What is the real deal with the peppered moth?

My kids are in the evolution unit of life science so we have been looking at several books on the subject. All were published fairly recently and all but one give the peppered moth example of adaptation to a changing environment.

I remember hearing that there were problems with the study. (It is listed on hoaxes.org ) But then, I read that there was this seven-year study done by a Cambridge biologist and published in 2012 that claimed the original findings were valid. Peppered Moths Re-examined | The Scientist Magazine®

My question for all the people who know science better than me is whether the “peppered moth is a hoax” thing was something blown-out of proportion by the media, or if it actually demonstrated that the peppered moth is a bad example to put in textbooks. If it is a bad example, what would be a better candidate?

I kind of like the tuskless elephants example: Going Tuskless | African Wildlife Foundation


My personal opinion is the Peppered Moth study is fine for what it sets out to show… but the reason I never/never/never refer to the study is because YEC’s say all the study shows is adaptation WITHIN “a kind” … whatever a Kind is supposed to be.

Compared to the Harvard study of white bacteria in black medium, on a massive table, using high-speed videography, the moth is a big yawn!

Well, the point in my case isn’t to prove evolution or argue with YECs, the point is to illustrate an advantageous adaptation becoming prevalent in a population because natural selection works on the genetic variation within the species.

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I think THIS is the best case study on Earth at the moment…

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Peppered moths are still a good example to use - the furor over them was manufactured. Teach away. :slight_smile:


Jerry Coyne has a good write-up.


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Evidently the only manufactured part of the peppered moth story was the illustration which showed both morphs of the moth side-by-side on a tree branch. The picture had been posed with dead moths, rather than taken in nature, but it illustrates the point well, and offers no false evidence. The inescapable fact is that the moth had matched the lighter colored branches before the Industrial Revolution, became almost universally dark after coal smoke darkened the branches, and returned to being predominantly light after England cleaned up its air. It remains a perfect example of how evolution works.

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The Creationists who I first heard “hum-bug” the moths was:

“That’s not speciation … that’s just adaptation.”

I never heard anybody say that they thought the whole study was a fraud.


The Peppered Moth story is an old one of course. It is important because it seems to be the best example of Natural Selection cited in reference works. It is good to know that the experiments hold up under scrutiny, because I heard that some questions have been raised.

This makes it important that the Peppered Moth study substantiates the view that ecology is the basis for Natural Selection. The change in the coloration of the moth was the result of the environment, not by the struggle for survival with other moths.

When I read Coyne’s article on the validity of the Peppered Moth studies, I found that he recommended two books for additional information. The first was Weiner’s Beak of the Finch, which I have read and is a good book. On the other hand on Amazon I read reviews by people who claimed to be experts who said that the book contained serious errors, because I gathered it said that ecological factors caused Natural Selection. Very strange.

The other book that was recommended, Endler’s Natural Selection in the Wild, was priced at $88.00 and the one review called it a hand book for research, not research of Natural Selection itself.

‘If some organisms were not entirely self-seeking, they, and Nature in general, would be more ethically acceptable. In most theological systems it is necessary that the creator be benevolent and that this benevolence is shown in his creation. If Nature is found to be malicious or morally indifferent, the creator is presumably too. For many, peace in mind might be difficult with the acceptance of these conclusions, but this is hardly a basis for making decisions in biology’.
This sentence is still today too big a swallow for the moral elite, unable to comprehend their own Darwinian behaviour and unable to think about the fact that ‘natural selection, albeit stupid, is a story of unending arms races, slaughter and suffering’ (G.C. Williams in ‘Plan and Purpose in Nature’).

This is a quote from George C. Williams’ book against Group Selection which influenced Dawkins’ Selfish Gene and makes a scientific case against God based on Darwinian Natural Selection of Survival of the Fittest.

Maybe it is just semantics, but it sure seems to me that if one moth can hide from predators better than another moth, that is certainly part of “competition” and the struggle for survival between fit and less fit members of the species. It doesn’t have to involve literal moth-on-moth death matches.

First, Wells argues that the story is seriously flawed because “peppered moths in the wild don’t even rest on tree trunks” (Wells, 2000:138). He repeats this point throughout the chapter. However, it is both false and irrelevant, and only serves as a distraction to lead the reader away from the actual story of the moths.

When discussing other ‘icons’, Wells uses the same tactic of selective omission to distort a body of literature he pretends to review. Nowhere is this more visible than in his chapter on human evolution. Faced with a series of hominid fossils showing transitions from ape-like to modern human traits over 4 million years, Wells can only mumble about the Piltdown Man hoax, and imply that the vigorous scientific debate about the course of human evolution proves that humans did not evolve.

Seven years ago, the creationists launched a attack on the peppered moth. Jonathan Wells tried hard to prove that this well-known example of natural selection was a fraud. In recent years, this attack has been blunted by first showing that most of what the creationists said was a misrepresentation of the truth (surprise!) and then showing that the actual problems with the original experiments of Kettlewell did not invalidate the conclusion. More recently, Michael Majerus has repeated the original work in a seven year study of birds preying on peppered moths. This has resulted in an example of natural selection that is more solid than ever before.


By your last phrase (quoted above), I presume to conclude that the moth story shows Natural Selection, not Speciation. This has been mentioned (by me).

For whatever reason (perhaps nostalgia?), most of my correspondents have been so charmed by these moths that they are not bothered by this limitation.

[quote=“Eddie, post:11, topic:26141”]
Wells is an assiduous researcher of the published scientific literature on the subjects he chooses to write about (e.g., his book on junk DNA cited something like 500 recent scientific books and articles on the subject)…
[/quote]The number of citations says absolutely nothing about the accuracy of the citations.



Well, technically speaking, if we agree that any change in the gene pool is Evolution … then the moth’s are really evolving. But that’s just a quibble …

If our audience expects us to produce Speciation - - and all we are doing is showing adaptation within a shared gene pool, it makes for a frustrated audience, and a flustered presenter.

Well, for the record, all the children’s books I saw the example in used it as an example of natural selection.


The problem is not semantics. The question is clarity and accuracy. Maybe in humanities we love to play word games to try to make words say what we want them to say, but in science we need to be precise as possible.

Darwin called this a constant struggle for survival and the war of nature. The meaning of survival of the fittest and Social Darwinism are clear.

Then too the basis for this struggle is well documented, a struggle for scarce resources caused because the growth of population tends to outstrip the growth of food resources. Although this makes some logical sense, it has not really been verified. Moths are not struggling against other for food that is aided by dark coloration.

Nature does not allow anything tom go to waste, net even death. Natural uses death to feed other creatures and replenish the soil. Natural Selection uses death to shape life into the miraculous forms found on earth now and in the past.

Life is not based on conflict. Life is based on cooperation. The Republicans and Trump have brought the US down by making polities a war, and not a game governed by rules and respect for others.

Look above an the excerpts from the book by George C. Williams. His view of Natural Selection or Survival of the Fittest was “unending arms races, slaughter, and suffering.” The Peppered Moth studies belie this. Ecology belies this. Darwin was and Darwinism is wrong about this.

Life is not about conflict at its deepest. Life is about Love, overcoming conflict, which is based on sin.

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