In September of this year, the National Center for Science Education (seriously, donate to them now if you value evolution and climate change education) posted on their blog about how Stephen Jay Gould’s comparison of Darwinian evolution to Kipling’s “Just So Stories” did not sit well with many a biologist. While of course Gould’s use of the phrase is nuanced, and refers to views some biologists have compared to others regarding how evolution happened, the phrase is a favorite trope of creationists.
A new book uses the idea of “Just So Stories” and children’s stories in general to show how evolution can be better understood.
Charles R. Ault Jr., Do Elephants Have Knees? And Other Stories of Darwinian Origins (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2016), 240 pp.
Publisher’s description Thinking whimsically makes serious science accessible. That’s a message that should be taken to heart by all readers who want to learn about evolution. Do Elephants Have Knees? invites readers into serious appreciation of Darwinian histories by deploying the playful thinking found in children’s books. Charles R. Ault Jr. weds children’s literature to recent research in paleontology and evolutionary biology. Inquiring into the origin of origins stories, Ault presents three portraits of Charles Darwin—curious child, twentysomething adventurer, and elderly worm scientist. Essays focusing on the origins of tetrapods, elephants, whales, and birds explain fundamental Darwinian concepts (natural selection, for example) with examples of fossil history and comparative anatomy. The imagery of the children’s story offers a way to remember and recreate scientific discoveries. By juxtaposing Darwin’s science with tales for children, Do Elephants Have Knees? underscores the importance of whimsical storytelling to the accomplishment of serious thinking. Charles Darwin mused about duck beaks and swimming bears as he imagined a pathway for the origin of baleen. A “bearduck” chimera may be a stretch, but the science linking not just cows but also whales to moose through shared ancestry has great merit. Teaching about shared ancestry may begin with attention to Bernard Wiseman’s Morris the Moose. Morris believes that cows and deer are fine examples of moose because they all have four legs and things on their heads. No whale antlers are known, but fossils of four-legged whales are. By calling attention to surprising and serendipitous echoes between children’s stories and challenging science, Ault demonstrates how playful thinking opens the doors to an understanding of evolutionary thought.
Purchase Do Elephants Have Knees? And Other Stories of Darwinian Origins through the publisher or the independent Powell’s City of Books. The author, who teaches at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, OR, will discuss his book at Powell’s Books on Hawthorne on November 28 at 7:30pm.