I have enjoyed reading Bruce Grant’s book Observing Evolution (Johns Hopkins, Baltimore, 2021) which describes his work from the early 1980s on industrial melanism in the Peppered Moth. Grant illustrates just how difficult it is to devise experiments on a natural phenomenon and how many traps for the unwary lie in the way. However, the reason for writing this article is not to go over old ground on the status of industrial melanism since despite the efforts of an American science writer to disparage the work of Henry Bernard Davis Kettlewell (1907-1979) in Oxford, the concept we first heard about at school is, thanks to the extensive work of the late Michael Majerus (1954-2009) and Bruce Grant himself, among others, even more firmly established than it was in Kettlewell’s time. Nor is to discus further one of the key rules of life: avoid reading anything by an American ‘science writer’ (the one in question being described by Grant as ‘notorious’). Instead it is to pick up a point that Grant made about E.B. ‘Henry’ Ford (1901-1988) and his book Ecological Genetics. The later editions failed to mention a paper published in Science in 1968 which threw doubt on one of Kettlewell’s untested speculations. Grant’s students were said to be ‘disappointed that world-renowned scientists could so uncritically accept and promote untested hypotheses’.
The late Bryan Clarke (1932-2014) in his Biographical Memoir on Ford for the Royal Society wrote of the approach taken in Ecological Genetics:
It is written, of course, in his [Ford’s] wonderfully lucid style. It contains accounts of the researches that have already been described above, as well as those of his friends, colleagues and students…This was a galaxy of talent indeed, and a testimony to Henry's skill in choosing students and colleagues, but there were other galaxies that did not get a mention. The book was brilliantly and annoyingly parochial. Henry did not like mathematics, despite his friendship with Ronald Fisher, so that other theoreticians got short shrift. Nor did he like molecular biology, so that even in later editions of the book there was little about variation in proteins or DNA. Workers in the U.S.A. were largely ignored. One year before the last edition of Ecological Genetics, in 1974, R.C. Lewontin produced another brilliantly and annoyingly parochial book, The Genetic Basis of Evolutionary Change. The two works, both major events in the history of evolutionary writing, hardly shared a reference in common. But still Ecological Genetics, like its American counterpart, is necessary fare for serious workers in the field, still it is the clearest and least compromising statement of the 'selectionist' view, and still it is a joy to read.
My take is that Ford’s book (and, it would appear, Lewontin’s) followed the tradition of the book—and the major scientific review—as a personal statement on the subject in question, not just as an annotated bibliography with no conclusions drawn or personal view expressed. The purchaser of the book was buying the author’s considered opinion and the evidence that the author thought should get a mention. It was probably obvious to the highly eccentric Ford that the results of the experiments published in 1968 were deeply flawed. Should Ford have spent time describing and then dismissing that work? Or should he—as he obviously did—have simply ignored it?
I end with a question I argue about with myself. What should one do when discussing the dross—and there is a lot of it about—in published science? Spend time in minutely discussing why the authors (and the increasingly poor peer reviewers) were misguided, ill-read, incompetent or just stupid? Or simply ignore it, as many British scientists did in the 20th century on the genteel grounds of, if having nothing good to say, say nothing. The first approach might though be considered akin to taking sweets from children; the second construed as intellectual arrogance.
…and a final couple of words on Grant’s book and his pursuit for research on natural selection of Biston betularia across its entire range in the northern hemisphere: highly recommended.