Home » Intelligent Design » A friend’s note about Niko Tinbergen and the herring gull chicks – who was gulled, exactly?

A friend’s note about Niko Tinbergen and the herring gull chicks – who was gulled, exactly?

Recently, in the “stuff we know that just ain’t so” files, I referenced Niko Tinbergen’s Nobel Prize for supposed discoveries about herring gull chicks – a discovery that turned to ashes. A friend writes to say:

I remember going to Niko Tinbergen’s Nobel Prize party in the Oxford University Zoology Department many years ago. I believe he shared the prize with a couple of other guys – and it was the Nobel for Medicine, of all things.

Of course Tinbergen and the his co-laureates were all animal behaviorists, and there was an undercurrent at the party that found the committee’s decision rather strange to say the least. Also, I seem to remember being told at the party that his brother had got the Nobel for economics. However, I could never really understand what Niko Tinbergen had done to get the prize.

One thing that was significant was that he was very handy with a movie camera, and I think that had a lot to do with his success. There was not much scientific content that consisted of moving pictures in those days, and he was able to vigorously market himself as a result. If my addled brain serves me right, I also think that Tinbergen did the movies of the Peppered Moths for Bernard Kettlewell.

Unfortunately, I still can’t make out what this red dot stuff means. The only conclusion I can draw is that Herring Gull chicks never ate until they had something red to peck at.

The Peppered Moth? Oh, you mean The Peppered Myth.

Basically, gentle readers, if you took Biology 101, with 600 other people and sat in a lecture room listening to someone drone about either the peppered myth or the herring gull chick, I suggest you take the following approach to what you learned:

The story is not important for its truth status. It is important for the moral lesson it is supposed to teach. In other words, it has the same basic value as Cinderella and Snow White. The basic message of Cinderella is “Being nice pays off.” The basic message of Snow White is “Most people mean well, but some people really are out to get you” – both are useful lessons for the workplace, I would say.

Now, what is the basic lesson of some of these evolution tales? That change in life forms over time happens without design? And what if – unlike the basic lessons of the fairy tales – that is simply incorrect?

  • Delicious
  • Facebook
  • Reddit
  • StumbleUpon
  • Twitter
  • RSS Feed

12 Responses to A friend’s note about Niko Tinbergen and the herring gull chicks – who was gulled, exactly?

  1. Two things:

    1) The researchers attempting to replicate Tinbergen’s results did one more critical experiment and found that Tinbergen’s original conclusion was right– the gull chicks DO prefer red spots.

    2) Kettlewell’s conclusions on bird predation and the Peppered Moth were recently confirmed by the late geneticist Michael Majerus. It’s no myth.

  2. 2

    Denyse, you write, “The story is not important for its truth status.” No kidding! Is that why you don’t seem to care enough to mention that Tinbergen’s basic idea has been confirmed?

    I mentioned this in the earlier Tinbergen thread. Here’s the quote again, from the paper you referenced:

    Ten Cate and his colleagues redid Tinbergen’s original experiment and got the same result — black was more attractive than red. They also did the experiment he never did, presenting each colour equally often, and found that Tinbergen’s intuition had been correct after all — the birds tended to peck more often at red spots. The work is published in Animal Behaviour

    Emphasis added.

  3. Hello all.

    I’m missing something. The researchers described in the Whitfield article reported the following:

    - Tinbergen ran his original 1947 study and obtained results he didn’t expect: herring-gull chicks pecked at a black spot more often than a red spot.

    - He found a likely methodological flaw in his study: because he had presented the red spot much more often than white, black, blue and yellow spots, the chicks may have habituated to the red spot, accounting for the anomalous finding.

    - He tested this hypothesis (that habituation had skewed his original results) in a 1949 study by presenting red and black spots with equal frequency (controlling for the habituation factor), and found that the chicks indeed preferred the red spot under that condition.

    - What Tinbergen should have done at this point was re-run his original full study, presenting red, white, black, blue and yellow spots with equal frequency to test this hypothesis. He didn’t. Instead he applied a correction to his original study, based upon the more limited red/black spot comparison.

    - He initially included mention of the correction in his reports of his results. That detail dropped out, and the original study was described somewhat inaccurately in his later books. That was his primary “offense.”

    - Ten Cate and his colleagues re-ran the original study, including the original methodological flaw, and obtained the same results as Tinbergen: The chicks pecked the black spots more often.

    - They then ran the study Tinbergen should have run, but never did: the full study with all colors presented with equal frequency. They found that Tinbergen’s hunch, based upon his more limited red/black study, was correct: chicks innately preferred the red spot once habituation had been properly controlled for.

    What I therefore don’t get is how Tinbergen’s original findings have “turned to ashes.” Ten Cate et. al. found that herring chicks do indeed arrive in the world with an innate preference for a red spot – a revolutionary finding in Tinbergen’s day that, methodological and reportorial problems notwithstanding, has now been empirically reconfirmed in this new study.

    I agree that such events in the history of science should be presented to students warts and all, as it is simultaneously instructive regarding the innate behavior of these birds, the foibles and pitfalls that await even well-intentioned scientific research (which is not all that easy to do well), the importance of replication in science, and the strides taken in experimental design and statistical analysis since Tingerben’s day. Some incorrect findings do stagger on zombie-like in the literature and in textbooks, and everyone wins when they are tracked down and corrected.

    In this instance, however, Tinbergen’s essential conclusion has been proven correct, so isn’t a good example of these zombie findings.

  4. @ Dave Wisker

    I always find it amusing whenever Majerus is mentioned with regards to peppered moths. I also love this quintessential Darwinian quote from Majerus:

    “It is not my place to tell people what to believe. But I know that we are making a horrendous mess of
    this planet, and I do not have faith in some supernatural intervention putting it right: No second coming; No helping hand from on high; No last minute redemption.”

    What was the title of this lecture?
    “The Peppered Moth: The Proof of Darwinian Evolution”

    Ah. That explains a lot, don’t you think? Any person who goes from

    1) It turns out the Peppered Myth is true!
    to
    2) There is no Jesus!

    Should be a highly questionable source of information.

    Here Wells speaks about Majerus’ findings:
    http://www.discovery.org/a/4198

  5. Hi NSM.,

    I always find it far more amusing when people swallow Jonathan Wells’s writings uncritically. For example, in the the article you linked to, Wells wrote:

    Majerus concludes: “While the results may be somewhat biased towards lower parts of the tree, due to sampling technique, I believe that they give the best field evidence that we have to date of where peppered moths spend the day.”22

    What’s wrong with this picture?

    In the seven years during which Majerus was peering out his window, far more than 135 peppered moths visited his back yard, but (as previous research showed) he couldn’t see most of them because they were resting high in the upper branches of his trees. Those he could see from the ground represented only a tiny fraction of the total.

    Unfortunately, Wells (who, by the way, has never done ecological fieldwork in his life, and has never worked with the Peppered Moth), assumed Majerus’s dataset of 135 moths was assembled from observations taken on the ground. Where did he get this information? From Majerus’s published work? No—Wells got it from a newspaper article (see his footnote 21)!

    Looking at the actual paper summarizing the research, Majerus wrote (my emphasis):

    The largest data set of peppered moths found in the wild was accumulated during a predation experiment that involved researchers climbing trees at dusk and dawn during the flight season of the moth (May to August) over 6 years. Of 135 peppered moths found, 50% were on horizontal branches (Fig. 4), 37% on trunks (Fig. 5), and 13% were on smaller twigs or in foliage (Majerus 2007).

    http://www.springerlink.com/co.....ltext.html

    That makes Wells’s article a highly questionable source of information

  6. NSM @ 4

    I always find it amusing whenever Majerus is mentioned with regards to peppered moths.

    And I always find it amusing when Wells is quoted on anything to do with evolution.

    At the end of the Washington Monument rally in September, 1976, I was admitted to the second entering class at Unification Theological Seminary. During the next two years, I took a long prayer walk every evening. I asked God what He wanted me to do with my life, and the answer came not only through my prayers, but also through Father’s many talks to us, and through my studies. Father encouraged us to set our sights high and accomplish great things.

    He also spoke out against the evils in the world; among them, he frequently criticized Darwin’s theory that living things originated without God’s purposeful, creative activity. My studies included modern theologians who took Darwinism for granted and thus saw no room for God’s involvement in nature or history; in the process, they re- interpreted the fall, the incarnation, and even God as products of human imagination.

    Father’s words, my studies, and my prayers convinced me that I should devote my life to destroying Darwinism, just as many of my fellow Unificationists had already devoted their lives to destroying Marxism. When Father chose me (along with about a dozen other seminary graduates) to enter a Ph.D. program in 1978, I welcomed the opportunity to prepare myself for battle.

    Now there are no doubt many here who applaud Wells for entering science solely to “destroy” a theory that he was convinced was a threat to his religious beliefs. I do not. He is, of course, free to pursue science for whatever ends he chooses but the quote above fatally undermines his credibility as a reliable source of any information to do with evolution.

  7. 7

    Seversky,

    “He is, of course, free to pursue science for whatever ends he chooses but the quote above fatally undermines his credibility as a reliable source of any information to do with evolution.”

    C. S. Lewis calls this sort of argument Bulverism, where you attack the man instead of his argument. It’s a non starter.
    You can read about Bulverism here:
    http://www.uncommondescent.com.....bulverism/

  8. @ Seversky and Dave

    Sorry for the late response. For some strange reason, there are about eight posts about this one topic. What’s up with that?

    I made the mistake of hastily posting the first article I read on the subject matter. I have no concern as to whether it’s the peppered moth/myth, and neither do most ID proponents.

    I’m just going to comment on the religious affiliation of Wells.

    “He is, of course, free to pursue science for whatever ends he chooses but the quote above fatally undermines his credibility as a reliable source of any information to do with evolution.”

    And yet Majerus is a credible source of information when he manages to speak about Peppered Moths and Jesus in the same lecture? Surely this is a double-standard?

    “involved researchers climbing trees at dusk and dawn during the flight season of the moth (May to August) over 6 years.”

    I’m not sure if you should ever spend six years of your life doing anything unless it somehow manages to cure cancer. ;)

    I would think though that it would be harder to spot moths at the top of trees, rather than the bottom? I’ll read more about this when I have time, and am slightly dismayed by Wells’ misrepresentation.

    I feel my main point though is that Majerus is certainly not an unbiased third party in this matter. There are clearly very clearly stated reasons for his wanting to reinstate Peppered Moths.

  9. Clearly very clearly?

    Really wish we could edit these things.

  10. 10

    Hi NSM,

    And yet Majerus is a credible source of information when he manages to speak about Peppered Moths and Jesus in the same lecture? Surely this is a double-standard?

    I couldn’t care less what Majerus thought about Jesus. It has nothing to do with his methodology. Nor do I care that Wells is a follower of Reverend Sung Myung Moon, though I do find it ironic that he decided to devote his life to destroying Darwinism, considering how inept he is at it.

    “involved researchers climbing trees at dusk and dawn during the flight season of the moth (May to August) over 6 years.”

    I’m not sure if you should ever spend six years of your life doing anything unless it somehow manages to cure cancer.

    Ecologists are a passionate bunch.

    I would think though that it would be harder to spot moths at the top of trees, rather than the bottom?

    That is why Majerus said his results might be slightly biased– the highest parts of the trees are inaccessible. Of course, it does affect Wells’s implication that Majerus’s methodology missed the majority of the moths– for Wells to be right, the majority of moths would have to rest in the highest parts of the tree. I don’t recall Wells citing any research establishing that fact.

    feel my main point though is that Majerus is certainly not an unbiased third party in this matter. There are clearly very clearly stated reasons for his wanting to reinstate Peppered Moths.

    As long as his bias isn’t reflected in his methodology, I couldn’t care less.

  11. Hi Dave

    “I couldn’t care less what Majerus thought about Jesus. It has nothing to do with his methodology.”

    I was directing most of my statement at Seversky who said that Wells’ position on evolution “fatally undermines his credibility as a reliable source.” I was simply wondering why this same reasoning was not applied to Majerus. The curse, I suppose, of trying to respond to two people in a single post.

    “Ecologists are a passionate bunch.”

    I’ve witnessed this first-hand. I’ll only add that there is a group of Darwinists just as passionate about lighting candles in demon-haunted worlds.

    “That is why Majerus said his results might be slightly biased– the highest parts of the trees are inaccessible.”

    I read through the summary you linked. You speak here about Majerus stating his results might have been slightly biased. Why only slightly biased? According to the previous studies conducted by Clarke et al and others, it seems established that peppered moths do not ordinarily rest on tree trunks. Majerus’ study itself confirms this (50% on horizontal branches). Yet the study seems to contradict those conducted previously, revealing a far greater proportion of moths resting on tree trunks (37%).

    Majerus responds to potential criticism of his work by essentially saying that those other researchers were lousy at spotting moths. So, at this rather essential point, Majerus voices his own opinion. This makes me wonder whether his methodology is being affected by his desire to prove the story true.

    This brings me back to Wells’ basic point, namely, that Majerus has excluded those moths at the top of the trees. On what basis is this not a significant factor? And to what extent is one’s peppered-moth-vision impaired when going tree-climbing?

    Let me just say though that I agree with you about Wells. His statement was lazy at best.

  12. 12

    Hi NSM,

    I read through the summary you linked. You speak here about Majerus stating his results might have been slightly biased. Why only slightly biased? According to the previous studies conducted by Clarke et al and others, it seems established that peppered moths do not ordinarily rest on tree trunks. Majerus’ study itself confirms this (50% on horizontal branches). Yet the study seems to contradict those conducted previously, revealing a far greater proportion of moths resting on tree trunks (37%).
    Majerus responds to potential criticism of his work by essentially saying that those other researchers were lousy at spotting moths. So, at this rather essential point, Majerus voices his own opinion. This makes me wonder whether his methodology is being affected by his desire to prove the story true.

    I think the issue really isn’t where the moths rest– at least it isn’t regarding Majerus’s study. To understand why, you have to go back to the original criticisms of Kettlewell’s methodology. The issue over tree trunks was this: Kettlewell released his moths at dawn, and the concern (which even Kettlewell himself recognized) was that the moths may settle on the trunks because they were close, and thus present a denser concentration of moths for the birds to sample, which wouldn’t represent the kind of distribution of moths birds would encounter in the wild. In his book, Wells made an enormous issue of this, saying that the moths don’t naturally rest on trunks (actually, he has backtracked on that, when shown Majerus’s data showing that the majority of moths observed in the wild at that time were found on trunks and trunk/branch joints , but I personally have heard him flatly say the moths don’t rest on trunks when he is speaking to an ID-friendly audience). I think the density issue which worried Kettlewell is valid, and Majerus did too, so that is why he released his moths at night, allowing them to choose their resting places at the time they normally do. Whether he could observe them at all places on the tree during the day is pretty much irrelevant for determining predation rates, since the recapturing of the moths for data purposes was done in traps, not by climbing trees looking for the moths.

    This brings me back to Wells’ basic point, namely, that Majerus has excluded those moths at the top of the trees. On what basis is this not a significant factor? And to what extent is one’s peppered-moth-vision impaired when going tree-climbing?

    The only results that were biased were Majerus’s estimate of where the moths rest on trees. Since he released the moths at dusk, at low densities, and allowed them to find their natural resting places, where the moths actually settled during his experiments isn’t an issue when determining predation rates. He eliminated Wells’s main objection, and still came up with results similar to Kettlewell’s, something that Wells must now explain. Wells’s complaint in the article you linked to is essentially over an irrelevant issue.

Leave a Reply