Darwin Day 2018: “How paramount the future is to the present, when one is surrounded by children”

February 12th is International Darwin Day.

Whether you are a parent, a teacher, or in some other capacity given responsibility over the education or raising of children, there is a lesson to be learned from the naturalist Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809 – April 19, 1882).

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From a 2009 issue of Natural History

Darwin was a devoted father, and in certain ways his attachment to his children was uncharacteristic for the Victorian period. Darwin and Emma married in 1842 and had ten children, seven of whom survived into adulthood. His own poor health meant that he did most of his scientific work from his home Down House: reading, observing, experimenting, corresponding, and writing. Thus, his family life and his scientific work intertwined throughout each day, and when his children were sick – which was quite often – his work would be delayed. But he also sought his children’s help, whether physically in experiments or for tossing thoughts back and forth. He included his children in the development of his ideas, and even thought of his children as scientific subjects themselves.

Darwin film Creation (CD with kids)

In the woods with Darwin (Paul Bettany) and some of his children, in a scene from the 2009 film Creation

The lack of original posts on this blog over the last couple of years is due to my raising my own children. As a parent, I appreciate the Darwin that allowed his children to pursue their interests, that introduced his children to nature and scientific subjects, and that sought to understand his own children biologically.

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My son as Charles Darwin in 2017. Photo: Sammy Prugsamatz

Darwin biographer and historian James Moore referred to Down House, its grounds, and the “menagerie” of animals there as “a childhood paradise – an adventure playground, summer camp, and petting farm all rolled into one.” Darwin surely saw the value in exposing his children to nature at home and at places nearby, especially Orchis Bank (now “Downe Bank”), the patch of land that inspired the words about “an entangled bank” in his conclusion to On the Origin of Species (1859).

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My children exploring at a local natural area in Portland, OR, here looking minuscule among the trees

I strive to both teach my children about evolution and to ensure their childhoods are full of plenty of time in nature. With constant challenges to evolution education in public schools and the always present yet increasing threats to the environment, there is no more important time than now to instill in our children a love for science and reason, and an appreciation for the natural world we depend on as a species. For us, and every living thing we share this planet with. Charles Darwin cared for his own family while learning about and sharing with the rest of the world about his larger family – the tree of life. We should allow our children to climb the tree of life, both metaphorically in learning about evolution and biodiversity, and in the real world through nature play.

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My daughter climbing a tree in Portland, OR

In an 1852 letter to his cousin William Darwin Fox, Darwin wrote, reflecting on his duties as a father regarding their educations and whether or not they were to inherit his health problems, “How paramount the future is to the present, when one is surrounded by children.” Our future depends on having citizens that are well-informed in science and that have reasons to vote in favor of the environment. So, let us celebrate Darwin Day – and every day – by taking our kids outside and teaching them about evolution.

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On a note card my mother sent me a few years ago

Resources:

Darwin Correspondence Project: Darwin and Fatherhood

Darwin Correspondence Project: Darwin’s observations on his children

Jim Endersby: “Sympathetic science: Charles Darwin, Joseph Hooker, and the passions of Victorian naturalists,” in the journal Victorian Studies. Endersby discusses Darwin’s role as a father in relation to his botanical work.

Tim Berra: Darwin and His Children: His Other Legacy, from Oxford University Press (Amazon); “Ten facts about Charles Darwin’s ten children.”

James T. Costa: Darwin’s Backyard: How Small Experiments Led to a Big Theory, from W.W. Norton (Amazon). This book recounts Darwin’s many experiments and shows how involved his children were; also, each chapter includes activity instructions for educators.

Carolyn J. Boulter, Michael J. Reiss, and Dawn L. Sanders (eds.): Darwin-Inspired Learning, from Sense Publishers (Amazon). For educators. Particularly the seventh chapter by James Moore, “Getting the Kids Involved – Darwin’s Paternal Example.”

The Bug Chicks blog: a guest post I wrote a few years back about Darwin, nature education, and parenting.

Jonathan Tweet: Grandmother Fish (Amazon). Fantastic book introducing preschool-aged kids to evolution

Kristan Lawson: Darwin and Evolution for Kids: His Life and Ideas with 21 Activities, from Chicago Review Press (Amazon)

Deborah Hopkinson: The Humbleebee Hunter: Inspired by the Life and Experiments of Charles Darwin and His Children, from Hyperion (Amazon). One of my personal favorite books about Darwin, or in this case, his children. My post about this book from 2012 is here.

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Art by Jen Corace from Deborah Hopkinson’s The Humblebee Hunter

 

 

 

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“Wallace and Darwin – Voyages to Evolution Map” poster available

Operation Wallacea has the poster “Wallace and Darwin – Voyages to Evolution Map” available for free for educational use:

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To mark the 100th anniversary of Alfred Russel Wallace’s death Operation Wallcea produced a poster showing the voyages of Wallace and Darwin and how they both developed the idea of evolution by natural selection. This map was produced in association with the Wallace Memorial Fund and forms part of the Wallace100 celebrations.

An email to send a request is at this link.

 

BOOK: Do Elephants Have Knees? And Other Stories of Darwinian Origins

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.

 

BOOK: Evolutionary Tales

Here’s yet another book for kids about evolution:

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Matt Cubberly, Evolutionary Tales (The WilderWay, 2015), 24 pp. Illustrated by May Villani.

Publisher’s description Evolutionary Tales is a children’s book that teaches evolution through 10 poems focusing on the wildest-evolved creatures of our world! Our world is full of absolutely amazing creatures that have evolved and adapted to become truly incredible! And because our world is so diverse, Evolutionary Tales isn’t just one story! Instead, the book is a compilation of TEN wildly-different stories – each focusing on one fantastic creature! Each story is told in the form of a long poem, and each takes you into a specific niche. Kids love the close-up look into the tiny worlds all around them as they learn how the animals evolved to fill those roles. Some are quite funny – like a fish walking on land! And some are a bit scary – like the toothy angler fish down in the dark depths of the ocean! But whether you’re put into the sky, into the water, or out onto the land, you and your child will no doubt have an amazing adventure while reading AND learning!

While 9 of the 10 animals depicted are not species one would encounter in everyday life, one is: the Pileated Woodpecker, which we see every once and a while while exploring in our local forested natural areas in Portland.

Here’s a video about the book:

Purchase Evolutionary Tales through the publisher.

BOOK REVIEW: Grandmother Fish: a child’s first book of Evolution

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My kids reading Grandmother Fish while a young Darwin (portrait by natural history artist Diana Sudyka) looks on.

UPDATE (1/13/16): Grandmother Fish has been picked up by a major publisher, and the second edition will be available in Fall 2016. You can pre-order it now on Amazon!

Most kid’s books about evolution are geared toward upper elementary ages and above. Relating the concept of the inter-relatedness of life on earth to even younger children can be a difficult task. Millions of years, common descent, phylogenetics – these are not necessarily ideas that a four-year-old can grasp. A new book seeks to teach preschool age kids about evolution, and succeeds at distilling some big ideas into an approachable and easy-to-understand story.

Grandmother Fish: a child’s first book of Evolution (website), by Jonathan Tweet and charmingly illustrated by Karen Lewis, likens thinking of evolutionary history as learning about one’s familial ancestors. This is a concept that preschool age kids can possibly understand (when my son was four-and-a-half, he said to me upon thinking about how we have evolved from fish: “I eat fish, but I don’t eat my grandpas”). Children will meet the book’s namesake, Grandmother Fish, but also, getting closer and closer to the present, Grandmother Reptile, Grandmother Mammal, Grandmother Ape, and Grandmother Human. Deep time is shown as orders of “a long time ago” rather than millions of years. And while the Grandmothers are the focus, the images throughout show cousins, too – lineages of animals that descended from our shared ancestor. To make the book more fun for little ones, each Grandmother has physical or behavioral traits that readers can mimic – and are asked to. Grandmother Fish wiggles and chomps while Grandmother Mammal squeaks and cuddles. These traits aren’t simply random actions – they make sense at those evolutionary stages.

Following the story is a kid-friendly evolutionary family tree (showing where all the Grandmothers fit in the bigger picture of life), a note to parents and other readers, some advice on explaining evolution concepts, more detail about each Grandmother and their specific traits, and a list of common misconceptions about evolution.

Grandmother Fish is fun, visually appealing, and above all, scientifically accurate. And here’s a good sign that Grandmother Fish is a great tool for educating young minds: the National Center for Science Education loves it* and the creationist organization Answers in Genesis hates it.** With the recent news that more and more younger people are accepting evolution, it’s even more encouraging to see great materials for evolution education.

Grandmother Fish: a child’s first book of Evolution (website) started as a Kickstarter campaign in 2014, and was successfully funded. While the book was made available recently, all copies the author sent to Amazon have sold out as well as those through his website (thanks to a positive review on an NPR blog that was shared on their Facebook page). He plans to put out a second edition, and interested folks can sign up to be updated about that progress – in fact, you can pre-order a copy here. Until then a PDF of the book can be downloaded!

* Stephanie Keep of the NCSE wrote that it is “heads and shoulders above any evolution book for children that I’ve ever seen.”

** Georgia Purdom of AiG calls the book deceptive and suggests that parents request their libraries purchase a creationist book for kids that states dinosaurs and humans lived at the same time.