In the September/October issue of Books & Culture, Jonathan Wells reviewed Judith Hooper's book, Of Moths and Men, a critical account of the notorious peppered moth experiments. Two scientists whose work was criticized by Wells respond in a letter below.

In his review of journalist Judith Hooper's book Of Moths and Men in Books & Culture ["The Peppered Myth," September-October 2002], Jonathan Wells made several incorrect and misleading statements about both the science behind Hooper's book and (for no apparent reason) our review of his book, Icons of Evolution.  We write to correct these misrepresentations.

In the first place, our review of his book (Quarterly Review of Biology, March 2002) was written by both of us, not just Padian. In it, Wells claims, we implied that he was a sociopath by comparing him to the main character in the film The Talented Mr. Ripley. We did no such thing. Rather, we compared the similar use of a rhetorical device in both works, as our original passage shows:

When we first meet the protagonist of the film The Talented Mr. Ripley, he is playing piano at a rooftop party in New York City.  As the song finishes, an older man approaches and, observing Ripley's Princeton blazer, remarks that Ripley must have been at school with his son, Dickie.  Sensing an opportunity, Ripley does not mention that the blazer is borrowed from another guest, nor that he did not attend Princeton, but only worked there.  He merely asks, "How is Dickie?"
This kind of distortion, misleading by the omission of important information, is the basis of Icons of Evolution. …

We supported our comparison with copious examples.  And we made no further reference to scenes in the film.

Wells characterizes Ripley as a sociopath, but those are his words and interpretations, not ours.  Inasmuch as Wells has taken license as a film critic, we might add a dissenting view:  to us, Ripley is merely an opportunist whose spiraling lies and envy trap him into increasingly desperate acts.  Wells is likening himself to a sociopath.  That's his privilege, but he is putting his words in other people's mouths.

The book that Wells was reviewing has been roundly criticized by specialists in the field—for example, Jerry Coyne in Nature (July 4, 2002) and Bruce Grant in Science (August 9, 2002). The well-worn example of the peppered moth is far too complex for most textbooks to cover in a limited space. Yet virtually all textbooks recognize that it is an example of natural selection in action, even if the relative importance and the targets of the selective forces remain under study.  Wells accuses us of making "astonishing claims" that contradict the scientific literature.  On the contrary, our analysis was based directly on the scientific literature that Wells cites. We did not make up the numbers, and we did not resort to "bogus statistics." Naturally, given his prejudice, Wells would put a different spin on the complexity of the problem. But he cannot explain the repeatedly confirmed scientific results in any other way but natural selection.

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Wells likes to imply that there is a vast conspiracy of scientists protecting some alleged myth about the importance of selection in the case of the peppered moth.  He does not tell his audience that the scientific literature has analyzed the relative importance of ecological mechanisms for decades precisely because the "myth" is not protected by any such conspiracy.  He also persists in characterizing standard field experiments (such as fixing moths to tree trunks to test for selective effects of predation) as if they are acts of fraud.  It is little wonder that Wells's book has received such poor reviews from practicing scientists. He might have informed readers of his confessed religious mission against evolution before presenting his remarks as if they were of a dispassionate scientist.

Kevin Padian

Alan Gishlick

National Center for Science Education

Berkeley, Calif.

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Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:

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So Far, So Near | A graduate of Murree Christian School in Pakistan, the site of a deadly assault by Islamic terrorists in August, reflects on his growing-up years, on what has changed in the interim, and on the beleaguered Christian community in Pakistan (Sept. 9, 2002)
The New York Times Discovers Religion (Again) | Shouldn't the paper of record be able to move beyond Square One? (August 26, 2002)
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How to Avoid the Coming Disaster | "Imitate Japan." "No, don't imitate Japan." Time out. (August 12, 2002)
"Mind Control" and the Christian Citizen | Historian Sean Wilentz's misguided attack on Justice Antonin Scalia. (August 5, 2002)
Speak What We Feel | Frederick Buechner's latest book is one of his best. (July 29, 2002)