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Darwinism in a flutter Of Moths and Men Intrigue Tragedy the Peppered Moth Judith Hooper 377pp Fourth Estate Before he became famous Albert Einstein remarked that the foolish faith in authority is the worst enemy of truth Few wanted to listen to the revolutionary ideas of an unknown patent office clerk who dared to challenge the godlike authority of Sir Isaac Newton Progressive science is sometimes more conservative than people think The story of the peppered moth is a case in point according to Judith Hooper Biston betularia is a species of moth familiar to anyone who has studied biology You will have glimpsed them in textbook photographs posed on tree trunks immortalised and still as figures in a classical frieze For this otherwise unremarkable moth proved Darwin right - or at least thats what everyone thought The problem with Darwins theory of evolution by natural selection is that it describes events that occur over thousands of years and is therefore difficult to prove empirically But the industrial revolution seemed to offer scientists a perfect example of rapid environmental change forcing organisms to adapt quickly In 1848 a black or melanic form of the peppered moth appeared in Manchester At the time 50 tonnes of industrial fallout were deposited annually on each square mile of the city These pollutants killed the lichens on tree bark and in 1896 a naturalist linked this with the decline of the lighter form of the moth In polluted areas the black moths were better camouflaged against the dark tree trunks and so less likely to be eaten by birds It was evolution in action a perfect demonstration of the survival of the fittest There was just one problem no one had seen birds eating moths from tree trunks In 1953 Bernard Kettlewell a loud eager man who was invariably dressed in shorts and sandals began an experiment that would transform the peppered moth into evolutions
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