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:


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


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.

HMS Beagle to set sail for LEGO – only with your help!

Luis Peña has designed a LEGO set for HMS Beagle, complete with Charles Darwin and Captain Fitzroy minifigs, among others. He posted it to the LEGO Ideas website, in which set suggestions receive support and if they reach 10,000 supporters within a year of being posted, LEGO will consider making the set a reality.

I supported this set, and hope you will too. It’s necessary to create an account on the site in order to cast your support, but it’s quick and easy, and worth it, don’t you think?

Here are some images from Luis:

BOOK: Darwin-Inspired Learning

A new book of interest, and not just because a friend of mine has a chapter in it (Karen James):

Carolyn J. Boulter, Michael J. Reiss, and Dawn L. Sanders, eds. Darwin-Inspired Learning (Boston, MA: Sense Publishers, 2014), 450 pp.

Publisher’s description Charles Darwin has been extensively analysed and written about as a scientist, Victorian, father and husband. However, this is the first book to present a carefully thought out pedagogical approach to learning that is centered on Darwin’s life and scientific practice. The ways in which Darwin developed his scientific ideas, and their far reaching effects, continue to challenge and provoke contemporary teachers and learners, inspiring them to consider both how scientists work and how individual humans ‘read nature’. Darwin-inspired learning, as proposed in this international collection of essays, is an enquiry-based pedagogy, that takes the professional practice of Charles Darwin as its source. Without seeking to idealise the man, Darwin-inspired learning places importance on: • active learning • hands-on enquiry • critical thinking • creativity • argumentation • interdisciplinarity. In an increasingly urbanised world, first-hand observations of living plants and animals are becoming rarer. Indeed, some commentators suggest that such encounters are under threat and children are living in a time of ‘nature-deficit’. Darwin-inspired learning, with its focus on close observation and hands-on enquiry, seeks to re-engage children and young people with the living world through critical and creative thinking modeled on Darwin’s life and science.

The publisher has made freely available the introduction and first two chapters, here.