Answers in Genesis and the Peppered Moth

Creationists hate the Peppered moth because its color change over the last two hundred years in response to the industrial revolution is a classic and easily-taught example of natural selection. For typical creationist rants, see The Discoveroids and the Peppered Moth and Ken Ham and the Peppered Moth.

They’re still ranting. We found a good one from the creation scientists at Answers in Genesis (AIG), the creationist ministry of Ken Ham (ol’ Hambo) — the ayatollah of Appalachia, the world’s holiest man who knows more about religion and science than everyone else. The title is Peppered Moths . . . Evidence for Evolution?

It was written by Dr. Tommy Mitchell. The former practicing physician likes to be called “Tommy” — see AIG’s bio page on him: Dr. Tommy Mitchell. He’s now a full-time, speaker/writer with AIG. Ooops! His bio page now says: “He passed into the presence of his Lord on September 17, 2019.” Rest in peace, Tommy.

Here are some excerpts from what may be Tommy’s last work for AIG, with bold font added by us for emphasis, and occasional Curmudgeonly interjections that look [like this]:

Stop me if you have heard this tale before. [Prophetic last words.] It’s about one of the sacred cows of evolution: the peppered moth. The story of this moth has been set forth for decades as the prime example of evolution in action. It is a fascinating story about how, due to a combination of environmental changes and selective predation, a moth turned into, well, a moth.

Ah, that’s the creationist method of dismissing the peppered moth. It’s still a moth! Tommy says:

The peppered moth, scientifically known as Biston betularia, exists in two primary forms — one light colored with spots and one almost black. As the tale goes [Unlike Genesis, this is a “tale.”], in the mid 1800s, the lighter variety of the moth (typica) predominated. During the Industrial Revolution, the lichen on tree trunks died, soot got deposited on trees, and as a result trees got darker. As this change occurred, the population of darker moths (carbonaria) increased, presumably due to the camouflage offered by the darker trees. Bird predators could not see the dark moths against the dark bark. As the darker moth population increased, the lighter moth population decreased.

Yes, that’s what happened, and it’s not a “tale.” Nor is it a myth or a legend. It’s observed and well-documented history. Tommy tells us:

This story has been touted for years as a great example of Darwinian evolution in action. Countless textbooks are lavishly illustrated with photographs of light and dark moths resting on light and dark tree trunks to teach the wonders of evolution. … Much of the “proof ” [Nice scare quotes.] for this evolutionary change came from the work of a man named Dr. Bernard Kettlewell, a medical doctor-turned-entomologist, at Oxford University. Dr. Kettlewell had been intrigued by changes in the relative populations of the moths. In his experiments, he set out to show that the changes were a result of natural selection in response to environmental change and selective predation.

Tommy then devotes several paragraphs to debunking the research of Kettlewell, after which he announces:

These criticisms bring into question the entire issue of selective bird predation being the driving force behind this so-called splendid example of natural selection. Without an observable, defined environmental factor to push the peppered moth to “evolve,” the famous moth could not even be a candidate to be used as evidence to support Darwin’s theory.

However, the Talk Origins Index to Creationist Claims has this interesting item: Claim CB601: … That story is no longer supportable because of flaws found in the experiments, such as where the moths rested, and the occurrence of contrary data, such as unaccountable frequencies of uncamouflaged moths in areas. They debunk the creationist claim with several paragraphs, beginning with this:

Although the experiments were not perfect, they were not fatally flawed. Even though Kettlewell released his moths in daylight when a night release would have been more true to nature, he used the same procedure in areas that differed only in the amount of industrial pollution, showing conclusively that industrial pollution was a factor responsible for the difference in predation between color varieties. Similar arguments can be made for all other experiments. Although no experiment is perfect (nor can be), even imperfect experiments can give supporting or disconfirming evidence. In the case of peppered moths, many experiments have been done, and they all support the traditional story … .

Okay, let’s get back to Tommy. Surprisingly, he admits that the peppered moth isn’t a discredited example of natural selection:

There has been much written in both the pro-evolution and the pro-creation camps that has been very critical of Kettlewell. Some of this seems justified, but much of it does not, particularly the accusation that he falsified his data. There can be no more serious accusation made against a scientist, so it would seem that more proof is needed before that charge be made. After all, others involved in this area have collected data that validates Kettlewell’s original conclusions.

If Kettlewell’s work isn’t discredited, what does Tommy have for AIG’s drooling audience of creationists? Let’s read on:

To the creationist, it is very, very simple. Over the last 150 years, moths have changed into moths! [Hee hee!] The creationist has no difficulty with this process. The issue of Kettlewell’s shortcomings notwithstanding, the creationist has no problem with the results of his (and other subsequent researchers’) work. The concept that a less visible organism would survive better than a more visible one seems obvious in the extreme. What is not to understand here? … The creationist would agree that this population change represents natural selection. However, this change is most certainly not molecules-to-man evolution. Natural selection and molecules-to-man evolution are not the same thing, and many are led astray by the misuse of these terms.

Aha! The peppered moth story — even if true — means nothing! How’s that for science denial? It reminds us of The Scientific Case Against Stairs. Another excerpt:

Natural selection can easily be seen in nature. Natural selection produces the variations within a kind of organism. Thanks to natural selection, we have the marvelous variety of creatures that we see in our world. However, in this process, fish change into (amazingly) fish, birds change into birds, dogs change into dogs, and moths change into moths. If, during the process of the study of peppered moths, the moths had changed into some other type of creature, a bird perhaps, then we might have something to talk about.

Wowie — that’s even better science denial! And now we come to the end:

Ultimately, the peppered moth story is more of the same. Although much of the clamor surrounding Kettlewell’s work has made for good reading and, in some ways, has made for good science, the results are clear. There is nothing here, in even the smallest way, to provide evidence for the process of molecules-to- man evolution. That is what the creationist is “able to understand.”

Well done, Tommy! You have earned your eternal reward.

Copyright © 2019. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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12 responses to “Answers in Genesis and the Peppered Moth

  1. Retired Prof

    I wonder how long it will take for creationists to admit that human beings are the latest example in primate development of apes changing into apes.

  2. Note the use of two mutually exclusive arguments; the colour change isn’t really evolution, because it’s merely adaptation, and it was never proved that it happened in response to changes in the appearance of tree bark.

    Creationists have a long record with this particular story. Staged pictures of moths against different coloured backgrounds are one of Jonathan Wells’ Icons of Evolution, and an entire book, Of Moths and Men, was written to promote the idea that Kettlewell’s work was not merely incompetent but fraudulent, and that the fraud was covered up by his fellow-Darwinists in Oxford. Subsequently, Kettlewell’s conclusions were confirmed by patient work over many years by Majerus, although of course Wales has not changed his position. I’ve written abut this: https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com/2013/08/20/creationism-as-conspiracy-theory-the-case-of-the-peppered-moth/ )

  3. “… fish change into (amazingly) fish, birds change into birds, dogs change into dogs, and moths change into moths”
    And apes change into apes. All modern apes, orangs, bonobos, humans etc. are descended from earlier apes, and are still apes. Also primates, mammals, amniotes, tetrapods, vertebrates etc.

  4. Yes, this is a tale dear to the hearts of all members of the fell International Darwinist Conspiracy, aka The Darwintern. It is no wonder that the private jet of the conspiracy’s elusive Grand Master is indeed named The Peppered Moth

  5. Ah yes, the elusive Grand Master.

  6. “The creationist has no difficulty with this process.”
    Of course not. The only process the creationist has a problem with is a monkey having turned into, well, another monkey, one called Homo Sapiens.

    “fish change into (amazingly) fish, birds change into birds, dogs change into dogs.”
    Oh, how nice it is to keep “kind” ill-defined. Then you can equate paraphyletic groups like fish with classes like birds with species like dogs – and still deny hard facts.
    Dogs are a species in transition. They are partly a subspecies of the gray wolf, partly a distinct species. That’s why dogs are called both Canis Lupus Familiaris and Canis Familiaris.

  7. chris schilling

    “If…the moths had changed into some other type of creature, a bird perhaps…”

    Then it wouldn’t be evolution, but something else: metamorphosis — in the Kafkaesque sense — or something equally fantastical. Tommy didn’t understand descent with modification. And now it’s all too late. It’s sad, so terribly sad…

    On the other hand, there’s one less creationist in the world, and Tommy resides with his Maker in Heaven: a win-win for both parties!

    Do they teach evolution in Heaven? See, the reason I ask is because you’ve got all that time to fill, and even the slowest of creationists have ample opportunity to acquire the basics. There’s no reason not to apply yourself, really. Eternity is no excuse for slacking off.

  8. We can distinguish four phases in this work.

    1) Kettlewell’s original work, groundbreaking but with some technical flaws.

    2) The state of play in 1998, when Majerus wrote Melanism. Kettlewell was generally vindicated, despite which Coyne wrote an extremely influential review, still quoted as in the present case by creationists, asserting that the peppered moth story had been debunked. At this stage, we can describe the attack on Kettlewell as unreasonable and mean-spirited (Coyne), based on an ignorant misunderstanding (Hooper, Of Moths and Men, 2002), or indefensible nitpicking on behalf of a creationist agenda (Wells, Icons of Evolution, 2000).

    3) After taking into account Majerus’ later work, which plugged the remaining gaps. From this point on, the creationist attack on Kettlewell is at best the result of a deliberate failure to follow the scientific story (My mind’s made up. Don’t confuse me with facts), or at worst knowingly mendacious.

    4) The present, in which we have understanding of the mutation process at the DNA level: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/06/160601141528.htm, making the melanism of the peppered moth one of the most thoroughly demonstrated and understood of all evolutionary processes.

    I find this correspondence useful. It prompted me to update my knowledge of this story, which I last wrote about in 2013 (link above), and which will, as a result, be appearing in my book.

  9. Paul Braterman says: “… which will, as a result, be appearing in my book.”

    Book? Please keep us advised.

  10. Indeed.

  11. @Paul Braterman:
    As I understand it, Coyne made reasonable criticisms of the peppered moth story as it then was, but after further research filled in the gaps that he had pointed out, accepted that the peppered moth story was indeed a well attested example of evolution.
    I have no doubt that you are better informed on this matter than I am, and if Coyne is still wrong, I would be happy to know it.

  12. @JimRoberts, Check out the actual text of Coyne’s review of Majerus’ book, https://www.nature.com/articles/23856, in which, much to Majerus’ dismay, he said “The re-examination of this tale is the centrepiece of Michael Majerus’s book, Melanism: Evolution in Action. Depressingly, Majerus shows that this classic example is in bad shape, and, while not yet ready for the glue factory, needs serious attention… 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.” And more besides; a total misrepresentation of Majerus’ nuanced views at the time, as plainly stated in the book. Coyne is not factually mistaken so much as culpably cherrypicking and bombastically over-reacting in this review, which was understandably seized on by the creationists.

    Coyne has since claimed credit for prompting Majerus to plug the gaps. However, Majerus in the book (which I have just consulted to refresh my memory) explicitly mentions his ongoing research programme in this area, so I regard Coyne’s claim as self-serving and unwarranted.