Professor Michael Majerus
Marren, Peter, The Independent (London, England)
Geneticist who defended Darwin in the battle against creationism
Michael Majerus was a gifted Cambridge scientist and teacher, and a doughty defender of Darwin and his theory of natural selection. Hissubjects were moths and ladybirds, which he saw as perfect tools fordigging into evolutionary questions, but he also loved them for their own sake. He was that increasingly rare phenomenon, a scientist who was also a field naturalist (he was running a moth trap in his garden from the age of 10). Perhaps it was this instinctive "feeling for the organism", allied to his natural vitality and infectious enthusiasm for insects, that made Majerus such a popular teacher, and one in demand by the media.
Majerus was internationally known in the fields of ecological and evolutionary genetics. His best-known work was on the Peppered Moth, whichhas two forms, one light and speckled, the other dark and sooty (knownas melanic), and has long been heldto be an example of evolution in action. The dark form predominates in polluted areas because it is less easilyspotted by birds when at rest ontrees. Stung by a review of his 1997 book, Melanism: Evolution in Action, which rejected the supporting evidence and so became grist to the mill of creationists, Majerus set about proving his case.
It took him seven years of meticulously planned experiments which tested and compared the predation of the moths by birds and bats by release and recapture, and of the respective behaviour of wild and lab-reared moths. He also redetermined exactly where the moths rest by day, a controversial part of the original research which had been criticised on the grounds that the moths never rested on tree trunks. Majerus proved the critics wrong: they do (it is just that they are hard to see). His work is seen as a significant contribution to the evolution versus creation/intelligent design debate, and has helped to swing the international scientific consensus back in favour of the Peppered Moth as a supreme and easily understood example of evolution.
Majerus's other lifelong passion was for ladybirds. His work focused onthe role of sex in evolution. He wasthe first to show that the femalebeetle's mating preferences couldbe genetically determined, thereby confirming a critical aspect of Darwin's theory of sexual selection by female choice. He also worked extensively on "male-killing bacteria"which reduce the number of male ladybirds and have evolutionary consequences in the way that it distorts their behaviour.
Majerus established a system for recording British ladybird species, and encouraged as many people as possible, including children, to join in. Hence Britain was well placed to monitor the invasion of the non-native Harlequin Ladybird in 2004 and its steady advance over much of England. For a while Majerus was omnipresent in the media, which he much enjoyed. He was, however, pessimistic about the likely ecological consequences of the invasion, believing, with good reason, that it would result in reduced numbers of native ladybirds.
Michael Majerus (known to his friends as "Mike") was born in the old county of Middlesex in 1954, the second of three brothers. His father, Fernand, was a Luxembourg national who met his wife, Muriel, in Britain and remained to build a successful family textile business. …