BOOK REVIEW: The Story of Life: A First Book about Evolution

Kid’s books about evolution are not in short supply. However, some are better than others, such as Catherine Barr and Steve Williams’ new book The Story of Life: A First Book about Evolution (London: Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 2015, 40 pp.).

story of life by Catherine Barr

Geared toward younger elementary students, The Story of Life takes readers from a lifeless Earth billions of years ago to the present planet full of life, noting that humans are taking a toll on the rest of the Earth’s biological diversity. This story is told through the use of easy-to-understand language, whimsical illustrations by Amy Husband, and a little humor with animal quote bubbles (they have important information to share, too!).

Readers will learn, through text and art, about the possible origin of life, the first animals, habitats, how animal life moved onto land, extinction, the rise of the dinosaurs, natural selection, the evolution of flowers, the rise of mammals, and the evolution of humans from primate ancestors in Africa and further migration across the globe. That’s a lot of evolution to cover in 40 pages, but the authors (both with backgrounds in biology) do so in a simple, accessible manner that children and their fellow adult readers will enjoy. A glossary of terms is included at the end, and each page includes a bar at the bottom left showing when in time the events are happening. The book also had a scientific consultant from the Natural History Museum in London to check for accuracy.

I’ll be requesting that my local library order this book!

And the authors have a Facebook page for the book, too.

BOOK REVIEW: The Adventures of Piratess Tilly

My kids and I have enjoyed a new children’s book that combines adventure, the natural world, and poetry, with a little Darwin thrown in.

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The Adventures of Piratess Tilly (Newburyport, MA: White Wave Press, 2014, 32 pp), by Elizabeth Lorayne with beautiful watercolor illustrations by Karen Watson, follows Tilly aboard the ship Foster, with her crew of sailors and a rescued koala named Yuki, on adventures across the globe. Tilly patches her own clothes, reads books for inspiration, and examines and sketches natural history specimens. Yuki navigates while the crew handles the ship. In these pages, their destination is the Galapagos Islands, but they come across pirates kidnapping baby tortoises and must intervene!

The text of the story is given as descriptive and action-filled haiku, one per page, and feels to me like what a group of children playing might conjure up with their imaginations. It’s fun, visually appealing, and charming. And, much to the book’s benefit, Darwin is given a nod in two of the haiku – “Staterooms full of books / Darwin and Potter inspire / Lofty dreams unfold” & “Many days passing / Best used for examining / What would Darwin think?” – and a portrait on the cabin wall. Darwin would think, how cool to have a female-led adventure! Will Tilly’s adventures continue? I hope so.

Check out the book’s website for lots of info, and an active Facebook page.

Disney to do Darwin

Disney has green-lighted a film about Charles Darwin, which will look at his years aboard HMS Beagle. The only information given so far is that the film will be an adventure, a la Indiana Jones, with a script and direction by Stephen Gaghan (Traffic, Syriana).

Variety: Charles Darwin Movie in the Works at Disney

Guardian: The dangers of Disney’s film about Charles Darwin

Guardian: Glenn Beck planning boycott of Charles Darwin movie

BOOK REVIEW: Prehistoric Predators & thoughts about Jurassic World

Last weekend my nine-year-old son and I went to the movies and saw Jurassic World, the fourth film in the Jurassic Park series (but really, a direct sequel to the original film). I was fifteen when I saw Jurassic Park in 1993, and became dino-obsessed. I devoured books and articles about paleontology. Reading about dinosaurs led to reading about evolution in general, and then to Darwin (and the rest is history, as they say). So while my son has seen the other films, I was excited to take him to see this new offering on the big screen. We loved it! The film was exactly what big movie theaters are for: suspenseful action in imagined worlds.

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We enjoyed the film immensely despite its major drawback. As many paleontologists have shared since the movie’s trailers started appearing, Jurassic World does not do what Jurassic Park did in 1993: to share with the public the latest vision of what dinosaurs looked like (click here for a bunch of links to posts/articles from paleontologists on JW). In the twenty years since, a lot has changed; most notably, that many dinosaurs had feathers or feather-like structures. Not in Jurassic World. Even some representations of dinosaurs in the new film ignore how the other films got it right (the posture of Stegosaurus, for example). The new film also does not introduce film-goers to the wide variety of new species discovered in the last couple of decades, instead sticking with the familiar: Tyrannosaurus rex, Apatosaurus, Triceratops, and Velociraptor.

The amazing David Orr and I worked together on this comic (check out his site for more great paleo design). As the owner of two feisty parrots, I feel like feathered raptors are just as exciting as those scaly ones we grew up with.

We are introduced to a new dinosaur, however. Not a real species that paleontologists have found the bones of, but a genetically-engineered monstrosity that comprises the DNA of several dinosaurs and other critters. The carnivorous and unstoppable Indominus rex is the film’s antagonist. While her presence on screen is exciting, it’s disappointing that the film’s creators felt the need to invent a new dinosaur – “probably not a good idea” – when the annals of paleontology are full of awesome theropods that could have been amazing on-screen additions to the story.

I hope the new film will inspire a new generation of dinosaur fans, and that many of these young paleontologists will seek out reading material to satiate their curiosity, and in the process, learn a little about what dinosaurs really looked like and how they behaved. For those interested in carnivorous dinosaurs (theropods), I recommend a new book by dinosaur writer Brian Switek and beautifully illustrated by paleoartist Julius Csotonyi. In Prehistoric Predators (Kennebunkport, ME: Cider Mill Press, 2015, 104 pp.), Switek profiles and Csotonyi brings to life over 40 dinosaurs and other animals from the past that dined on the flesh of other creatures. Old favorites are here, such as Allosaurus, but the book offers a look at a variety of lesser-known or more recently discovered species, including many with feathers or feather-like structures and some flying reptiles. There is Cryolophosaurus, the Antarctic theropod with an Elvis-like head crest, and the early tyrannosaur Guanlong. Ever heard of Eocarcharia? How about Deltadromeus? Why create a fictional dinosaur when nature had so many to choose from?

The profiles are arranged chronologically, starting with the Permian Period (and thus predators that pre-date dinosaurs) and into the Mesozoic Era and its trio of periods, Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous, as well some marine reptiles and land mammals in the Cenozoic. The book lacks, however, some of the diversity of marine reptiles during the age of dinosaurs (there are no species of mosasaur or plesiosaur, for example). But for each entry, nothing is better than Csotonyi’s realistic renderings full of color, behavior, and feathers. The book also features a textured cover, with the sensation of touching dinosaur skin. The Jurassic Park series will never likely yield dinosaur depictions with feathers, but let’s hope in the near future that a studio green lights a dinosaur film that will. For now, enjoy Jurassic World for what it is, a science fiction movie, and check out some books, like Prehistoric Predators, and visit a local natural history museum, to learn more about the actual science.

Want more dinosaurs? The publisher of Prehistoric Predators has another book worth checking out. The whole dinosaur kingdom is featured in Discovering Dinosaurs (2014), by Bob Walters and Tess Kissinger. More encyclopedic, this volume is chock full of dino diversity. Great information and great art from a classic dinosaur artist.

BOOK: The Griffin and the Dinosaur

In 2000, historian Adrienne Mayor published a book that changed the way people think about humanity’s relationship to fossils. In The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myth in Greek and Roman Times, Mayor described how the fossils of dinosaurs and other extinct creatures influenced the creation of mythical creatures in classical antiquity. She has likewise written a book about Fossil Legends of the First Americans in North America.

Mayor was kind enough to send my kids and I a copy of a new book that looks at her decades of research and difficulties having her work accepted by academia: The Griffin and the Dinosaur: How Adrienne Mayor Discovered a Fascinating Link Between Myth and Science (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2014, 48 pp). Geared toward younger readers (upper elementary to middle school), author Marc Aronson (with Mayor) describes her travels and research to show how people in ancient times took seriously the bones they discovered in the ground. Protoceratops skeletons become the griffin, and the skulls of mammoths become the head of Cyclops. After my son (age 9) read the book, he commented how he thought it was interesting that people in another time looked at fossils differently than we do today. He said that how people think about nature is always changing. “Wasn’t what paleontologists think dinosaurs looked like when you were a kid different from today?” he asked. Indeed.

This is a great book mixing science, history, and myth into a mystery that readers will love to follow along. The book features color photographs and nice paintings from Chris Muller throughout. I highly recommend The Griffin and the Dinosaur for parents to check out or buy for their curious kids. Better yet, request your local library purchase a copy if they don’t already have one in their catalog.

Thank you, Adrienne!

ARTICLE: Darwin and palaeontology: a re-evaluation of his interpretation of the fossil record

In the journal Historical Biology (online first):

Darwin and palaeontology: a re-evaluation of his interpretation of the fossil record

Warren D. Allmon

Abstract Charles Darwin’s empirical research in palaeontology, especially on fossil invertebrates, has been relatively neglected as a source of insight into his thinking, other than to note that he viewed the fossil record as very incomplete. During the Beagle voyage, Darwin gained extensive experience with a wide diversity of fossil taxa, and he thought deeply about the nature of the fossil record. That record was, for him, a major source of evidence for large-scale transmutation, but much less so for natural selection or single lineages. Darwin’s interpretation of the fossil record has been criticised for its focus on incompleteness, but the record as he knew it was extremely incomplete. He was compelled to address this in arguing for descent with modification, which was likely his primary goal. Darwin’s gradualism has been both misrepresented and exaggerated, and has distracted us from the importance of the fossil record in his thinking, which should be viewed in the context of the multiple, sometimes competing demands of the multifaceted argument he presented in the Origin of Species.

Special issue of Endeavour journal on Charles Darwin and Scientific Revolutions

The September-December 2014 issue of the history of science journal Endeavour was devoted to “Charles Darwin and Scientific Revolutions,” and included the following articles:

Introduction

Can a revolution hide another one? Charles Darwin and the Scientific Revolution – Richard G. Delisle

The Scientific Revolution and the Darwinian Revolution

Was there a Darwinian Revolution? Yes, no, and maybe! – Michael Ruse

On Darwin’s science and its contexts – M.J.S. Hodge

A brief, but imperfect, historical sketch of a ‘considerable revolution’ – Barbara Continenza

Tensions in Darwin: Sitting Between Two Revolutions

Darwin and the geological controversies over the steady-state worldview in the 1830s – Gabriel Gohau

Evolution in a fully constituted world: Charles Darwin’s debts towards a static world in the Origin of Species (1859) – Richard G. Delisle

Laws of variation: Darwin’s failed Newtonian program? – Thierry Hoquet

Emulating Newton in the Victorian Age

There is grandeur in this view of Newton: Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton and Victorian conceptions of scientific virtue – Richard Bellon

Experimentalism and the Nature/Artifice Relationship

Darwin’s experimentalism – Richard A. Richards

‘The art itself is nature’: Darwin, domestic varieties and the scientific revolution – S. Andrew Inkpen

Darwinism: A Moving Target

Charles Darwin’s reputation: how it changed during the twentieth-century and how it may change again – Ron Amundson

The Darwinian revolution in Germany: from evolutionary morphology to the modern synthesis – Georgy S. Levit, Uwe Hossfeld, Lennart Olsson