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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: Abstract at Journal, Supplementary Online Material.


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 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.

Haeckel had a point

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My colleague Paul Strode wrote a very clear and concise explanation of Ernst Haeckel’s “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” law for our book Why Evolution Works (and Creationism Fails). In Chapter 11, Strode explains that Haeckel was wrong in thinking that embryos resemble the ancestral adult forms; rather, early embryos resemble the embryos of ancestral forms. In other words, Haeckel was on to something, but he didn’t get it quite right. Strode explains further, “Recapitulation nevertheless provides helpful insight into evolutionary relationships and ancestry,” and argues that von Baer’s law is closer to the truth. Chapter 11 follows:

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