Lessons of the Peppered Moth

The Peppered Moth changing

It’s not just “survival of the fittest” anymore. It’s the adaptable, those most willing and able to learn, who persevere.

The world is full of people whose inability or unwillingness to adapt to changing landscapes left them out in the cold. Factory workers who knew only how to work in factories. When it became cheaper for businesses to send production overseas, the factories closed and the workers languished. They felt they had nowhere to go.

Likewise the young climber who prizes his fitness and skill above all else. In the height of his strength, he might imagine he will always be as he is now. He doesn’t consider what his life will be like when he is injured or his body no longer performs as it once did. He doesn’t consider the many ways to be happy and useful and fulfilled when things are different.

The case of the Peppered Moth is perhaps the most popular demonstration of Darwinian natural selection today. Prior to Britain’s Industrial Revolution, the mostly white Peppered Moth was thriving. The black variant of the moth was rare, its coloration poor camouflage against the pale trees on which it rested.

But the Industrial Revolution, with its machines and factories, brought change: soot particles that eventually darkened the trees on which the Peppered Moths rested. Now the darker moths were the better hidden, while white moths became easy pickings for keen-eyed birds. Lo and behold, the black moths became the more common variant for more than a century, until pollution regulations of the 1970s began to stem the sooty tide.

The difference between people and moths is that change for the moths comes only at the population level, through death and reproduction. When more black moths survive to bear offspring, the population grows dark. When more white moths survive to bear offspring, the population grows pale.

We humans, however, have a unique memory and intelligence that lets us adapt much more quickly. We can record our experiences and our lessons learned. We can share our knowledge. We can predict the future from the past and, in theory, act accordingly. This is one reason our kind inhabits so much of the planet — we are able to adapt within a single generation rather than over the course of many.

Still, many of us seem to live like the Peppered Moth, sitting and hoping desperately that the rules of the game won’t change so we won’t have to, either.

But the game is always changing. The sand of time drains ever down, drawing with it our bodies and minds. Technology destroys old opportunities and creates new ones. The changes in our climate are already set in motion. No matter how we fight or what we’d rather, the world we inhabit in 20 or 50 years will be very different from the world today.

When things change around us, we can be like the white Peppered Moth who sits on a black tree branch and waits for the birds to come. Or we can see the new landscape and make an effort to adapt, to lighten and darken our wings, or even shed our wings and grow gills. This is no mean task, granted, but the first step is to change our minds and attitudes, which is something the Peppered Moth can never do.