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Friday, April 03, 2009

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?

Find out why there is an intelligent design controversy:


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