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Academic & Professional Books  Evolutionary Biology  Evolution

Observing Evolution Peppered Moths and the Discovery of Parallel Melanism

By: Bruce S Grant(Author)
306 pages, 12 plates with 21 b/w photos and 6 b/w illustrations
Observing Evolution is a personal account of the rise, fall, and ultimate redemption of one of the most famous textbook examples of evolution in action.
Observing Evolution
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  • Observing Evolution ISBN: 9781421441658 Hardback Oct 2021 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 6 days
Price: £51.50
About this book Contents Customer reviews Biography Related titles Recommended titles

About this book

A first-hand account of how a modest moth demonstrated Darwin's theory of natural selection.

The extraordinary tale of the humble peppered moth is at the very foundation of our acceptance of Darwinian evolution. When scientists in the early twentieth century discovered that a British population of the small, speckled Biston betularia had become black over the course of mere decades in response to the Industrial Revolution's encroaching soot, the revelation cemented Darwin's theory of natural selection. This finding was the staple example of "evolution in action" until the turn of the millennium when proponents of Creationism fomented doubts about the legitimacy of early experiments. In the midst of this upheaval, evolutionary biologist Bruce S. Grant and his contemporaries were determinedly building a dataset that would ultimately vindicate the theory of industrial melanism in the peppered moth and, by extension, the theory of natural selection itself. Observing Evolution tells the remarkable story of this work.

Shining a light on the efforts of scientists who tested Darwin's trailblazing theory, Grant chronicles the historical foundations of peppered moth research, then explains how he and his collaborators were able to push this famous study forward. He describes how his experiments were designed and conducted while painting a vivid picture of the personalities, events, and adventures around the world that shaped his successes – and struggles. His story culminates with his discovery of the mirrored "rise and fall" of melanism in peppered moth populations separated by the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean, which settled the intense controversy around evolution by documenting nature's recurring experiment.

Observing Evolution is a crash course in natural selection and the history of evolutionary biology for anyone interested in Darwin's legacy. It's also a fascinating read for lepidopterists and scientists about the bridge between classic experiments and today's sophisticated DNA sequencing, which reveals in ever greater detail how the lives of these tiny organisms have such enormous implications.



Part I
1. Passing the Baton
2. Peppered Moths 101
3. Catching Moths Using Light Traps
4. Camouflage
5. The Rest-Site Selection Controversy
6. A Feeling for the Organism
7. Elizabethan Moths
8. Non-Random Rest-Site Selection in Captivity
9. Life at Mountain Lake
10. Travel Arrangements

Part II
11. Wirral Welcome
12. Coffee with the Clarkes
13. Clockwork Orange
14. Surface Reflectance
15. How to Pick Up a Moth
16. The Birch Moth
17. Cultural Assimilation
18. Caterpillars
19. Long Season's End
20. Yankees Go Home

Part III
21. From Field to Lab
22. The Talk
23. The Grand Pub

Part IV
24. Summer School
25. Coauthors

Part V
26. Nihongo
27. Gaijin
28. Reception
29. Around Town
30. In The Field
31. Tajima
32. Fisheries Lab
33. Hokkaido
34. Tourists
35. Nagano
36. East Meets West

Part VI
37. Serendipity
38. Allelic Melanism
39. Conspecific Pheromones
40. Howard Hughes Lecture
41. Mr. Parallel Evolution
42. Aerogrammes
43. Edwin S. George Reserve
44. Farewell and Welcome
45. Nature
46. Round Two
47. Oxfordshire
48. New York Times
49. Expanding Views
50. Epilogue


Customer Reviews (1)

  • The rise, fall, and redemption of a famous textbook case of evolution
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 30 Dec 2021 Written for Hardback

    Every student of evolution will be familiar with the peppered moth, Biston betularia. It is right up there with the Galápagos finches as an example of evolution happening right under our noses. The story of the rapid spread of dark moths in response to the soot deposition that accompanied the Industrial Revolution, and the reversal of this pattern when air pollution abated, is iconic. Yet, as Emeritus Professor of biology Bruce S. Grant shows, there are a lot more subtleties to it than my one-liner suggests. Observing Evolution details research by himself and many others, and along the way addresses criticism – legitimate and otherwise – levelled at some of the earlier research. Eminently readable, this is a personal story of the rise, fall, and ultimate redemption of one of the most famous textbook examples of evolution in action.

    Melanins are a group of pigments found in cells of many vertebrates and invertebrates, some of them resulting in brown or black colouration. The appearance of dark insect morphs in response to pollution by heavy industry has been dubbed industrial melanism and occurs in many species. Grant opens his book by introducing two major players in this story: J.W. Tutt, who in 1896 first explained industrial melanism in peppered moths as resulting from visual predation by birds, and Bernard Kettlewell, who became the most important worker on this from the 1950s onwards to his death in 1979. As Grant clarifies, "while [Kettlewell] did not establish the concept of industrial melanism, he certainly resurrected it" (p. 10). Grant turned his attention to this species in 1983, at that point already head-long into an academic career on genetics and evolution using both fruit flies and wasps as model systems.

    The author has divided his narrative over 49 short chapters, rarely more than ten pages long, which benefits the readability tremendously. Observing Evolution is informal in tone, full of friendly wit aimed at co-workers, and richly laced with anecdotes and personal stories. Grant for instance describes his experiences as an American working in 1984 England, joining a Liverpudlian bagpipe band. The description of his 1988 research trip to Japan sprawls over 70 pages and feels somewhat like a diversion that could have been shortened, especially as it boils down to "I was looking for moths in all the wrong places at all the wrong times". Overall, though, his personal reflections on the hard work in the laboratory and the field, normally hidden behind the data, were very recognisable and relatable. They brought back happy memories of my own research on butterflies and time spent at field stations.

    For biologists, Grant's accessible explanations are a superb example of science communication. Let me highlight three of the many fascinating findings discussed here. Kettlewell published results showing that light and dark morphs rest on backgrounds matching their colouration, something that neither Grant nor others have been able to replicate. Individual moths seemed to have a preference, for sure, but it was not related to their colour. Grant also examined the genetic basis behind melanism in both British and Canadian populations. Kettlewell argued for the co-selection of certain genetic modifiers promoting the expression of melanism, and, by crossing individuals from different populations where melanism was or was not present, claimed melanism broke down in the hybrids. Grant and others have attempted similar experiments, criticising his work, though these all had their own shortcomings. Most spectacular is Grant's work with Denis Owen that showed the rise and fall of melanism on both sides of the Atlantic in lockstep with air quality as measured by sulfur dioxide concentrations (though Grant hastens to add this link is correlative, not causative). Throughout, he delivers valuable commentary on how science proceeds and is never shy to admit his own mistakes.

    You will notice that the name of Kettlewell frequently comes up in the context of research that could not be replicated and this lies at the heart of the controversy around the peppered moth. This is where Observing Evolution in my opinion unfortunately falls short of realising its full potential as the definitive story on the peppered moth, even if the ingredients are all there.

    First, Judith Hooper accused Kettlewell of fraud in her 2002 book Of Moths and Men, with other researchers supposedly conspiring to cover this up. Now, there is legitimate criticism to be had of Kettlewell's research, and Grant does not hold back in doing so. But he is sure Kettlewell was not a fraud: "he might arrive at wrong conclusions through stubbornness, but not by dishonesty" (p. 159). Yet, beyond briefly mentioning Hooper's book in the beginning, Grant does not further touch on its publication, reception, and impact, even though it needlessly undermined a very well-supported model system.

    Second, the flap text prominently mentions how "proponents of Creationism fomented doubts about the legitimacy of early experiments" – but you will have to wait for the epilogue to read about this. Kettlewell also did experiments that showed that birds preyed on peppered moths and preferentially picked off individuals that stood out from their background, establishing them as the agent of natural selection driving industrial melanism. There is legitimate criticism to be had of these experiments, too, but the claim that birds do not eat moths is simply false and a prime example of the deliberate distortion of facts by creationists. Michael Majerus spend six years gathering the most comprehensive dataset on bird predation of peppered moths to date, though he passed away before he could publish it. Grant and three co-authors reanalyzed Majerus's results and published them in 2012. This is probably the most eye-catching aspect of the story – everybody wants to know who did it, after all – and is also the easiest to explain to a general audience. I was thus disappointed it is given such short shrift; its brevity contrasts painfully with the 70 pages lavished on the Japanese travelogue. Given Grant's close involvement, I am sure that he could have written similarly lively chapters providing an insider's perspective on this important facet of the peppered moth story.

    Despite not quite hitting full marks for me, I do thoroughly recommend this book, both to evolutionary biologists and entomologists, and to a general audience only vaguely familiar with the peppered moth. Grant's writing is accessible, his explanations of complex science easily digestible, and he is full of genuinely amusing stories. If you ever doubted the validity of this iconic example of rapid evolution, Observing Evolution will set you straight.
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Bruce S. Grant is an Emeritus Professor of biology at the College of William & Mary.

By: Bruce S Grant(Author)
306 pages, 12 plates with 21 b/w photos and 6 b/w illustrations
Observing Evolution is a personal account of the rise, fall, and ultimate redemption of one of the most famous textbook examples of evolution in action.
Media reviews

"Engrossing, amusing, and endlessly fascinating, Bruce Grant's account of his decades-long exploration of a key piece of evidence of evolution by natural selection is a gem. Grant reveals how science works both as a process and as a profoundly personal activity. Observing Evolution will become a classic."
– Matthew Cobb, University of Manchester, author of Life's Greatest Secret: The Race to Crack the Genetic Code

"Grant is a renowned scholar who greatly pushed evolutionary biology research forward. There is no one else alive who could have written this book."
– Mohamed A. F. Noor, Duke University, author of Live Long and Evolve: What Star Trek Can Teach Us about Evolution, Genetics, and Life on Other Worlds

"Bruce Grant is a marvelous writer. This book will inform and entertain a diverse audience and, in the process, educate them about the joys and rewards of doing and living science. An adventure story that brings the reader along for the ride and introduces them to some of the most distinguished biologists of modern times, this book is also a mystery that scientifically probes and tests every bit of evidence that is available."
– Justin O. Schmidt, Southwest Biological Institute, author of The Sting of the Wild

"I greatly enjoyed this book. It is written as well as the very best thrillers yet communicates how science works in a beautiful and informative way. This is first-class public science communication about a very interesting phenomenon."
– John A. Endler, Deakin University, author of Natural Selection in the Wild

"Bruce Grant has written a wonderful book that is at once both deeply personal and unerringly scientific. Part memoir, part history of science, and part detective story, Observing Evolution reminds us that under even the most familiar of scientific tales lurk unexpected new truths."
– Naomi E. Pierce, Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology

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