fates of a total of 4,864 moths, presented his conclusions at a conference but died before publishing them. The study appears online February 8 in Biology Letters.

The moth story not only makes “a compelling example of evolution in action,” but it’s “a terrific case history of how science works,” says evolutionary biologist Scott Freeman of the University of Washington in Seattle. “Majerus raised questions; he and his colleagues did the hard work required to answer them.”

The moths, which usually have salt-white wings sprinkled with pepper-black, have long played a role in evolutionary biology. In the early years of genetics, breeding experiments established that a single gene can create a black form. It showed up in Manchester, England, in 1848, and by 1895, 98 percent of the region’s moths were dark. Moths went dark in similarly industrializing areas, and when clean-air regulations began to clear the pollution, dark forms went into decline.

Experiments in the mid-20th century supported the idea that industrial grime provided better camouflage for dark wings, but that work drew escalating challenges starting in the 1990s. Majerus and other scientists raised questions about those studies’ methods, such as whether the high densities of moths released had altered the results and whether the tree trunks where moths were placed were a normal resting place. Debates over those studies ignited reputation bashing, charges of fraud and a firestorm of creationist glee.

Majerus, who lived in a relatively unpolluted hamlet near Cambridge, England, set out to answer some of the questions himself. On spring and summer mornings he rose before dawn to climb ladders and set out eight to 10 moths on realistic spots in the trees behind his home. He then checked to see if they survived the first four hours of daylight.

After six years of moth patrol, he established that dark forms had only about 91 percent the survival rate of the light moths. That kind of predation pressure was strong enough to account for the shift in moth forms, he concluded.

Majerus also established that a noticeable portion (36 percent) of moths do choose to rest on tree trunks, and he tested, and rejected, the alternative hypothesis that bats instead of birds were differentially catching light or dark moths. Birds indeed were eating the moths; Majerus witnessed many of the fatalities from his window.

The storied moth may one day find its way back into textbooks, though perhaps in new forms. Freeman says he considered including it in his introductory textbook with new material on dark moth forms spreading in gritty North American districts. And author Kenneth Miller of Brown University says he’s thought about discussing peppered moths along with color forms of rock pocket mice to explain natural selection’s influence on dark-pigmented forms. “In short,” Miller says, “the peppered moth story is and always was a fine example of natural selection in action.”

Whether textbook publishers put this into the textbooks or not, all biology teachers can still include it in their lesson plans. And of course we now have a new reference to cite and use for data. If anyone objects you can just have them read the paper.

It doesn’t matter what crap creationists try to pull, or what pressure they put on publishers. Reality will trump spin every time. Eventually.

Thanks to Nick for the heads up.

Actually, the peppered moth issue is good for ID in the long-run. It cements NS as a maintenance junkie, rather than a building contractor.

So if Nick Matzke is content with not searching for any ‘tantalizing hints’ that the peppered moth is capable of more than a simple light/dark oscillation, then hey great, white to black and back again to white it is!

SteveP. said:

It cements NS as a maintenance junkie, rather than a building contractor.

Well, you have just demonstrated that you still don’t know anything about chemistry and physics.

Hate science textbooks, do you?

It’s still just a moth!

SteveP. said:

Actually, the peppered moth issue is good for ID in the long-run. It cements NS as a maintenance junkie, rather than a building contractor.

And your continued inanity cements you as a stupid troll who continually refuses to understand science even if it laid eggs in the empty hole where your brain should have been.

Why is the peppered moth issue “good for ID”? Intelligent Design proponents can’t explain anything to save their lives.

So if Nick Matzke is content with not searching for any ‘tantalizing hints’ that the peppered moth is capable of more than a simple light/dark oscillation, then hey great, white to black and back again to white it is!

So how come you don’t want to explain why the Intelligent Designer can’t make up His mind about what color peppered moths should be?

Oh, wait, no, you can’t explain because you’re a stupid troll whose sole purpose here is to insult us for not being moronic bobbleheads like you are.

Mike Elzinga said:

SteveP. said:

It cements NS as a maintenance junkie, rather than a building contractor.

Well, you have just demonstrated that you still don’t know anything about chemistry and physics.

He doesn’t know anything about biology, either.

Hate science textbooks, do you?

Yes, yes he does. He hates learning, too.

Apart from the results of Majerus’ research, the main thing which comes out of the ID/YEC criticism of peppered moths is their blatant lying over so many issues, accusing Kettlewell of fraud etc.

It is one of the best examples of ID/YEC dishonesty, which is easily documented. I have used it to get creationists running as there is never such a good lie as a detailed one.

I knew a creationist would show up; they don’t care about science but they become agitated and defensive when creationism/ID books are critiqued.

Actually, the peppered moth issue is good for ID in the long-run.

The main peppered moth “issue” discussed here is that Jonathon Wells, ID advocate and DI fellow, lied about peppered moth research; how can that be good for ID? Serious question.

It cements NS as a maintenance junkie, rather than a building contractor.

1. This seems pretty illogical; are you arguing because the frequency of alleles associated with color can change rapidly with natural selection, no other change in frequency of alleles in a peppered moth population is possible? Serious question.

2. If this is the ID/creationist explanation, then why did Jonathon Wells previously deny this explanation? Serious question.

There ought to be a certificate of ignorance issued to the ignorati. Steve P. merits the AAA+ rating.

Only a delusional moron like Steve P. can make such a risible conclusion. Even if Steve P. was right, ID has not offered a compelling hypothesis confirmed by subsequent rigorous scientific testing unlike, for example, the work done by Majerus.

Steve P., I am willing to bet that your friends and business associates in the Taiwanese textile market know a lot more about biology and REAL SCIENCE like evolutionary biology than you. Maybe if you opted to learn from them then you wouldn’t be the mendacious troll who enjoys “driving by” here at Panda’s Thumb. I strongly second Rolf’s most astute observation that you deserve an AAA+ rated certificate of ignorance, though with a notation that your ignorance is one replete in its mendacity.

Anyway, my thanks to Nick Matzke for yet another superb essay.

Rolf said:

There ought to be a certificate of ignorance issued to the ignorati. Steve P. merits the AAA+ rating.

That ought to be ZZZ+ with the next lesser point on the scale being ZZZ. The question is whether going from ZZZ to ZZZ+ is an upgrade or a downgrade. I would also quibble about rating Steve P. at ZZZ+ as it doesn’t leave room to grade FL, IBIG or Robert Byers appropriately. I’d rate Steve P. as “Standard and Poor”.

https://me.yahoo.com/a/57vt.Vh1yeas[…]AbTpY-#b1375 said:

Only a delusional moron like Steve P. can make such a risible conclusion. Even if Steve P. was right, ID has not offered a compelling hypothesis confirmed by subsequent rigorous scientific testing unlike, for example, the work done by Majerus.

Steve P., I am willing to bet that your friends and business associates in the Taiwanese textile market know a lot more about biology and REAL SCIENCE like evolutionary biology than you. Maybe if you opted to learn from them then you wouldn’t be the mendacious troll who enjoys “driving by” here at Panda’s Thumb. I strongly second Rolf’s most astute observation that you deserve an AAA+ rated certificate of ignorance, though with a notation that your ignorance is one replete in its mendacity.

Anyway, my thanks to Nick Matzke for yet another superb essay.

And ex ungue leonem. John, why don’t you sign in?

I’d go with Orwell’s Newspeak. Steve P. would rate ungood. FL, IBIG or Byers are at least plusungood, while the likes of Ham must be doubleplusungood.

ID and Creationist propagandists will never stop using the peppered moth bit, anymore than climate change denialists will ever stop claiming that the famous emails revealed unholy doings. Thing is, when your message is targeted at low information folks, evidence and logic are unimportant. Repetition of an attack creates an association of ideas that produces the desired effect: ringing a bell is not an argument in favor of salivating but it makes the juices flow. The recipient of the message is proud of himself for his familiarity with the notion and this suffices to reinforce the lesson. After all, at the popular level of mental functioning there is little awareness of the difference between being acquainted with something and knowing about it. Good luck getting people who think you’re the enemy to invest the effort required to actually understand an issue that requires as many as three sentences to convey.

So you would have to take into consideration the eye sight of the bird and that the bird doesn’t feel the need to evolve to accommodate both colours also it’s possible taste could come into the equation.

Marilyn said:

So you would have to take into consideration the eye sight of the bird and that the bird doesn’t feel the need to evolve to accommodate both colours also it’s possible taste could come into the equation.

I have no trouble understanding why people like you find it hard to accept evolution knowing that you honestly think it means every poor little sparrow wakes up every morning with thought of “what shall I evolve into today” flying around its tiny little brain!

Dave Lovell said:

Marilyn said:

So you would have to take into consideration the eye sight of the bird and that the bird doesn’t feel the need to evolve to accommodate both colours also it’s possible taste could come into the equation.

I have no trouble understanding why people like you find it hard to accept evolution knowing that you honestly think it means every poor little sparrow wakes up every morning with thought of “what shall I evolve into today” flying around its tiny little brain!

Out of curiosity, has anyone here ever seen a creatonist critique of the scientific understanding of evolution, rather than some absurd caricature? I admit I haven’t.

Flint said:

Dave Lovell said:

Marilyn said:

So you would have to take into consideration the eye sight of the bird and that the bird doesn’t feel the need to evolve to accommodate both colours also it’s possible taste could come into the equation.

I have no trouble understanding why people like you find it hard to accept evolution knowing that you honestly think it means every poor little sparrow wakes up every morning with thought of “what shall I evolve into today” flying around its tiny little brain!

Out of curiosity, has anyone here ever seen a creatonist critique of the scientific understanding of evolution, rather than some absurd caricature? I admit I haven’t.

I have not. For many years, I specifically asked ID/creationists whether, before discussing the theory of evolution, they could briefly describe it. I never got a coherent answer. (I did get some evasive “Of course I know what evolution is, how dare you question that, how dare you imply that I can’t explain evolution, why of course I could, if I wanted to…” type answers, and I did get a lot of people ignoring the question.)

I’ve also outlined basic mechanisms of evolution, and asked creationists which they specifically deny, without getting a coherent answer.

I am told that Todd Wood can correctly summarize the theory of evolution. I have not seen him do so, personally; he probably has somewhere, but I haven’t seen it. I have seen quotes of him conceding that it is a strong theory, which is not quite the same thing.

(Note - I’m not sure whether Marilynn’s comment is intended to deny peppered moth natural selection; to address her specific points - bird vision and bird olfactory/gustatory perception did evolve, of course, but what is being discussed here is the strong evidence that, those being what they are, in the environment of rural areas near Oxford, UK, birds are able to prey more effectively on moths that visually stand out against the background environment, and that fact leads to relatively rapid shifts in allele frequencies within the moth population, when the visual features of the background environment shift.)

Flint said:

Out of curiosity, has anyone here ever seen a creatonist critique of the scientific understanding of evolution, rather than some absurd caricature? I admit I haven’t.

Nope. Same problem with those anti-evolutionists who insist that their supernatural alternative is scientific: they might be able to repeat some of the bullet-points for the scientific method but invariably they fail to apply it consistently to their own position. In another forum I’ve been running up against one very persistent IDist who refuses to go into the “pathetic level of detail” (as Dembski put it) about how ID actually explains a feature. He even describes several times how to arrive at the ID conclusion (eliminate all possibility of evolution first) and then can’t understand why everyone calls this an impossible process, God of the Gaps, negative argumentation, etc. It’s really quite amazing how resilient he is at being corrected.

Another example, from him is his failure to understand how Behe’s testimony in Kitzmiller v. Dover showed the utter lack of scientific methodology in his approach. When the example was trotted out about all the literature on immune system evolution that Behe hadn’t read, he tried to defend Behe’s willful ignorance by insisting that Behe was right: he’d had no obligation to even read research that he didn’t consider fruitful and could avoid dealing with evolutionary explanations of the system, even though Behe’s entire position is that evolutionary mechanism are inadequate. The dude couldn’t understand why this is a shameful example of anti-science and not proper scientific conduct; in order to show how evolutionary explanations are inadequate, Behe would have had to actually understand and examine those explanations in the first place, then show how ID is supposed to work better.

So it’s not just evolution that they chronically misunderstand, it’s the process of science itself; and with their conspiracy theories and juicy pop-sci books they spread this fundamental misunderstanding to a wider audience. Just as Mike said above, it’s perhaps the more insidious trick that they attack the public’s understanding of science, not just the findings of science.

Michael R said:

Apart from the results of Majerus’ research, the main thing which comes out of the ID/YEC criticism of peppered moths is their blatant lying over so many issues, accusing Kettlewell of fraud etc.

It is one of the best examples of ID/YEC dishonesty, which is easily documented. I have used it to get creationists running as there is never such a good lie as a detailed one.

This is indeed an effective method of debunking ID/creationists. It requires that one dig into their misconceptions and misrepresentations; and that requires a lot of practice at suppressing the gag reflex.

But the payoff is rather substantial when one discusses the dishonest tactics of the ID/creationists with the public or with students.

As I have mentioned before, as much as I hate reading ID/creationist crap, there is some benefit in helping one to understand misconceptions and misrepresentations and finding ways to deal with these.

Flint said:

Out of curiosity, has anyone here ever seen a creatonist critique of the scientific understanding of evolution, rather than some absurd caricature? I admit I haven’t.

Well, I have been watching their tactics for something like 40+ years now; and not once have I seen an ID/creationist give an accurate description of a scientific concept or process.

Duane Gish’s caricatures were grotesque misrepresentations that were designed to infuriate a debating opponent. Both Morris’s and Gish’s misconceptions became standard, memorized arguing points by the creationists they trained at the Institute for Creation Research.

It was amusing that, after the 1987 US Supreme Court decision on Edwards v. Aguillard the morph of creationism into the intelligent design resulted in the ID/creationist crowd actually taking their misconceptions seriously.

It resulted in the pseudo-science they now promulgate; and that, in turn, lies at the heart of all the contorted screeds on “information,” “complex specified information,” “irreducible complexity,” along with their mischaracterizations of science and scientific activity.

co said:

https://me.yahoo.com/a/57vt.Vh1yeas[…]AbTpY-#b1375 said:

Only a delusional moron like Steve P. can make such a risible conclusion. Even if Steve P. was right, ID has not offered a compelling hypothesis confirmed by subsequent rigorous scientific testing unlike, for example, the work done by Majerus.

Steve P., I am willing to bet that your friends and business associates in the Taiwanese textile market know a lot more about biology and REAL SCIENCE like evolutionary biology than you. Maybe if you opted to learn from them then you wouldn’t be the mendacious troll who enjoys “driving by” here at Panda’s Thumb. I strongly second Rolf’s most astute observation that you deserve an AAA+ rated certificate of ignorance, though with a notation that your ignorance is one replete in its mendacity.

Anyway, my thanks to Nick Matzke for yet another superb essay.

And ex ungue leonem. John, why don’t you sign in?

If I could sign in from my Facebook account, I would, but I can’t. I’ll have to test that.

harold said:

Many thanks for this excellent review.

Wells’s strategy was very clever; rather than attacking the science of evolution head-on, he attacked high school biology textbooks. He engaged in a delicate dance of selective citation and quote-mining so as to make it appear that the criticisms of standard textbook examples used to introduce various evolutionary concepts were coming from scientists.

Furthermore, Wells wasn’t necessarily even original in this approach.

An equally misguided but much more talented writer famously used the same approach of inaccurately attacking a few well-known examples of evolution. http://www.chick.com/reading/tracts[…]/0055_01.asp

Since the current version on the Chick site states “copyright 2002”, I can’t really be definitive about who inspired who, but I suspect that versions of Chick’s work predate “Icons of Evolution”.

Wells - plagerism? Does anyone ever check?

I’ve seen a number of attorney books on creationism/ID and have wondered how much of their arguments were lifted by Phillip Johnson.

Yeah, as I’ve been saying for some time now, the way things come true in religionland is to SAY they’re true. If you say it twice, it becomes twice as true. If people believe you, you have a new cult. This cult will honor your claims until it expires (if it does). But expiration doesn’t make your claim false, because nothing can do that. The Word is all.

I think it’s important to realize that creationists cannot conceive of any other way. So they think scientific claims become true because some scientist SAID SO. If you attack Darwin’s character, you are necessarily attacking evolution, because it was Darwin who spoke the Word that made evolution True. And if they don’t like the scientific understanding of evolution, the solution is to SAY it’s something different, and attack that. Saying so MAKES it so. That’s how religion works.

I’m pretty well convinced that creationists never gtive an accurate description of a scientific concept or process because they simply cannot think it. It flat doesn’t fit anywhere in their mental model. And their mental model isn’t just a “fixer upper”, it’s an edifice that needs to be burned, bulldozed, and sterilized. Not gonna happen.

Dave Lovell said:

Marilyn said:

So you would have to take into consideration the eye sight of the bird and that the bird doesn’t feel the need to evolve to accommodate both colours also it’s possible taste could come into the equation.

I have no trouble understanding why people like you find it hard to accept evolution knowing that you honestly think it means every poor little sparrow wakes up every morning with thought of “what shall I evolve into today” flying around its tiny little brain!

So what you are saying then is that the little sparrow has to wait while God sets in motion the ability for the sparrow to adapt to its new environment or go extinct due to its lack of ability to cope with its new environment and that does happen to lots of species. Or see that there is a species that is succeeding and decide to mate with it so its kind will survive in some form.

It’s still just a moth!

Just? It’s the revenge of the peppered behe-moth and the biocomical challenge to evolution!

SteveP. said:

Nick Matzke: “1. Evolutionary theory actually isn’t all that simple. Some of the basic ideas are simple, and because of that, a lot of people, including antievolutionists but also a fair number of scientists, *think* they understand it when really they don’t. To really understand evolution, your understanding has to be built upon a quite broad and fairly deep background understanding of (at least) organismal biology, geology/paleontology, and ecology. When you see creationists and others making armchair objections to evolutionary theory – like the tautology objection, or the we’ll-act-like-animals objection, this is always based on a completely naive and bizarre and cartoonish understanding of biology. Actual animals don’t “behave like animals”. Differential survival based on features of the organism is just real and is going on every day. Etc.”

That’s the marketing problem evolution has. If the general public needs a university degree to understand evolution, then evolution’s shit outta luck. I bow to the powers of anyone that can jump that pedagogical hurdle!

Its kinda like Elzinga’s schtick that the ability to do entropy calculations is a prerequisite to understanding entropy.

This line of reasoning is how the priestly class held on to power. But it suffers from the fatal (f)law of diminishing returns.

So do you get vaccinations Steve? Do you ever use any modern medicine? Ever you ever had an operation? See you don’t have to understand something completely yourself to benefit from it, you just have to trust the experts. Now why are you not willing to do that with evolution Steve? You do that with engineering, with communications technology, with medicine, with transportation, why not with evolution? Oh that;s right, ya don’t wanna believes in that no how. Got it Steve.

Even if evolution has a”marketing problem” that doesn’t mean it isn;t true. You can cry any holler all you want to, but the fact is that evolution is real. You ignore reality at your own risk. Now that’s more than a marketing problem Steve.

And as far as entropy calculations go, why are you more willing to trust the people who can’t do that calculations than the people who can? Who should you take the word of biased people who don’t have the faintest clue what they are talking about? Is it just that you will do anything necessary to confirm your own prejudices and misconceptions? Why do you feel that this is somehow a virtue?

Dave Luckett said:

Is he seriously attempting to say that the difficulties of “marketing” evolution to those who will not undertake the effort of understanding it, is some sort of argument against its factual reality?

Seriously?

No, he’s gloating about how uneducated people are immune to being convinced about evolution’s reality. And unintentionally trying to prove his point by continuing to post.

Everyone -

I hope I’m not the only one who has noticed that Steve P. just keeps contradicting himself.

This is my paraphrase of his train of argument, with the caveat that this may make it seem more coherent than it actually was.

He started with “it’s natural selection but it’s only microevolution”, on page 1.

Then he began denying natural selection, around page 3. I pointed out these contradictions on page 3.

Then he had an embarrassing moment of unintended honesty, in which he stated that science had a “marketing problem” because it requires some education to learn about science. I don’t think this is true, but it does reveal his authoritarian mental processes - he cares about which idea people can be forced or deceived into saying they accept, not which is actually supported by evidence.

And now, finally, he’s advocating extreme Lamarckism. (This statement not intended to deny that some examples of direct environmental influence on germ line DNA may exist.)

Scott’s head is still in the 20th century so yeah, he wouldn’t be thinking about epigenetics.

Nah. Genomes couldn’t possible have the ability to change based on envirornmental conditions. They couldn’t possibly have mechanisms to change the color of their wings to let them blend in to their surroundings so that they can stay ahead of the game.

Nah. Moths aren’t proactive. They are reactive. They just barely escape the reaper. Each and every time.

But such luck! What a life!

All that this guy cares about is relieving the agony in his own brain by talking back.

He’ll just say anything to “contradict evolution”, even if it’s a direct contradiction of what he himself said five minutes ago.

For example, here are two responses that were provoked by two different Steve P. comments -

Really? Seriously? Do you really believe that the moths intentionally changed their color?

So you’d have us believe that birds eating more white moths than black moths CAN NOT RESULT in a population with a higher proportion of black moths?

Yes, he made both of those claims.

They contradict each other.

He has argued, first that it was natural selection but that this supports ID because it was only “maintenance”, second that bird predation can’t be affected by moths colors, and third, that the moths magically choose to turn themselves black (even though this has no effect on predation, apparently), while also simultaneously arguing that the real problem with science is that it has a “marketing problem” because it is too hard for some people to understand.

Why don’t we just let him argue with himself until he loses.

SteveP. said:

Its kinda like Elzinga’s schtick that the ability to do entropy calculations is a prerequisite to understanding entropy.

This line of reasoning is how the priestly class held on to power. But it suffers from the fatal (f)law of diminishing returns.

Steve, Elzinga’s point is that you and the other creationists posting here have shown no understanding of entropy, and in fact have shown that you consistently *mis*understand it, and yet you’ve used it as an argument for your position. Either you understand it and consistently fail to demonstrate that you understand it, or you *think* you understand it and you don’t, or you are lying. Which is it?

The ability to understand entropy is the ability to *count* things. That’s IT. It’s actually very easy. Now, the trick lies in basically two issues: what things to count, and how to extend that counting to large numbers.

Elzinga’s examples don’t bother with a “tricky” system, nor with a “large” system, and so the continued failings of the creationists to show that they know how to simply _count_ is pretty telling.

SteveP. said:

Its kinda like Elzinga’s schtick that the ability to do entropy calculations is a prerequisite to understanding entropy.

This line of reasoning is how the priestly class held on to power. But it suffers from the fatal (f)law of diminishing returns.

Right, this is how the “priestly class” held on to power. They invited the lay people to do the calculations for themselves. They invited the lay people to take classes and encouraged them to become educated. When they refused to become educated, but pretended they were anyway, then they were ridiculed for their ignorance. Right Steve.

And what about people like Behe who claim to have disproven evolution but refuse to do their own calculations? Now there is a priestly class for you.

Look dude, you are the one using an argument you don’t understand. You are the one who refuses to learn. No one is stopping you from learning, indeed many here have offered to educate you, you as simply unwilling. Don’t blame others for your own shortcomings. Pointing out that you are ignorant is not repression or elitism. Or do you lack logical reasoning skills as well? Can you blame that on those priestly scientists also?

DS said:

SteveP. said:

Its kinda like Elzinga’s schtick that the ability to do entropy calculations is a prerequisite to understanding entropy.

This line of reasoning is how the priestly class held on to power. But it suffers from the fatal (f)law of diminishing returns.

Right, this is how the “priestly class” held on to power. They invited the lay people to do the calculations for themselves. They invited the lay people to take classes and encouraged them to become educated. When they refused to become educated, but pretended they were anyway, then they were ridiculed for their ignorance. Right Steve.

And what about people like Behe who claim to have disproven evolution but refuse to do their own calculations? Now there is a priestly class for you.

Look dude, you are the one using an argument you don’t understand. You are the one who refuses to learn. No one is stopping you from learning, indeed many here have offered to educate you, you as simply unwilling. Don’t blame others for your own shortcomings. Pointing out that you are ignorant is not repression or elitism. Or do you lack logical reasoning skills as well? Can you blame that on those priestly scientists also?

Learning scares the crap out of creationists. That is the last thing they want. What they covet is *plausible deniability* in their own minds.

bigdakine said:

DS said:

SteveP. said:

Its kinda like Elzinga’s schtick that the ability to do entropy calculations is a prerequisite to understanding entropy.

This line of reasoning is how the priestly class held on to power. But it suffers from the fatal (f)law of diminishing returns.

Right, this is how the “priestly class” held on to power. They invited the lay people to do the calculations for themselves. They invited the lay people to take classes and encouraged them to become educated. When they refused to become educated, but pretended they were anyway, then they were ridiculed for their ignorance. Right Steve.

And what about people like Behe who claim to have disproven evolution but refuse to do their own calculations? Now there is a priestly class for you.

Look dude, you are the one using an argument you don’t understand. You are the one who refuses to learn. No one is stopping you from learning, indeed many here have offered to educate you, you as simply unwilling. Don’t blame others for your own shortcomings. Pointing out that you are ignorant is not repression or elitism. Or do you lack logical reasoning skills as well? Can you blame that on those priestly scientists also?

Learning scares the crap out of creationists. That is the last thing they want. What they covet is *plausible deniability* in their own minds.

Actually, it is you (pl) who refuse to learn. You(pl) have spend a billion dollars on the LHC, because you KNOW there is a higg’s boson. You KNOW reality is made up of particles. You KNOW there is no god. You KNOW it all.

You really don’t need the LHC. The logic and reason is impeccable. Ah, but Higgs is a nice insurance policy to have in the bag. Good if you can put paid to religious absurdities; sort of a ‘holy grail’ of secular/skeptical/humanist/atheist dreams.

Sweet part is they (the creationists) will help foot the bill!

co said to SteveP.:

Steve, Elzinga’s point is that you and the other creationists posting here have shown no understanding of entropy, and in fact have shown that you consistently *mis*understand it, and yet you’ve used it as an argument for your position. Either you understand it and consistently fail to demonstrate that you understand it, or you *think* you understand it and you don’t, or you are lying. Which is it?

The ability to understand entropy is the ability to *count* things. That’s IT. It’s actually very easy. Now, the trick lies in basically two issues: what things to count, and how to extend that counting to large numbers.

Elzinga’s examples don’t bother with a “tricky” system, nor with a “large” system, and so the continued failings of the creationists to show that they know how to simply _count_ is pretty telling.

co, don’t forget that creationists do “science” backwards.

In the case of the 2nd Law, they start with “the Law”. They like the sound of it. It comports with their indoctrinations.

Then they go “look” for evidence to support it. Witness IBIG’s endless posts on “death” and “decay”.

Only then will creationists, if they are capable, provide some mathematics to “support” their position.

This is backwards, of course. The 2nd Law grew out of the observation that heat flows from hot things to cold things when things are left to themselves. Then Clausius, looking for a conservation law (which he did not find), gave the first equation for the change in entropy, the integral of the differential of the heat absorbed divided by the absolute temperature.

Later the 2nd Law was formulated. It’s a “Law” only because we’ve never seen violations (in truly closed systems). But does it hold in a collapsing universe? Maybe not. Does it hold inside the event horizon of a black hole? Maybe, maybe not. But creationists don’t care. They have “The Law”. They are certain. Damn the mathematics! They know “death and decay” when the see it.

SteveP. said:

bigdakine said:

DS said:

SteveP. said:

Its kinda like Elzinga’s schtick that the ability to do entropy calculations is a prerequisite to understanding entropy.

This line of reasoning is how the priestly class held on to power. But it suffers from the fatal (f)law of diminishing returns.

Right, this is how the “priestly class” held on to power. They invited the lay people to do the calculations for themselves. They invited the lay people to take classes and encouraged them to become educated. When they refused to become educated, but pretended they were anyway, then they were ridiculed for their ignorance. Right Steve.

And what about people like Behe who claim to have disproven evolution but refuse to do their own calculations? Now there is a priestly class for you.

Look dude, you are the one using an argument you don’t understand. You are the one who refuses to learn. No one is stopping you from learning, indeed many here have offered to educate you, you as simply unwilling. Don’t blame others for your own shortcomings. Pointing out that you are ignorant is not repression or elitism. Or do you lack logical reasoning skills as well? Can you blame that on those priestly scientists also?

Learning scares the crap out of creationists. That is the last thing they want. What they covet is *plausible deniability* in their own minds.

Actually, it is you (pl) who refuse to learn. You(pl) have spend a billion dollars on the LHC, because you KNOW there is a higg’s boson. You KNOW reality is made up of particles. You KNOW there is no god. You KNOW it all.

You really don’t need the LHC. The logic and reason is impeccable. Ah, but Higgs is a nice insurance policy to have in the bag. Good if you can put paid to religious absurdities; sort of a ‘holy grail’ of secular/skeptical/humanist/atheist dreams.

Sweet part is they (the creationists) will help foot the bill!

Seriously due? Scientists are the ones who refuse to learn? How rich is that! Look dude, you had hundreds of years to try your religious mumbo jumbo approach to reality. You know, the one where you just decided you know all of the answers already and never have to learn anything. You failed miserably. Science, on the other hand, is all about research and experiments and finding out what reality really is, regardless of what you want it to be. If you had learned anything at all from the last five hundred years, you would have learned that science works.

There is only one way to find out if the Higgs boson is real or not and it sin;t by logic, or meditation or reading the bible.

Grow up, learns some science and some history, then go away. Once again, yoiu have worn out your welcome here.

SteveP. said:

Actually, it is you (pl) who refuse to learn. You(pl) have spend a billion dollars on the LHC, because you KNOW there is a higg’s boson. You KNOW reality is made up of particles. You KNOW there is no god. You KNOW it all.

You really don’t need the LHC.

Your last sentence would be correct and it would reflect reality (there’d be no LHC) if your first couple of sentences were right. But reality says otherwise; we do have the LHC precisely because we want to learn how the world works and DON’T think we already know it all.

Now, where’s the Discovery Institute’s Specified Complexity Detector? Where’s their Irreducible Complexity Comparator? Where is their ANYTHING for studying the workings of the world with real experiments and data-gathering? Nowhere. Where are all the data gathering field studies and lab equipment being used by the ICR, AiG, CARM, etc.? Nowhere. Hmmm, comparing anti-evolutionists to real scientists, guess which ones have decided that they don’t need to actually investigate the world because they already KNOW how it works.

You’re more insightful than you realize, just backwards.

SteveP. said:

Actually, it is you (pl) who refuse to learn. You(pl) have spend a billion dollars on the LHC, because you KNOW there is a higg’s boson. You KNOW reality is made up of particles. You KNOW there is no god. You KNOW it all.

You really don’t need the LHC. The logic and reason is impeccable. Ah, but Higgs is a nice insurance policy to have in the bag. Good if you can put paid to religious absurdities; sort of a ‘holy grail’ of secular/skeptical/humanist/atheist dreams.

Sweet part is they (the creationists) will help foot the bill!

Actually, one purpose of the LHC is to discover whether the Higgs Boson exists. Whether it does or does not has nothing whatsoever to do with the evidence supporting the existence of gods and the supernatural. Further advances in physics are unlikely to change that.

But really interests me is that you seem to imply in this post that matter is not made out of particles, and that if it were, that would be contrary evidence for the existence of god. If that is case, would you mind explaining how your computer works?

Also, one of the charges against Galileo was atomism (which he happily recanted since there was no real proof it at the time, as you seem to think there still isn’t). Some theologians in the 17th century thought that transubstantiation wouldn’t work in a universe made of discrete particles (could they actually have been right, for a change?). Is there any possible chance that you were familiar with this fact, and are applying a detailed knowledge of theological history to you arguments? or you mere a stopped clock that is right twice a day? But you don’t believe in transubstantiation, either do you? that’s all part of Catholics’ weird Mystery Babylon magic worship of Semiramis, huh?

prongs said:

In the case of the 2nd Law, they start with “the Law”. They like the sound of it. It comports with their indoctrinations.

Somewhat ironic that even some leading YECs balked at using the 2L chestnut.

This includes Walter Lammerts who was co-founder of the Creation Research Society, and A.E. Wilder-Smith who was a well known British YEC.

As historian Ronald Numbers notes in his book The Creationists, the CreResSociety Quarterly published numerous articles during the 1970s and 80s from individuals (whom were otherwise faithful YECs) rejecting the use of the 2L against evolution. Numbers has an account of AE Wilder-Smith stating that Henry Morris and other like creationists “…don’t know a thing about thermodynamics”. Lammerts described 2L arguments as “worthless prattle” and “thermodynamics junk”

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This page contains a single entry by Nick Matzke published on February 8, 2012 3:51 PM.

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