Ewa Prokop, who previously published a book about her time studying the English landscapes that Darwin was very close to (in Shropshire for his youth and in Downe for married life until his death), has written a book for children that uses Darwin’s studies of flora and fauna around the village of Downe as a means to teach about evolution by natural selection. In Darwin’s Wild Pursuits Around Downe, she does this through fourteen short stories placing Darwin in conversation with various wildlife in the countryside surrounding his home of four decades, Down House. For an article on a UK website, Prokop said, “People often focus on the exotic species Darwin discovered when on his Beagle voyage, but I wanted to highlight the amazing range of wildlife that could, and can still, be found in south-east England in an area Darwin knew well and studied intensively.” Prokop dedicated this new book “To those who strive to teach children about British wildlife.” Many current advocates for connecting children to nature stress that children should learn more about the animals that live where they live, part of their home. Naturalist Robert Michael Pyle is known for asking, “What is the extinction of a condor to a child who has never seen a wren?”
Coincidentally, one of the fourteen animals that converse with Darwin is a wren. In “Darwin & the Wren,” we find the naturalist exploring in a meadow behind Down House. He ponders the opening and closing of leaflets of plants in response to the intensity of the sun, and references research by Batalin (such observations are noted in Darwin’s 1880 book, The Power of Movement in Plants, where he cites the Russian plant physiologist Alexander Theodorowicz Batalin). Then, seeing from where a wren flew out of some bushes, he peeks in to discover its nest, with three eggs. The words exchanged between Darwin and the wren concern his interest in her colors and ability to camouflage and her distress over his having made her nest of notice to possible egg thieves. Darwin later brings a young boy to see the nest, much to the wren’s dismay, and he learns a lesson from the mother bird: not to collect her eggs!
What I like about this story with the wren is that it brings in actual observations Darwin made in Downe, and like he was with his own children, it shows how Darwin instilled a sense of wonder in nature with youth around him. Through all the stories, we see Darwin himself change, from a balding yet non-bearded younger man (and young father) to the sage of Down House, the classic image of Darwin as an old, wise, and classically Victorian-bearded gentleman. Yet in all the stories, he remains curious and active, constantly asking questions and exploring around his village. His observations and experiments discussed in these stories all matter in some sense to his larger project: evolution by natural selection. They show his thinking process concerning topics as varied as:
– cross-pollination in plants; a fox named Vulpes discusses with Darwin the forms of primroses and cowslips (The Different Forms of Flowers on Plants of the Same Species, 1877)
– struggle for existence; a field mouse informs Darwin how the existence of predatory mammals such as cats, via a food chain through field mice and bumble bees, might determine the growth of red clover (On the Origin of Species, 1859, chapter 3)
– adaptation; a lizard named Lacerta discusses with Darwin the insectivorous sundew plant Drosera, showing how environmental conditions can lead to new adaptations in organisms (Insectivorous Plants, 1875)
– and geographical distribution; a duck named Anas helps Darwin to understand how organisms can carry seeds and assist in propagating other species in new areas (On the Origin of Species, 1859, chapter 7)
Ten more talkative animals (including the wren, and many named by their genus name) and ten more topics of import to Darwin’s life-long pursuit of understanding the origin of new species (all based on actual observations and experiments conducted by Darwin), along with Diana Catchpole’s charming illustrations, make up the rest of Darwin’s Wild Pursuits Around Downe. There is a lot to like about this little book, from the presentation of Darwin as a naturalist and mentor to youth and details of his research, to the likeable countryside critters and importance placed on exploring in local nature.
Prokop wrote Darwin’s Wild Pursuits Around Downe for children ages 9-11, and has provided much more material on her website Mad About Charles Darwin about the stories and resources for teachers (in the UK specifically, but I don’t see why teachers elsewhere couldn’t benefit from her efforts to teach more kids about nature and Charles Darwin). Facts regarding each story – when it takes place, Darwin’s actual research, etc. – are shared in The Truth Behind the Fiction (PDF), and evolution curriculum resources for teachers are listed by story here.