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I'm reading The Sellout by Paul Beatty. In this paragraph I have some difficulties in the following paragraph:

we’re the black moths in that classic evolution photo, clinging to the dark, soot-covered tree, invisible to our predators and yet somehow still vulnerable. The job of the swarthy moth is to keep the white moth occupied. Glued to the tree with bad poetry, jazz, and corny stand-up routines about the difference between white moths and black moths. “Why do white moths always be flying toward lights, slamming into screen doors, and shit? You never see black moths do that. Stupid fluttering motherfuckers.” Anything to keep the white moth next to us and thereby reducing our chances of being targets for birds of prey, the volunteer army, or Cirque de Soleil. It always bothered me that in those photos, the white moth was invariably higher up the tree trunk. What were those textbooks trying to imply? That despite supposedly being more at risk, the white moth was still higher up the evolutionary and social ladder?

Who is he talking about when he says "Stupid fluttering motherfuckers"? black moths or white ones?

2 Answers 2

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The white moths.

Why do white moths always be flying toward lights, slamming into screen doors, and shit?

This is the stupid behavior being condemned when he says

Stupid fluttering motherfuckers.

So it's the white ones.

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@Thomas-Markov has answered the technical question, but I thought it might be interesting to add the images referred to and a bit about the peppered moth as an example of supposed human-driven evolution.

The image referred to is this, or similar (I’m not quite sure if it is the original but it does show the white moth higher). peppered moths, black and white melanistic variants

During the 1950s, H.B.D. Kettlewell demonstrated that white peppered moths have an advantage over dark peppered moths on pale trees, and a disadvantage on dark trees, and vice versa.

This was held to be an example of adaptive evolution with the dark moths prospering during the industrial revolution when sooty deposits blackened urban surfaces. I was taught this in the 1980s.

However, now I read that it was never that simple (despite the fact that I gained a Higher certificate in Biology, in part, through parroting this evidence).

Hoaxes.org says

Finding black and white moths posed beside each other in a natural setting would have been almost impossible, so to create the photos Kettlewell pinned dead moths to tree trunks. Moth experts knew the photos were staged because live moths would not have had extended wings. But no textbook ever disclosed this detail to readers.

The staging of the photos was first raised as an issue by intelligent-design advocate Jonathan Wells in his 2000 work Icons of Evolution. But the controversy reached a more mainstream audience in 2002 when science writer Judith Hopper discussed it in her popular account of the science of the peppered moth, Of Moths and Men.

The staging was an issue, critics argued, because it over-simplified the peppered moth story and made it seem that the camouflage of the moths was a self-evident advantage. However, it wasn't clear that moths rested on tree trunks during the day, as the pictures implied. Some evidence suggested they preferred to remain higher in the tree canopy and beneath branches where their coloration would have been less of an advantage. Also, it wasn't clear that birds were the main predator of moths. Bats also ate moths, and since bats use echolocation to navigate, the coloration of the moths would not have made a difference. Critics also questioned the methodology of Kettlewell's experiments.

Scientists still vigorously defend the peppered moth story as an example of evolution in action. They also defend the use of the staged photos in textbooks, arguing that, although they're not entirely accurate, they offer an invaluable way of presenting the concept of natural selection to students in an easy-to-comprehend form.

Nevertheless, the pair of images has become one of the most famous and controversial examples of staged photographs in all of science.

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