Taking the peppered moth with a grain of salt

Biology and Philosophy 14 (1) (1999)
H. B. D. Kettlewell's (1955, 1956) classic field experiments on industrial melanism in polluted and unpolluted settings using the peppered moth, Biston betularia, are routinely cited as establishing that the melanic (dark) form of the moth rose in frequency downwind of industrial centers because of the cryptic advantage dark coloration provides against visual predators in soot-darkened environments. This paper critiques three common myths surrounding these investigations: (1) that Kettlewell used a model that identified crypsis as the only selective force responsible for the spread of the melanic gene, (2) that Kettlewell's field experiments alone established that selection for crypsis was the most important factor in the spread of melanic forms, and (3) that Kettlewell's investigations in an unpolluted wood near Dorset constituted a control for his earlier Birmingham studies (contra Hagen 1993, 1996). This analysis further identifies two features that distinguish manipulative experiments in evolutionary biology from experiments in other contexts. First, experiments in evolutionary biology rest on a wealth of information provided by strictly observational ecological studies; in the absence of such information experiments in evolutionary biology make no sense. Second, there is a trade-off between how much control investigators have over the conditions being studied and how informative the results of the experiment will be with regard to natural populations.
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