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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Children at Nature Play – my t-shirt fundraising campaign

Some of you may know that I also blog at Exploring Portland’s Natural Areas. I get my two kids outside and exploring in nature as much as possible, and love to share information for other parents, mentors, and educators.

Right now I have a Teespring t-shirt fundraising campaign to raise funds to order and then sell signs with my Children at Nature Play design (David Orr was my graphic designer). The t-shirts for sale have the same design!

sign and shirt

To learn more about this project of mine, check out this blog post.

To order a t-shirt (or more!), click here.

Even better, share the Teespring link with anyone you think might be interested.

Thank you!

Humanist Perspectives: Connecting Children to Nature

I did a guest post for the blog of the Foundation Beyond Belief, which I copy here:

Humanist Perspectives: Connecting Children to Nature

This post is part of our Humanist Perspectives series. In this series, we invite guest contributors to explore active humanism and what it means to be a thoughtful, engaged member of society. Please share your thoughts in the comments!

by Michael D. Barton

I have many favorite quotes about children and nature, but here are two very simple yet insightful ones:

What is the extinction of a condor to a child who has never seen a wren? – Robert Michael Pyle, author

 

How can we expect [children] to really care about their natural environment if they’ve never had an experience in it? – Martin LeBlanc, Sierra Club

Taking your child or children on an afternoon trip to the zoo is a great thing to do, but what does that matter if a child is not connected in some way to the animals that live near their home? Why should we care to learn about pandas and cheetahs and polar bears if we haven’t learned about salmon and owls and dragonflies? My five-year-old son is a member of a generation that will face serious issues regarding the environment. As his father, I strive to raise him to be a scientifically literate and environmentally conscious adult. While I am not a homeschooling parent and my son will be going to public school, there are two aspects of education I feel fall into my hands: teaching about evolution and raising an outdoor kid.

Parents are first and foremost the responsible party when it comes to getting children away from television, computers, and digital devices and into nature. While environmental education is increasingly being recognized in schools and other educational avenues, it is not enough. Education begins in the home and with family. Here in Portland, Oregon, the outdoor education program for Multnomah County sixth graders has been cut from a full week outdoors to just a few days. There will always be funding issues with schools and education, and extra programs are the first to go (except football, of course). While many schools do participate in environmental education (field trips, school gardens, etc.), teachers are overworked. That is why I find it a parental duty to share nature experiences with my child. We’re not backpackers nor experienced campers — we simply leave the house a few times a week and head to local nature parks or nearby trails and participate in nature programming at museums and libraries. There is not a lot of effort involved (unless you live somewhere with less-than-ideal weather). I find myself having had a better day than if I had not gone outside.

Since I do not consider nature in any way the creation of a supernatural deity, for me bringing evolution into our experiences makes them more personal. We’re part of the natural world along with every creature great and small, plant, rock, wave, and breeze. As Alan Watts put it: “You didn’t come into this world. You came out of it, like a wave from the ocean. You are not a stranger here.” We must care for our planet not just for ourselves to remain, but for all of our extended family.

The National Center for Science Education is not going anywhere. Creationist attacks on public education are not going to disappear in the foreseeable future. And now the NCSE has had to branch into protecting climate change education as well. I, as a parent, need to do my best to expose my son to these important ideas in science, not as an expert, but as a fellow learner. We have plenty of Darwin and evolution books geared toward children on our shelves (too many, my wife probably thinks). While my son learns, I learn, too. He is going to teach me things. What he is going to teach me is not just the neat stuff about the natural world, like different bird species for example. He is going to teach me that immersing oneself in nature has a deeper meaning. To feel that we are a part of nature is crucial in thinking about how we want to treat this planet. This is where evolution comes in strong. It is no surprise that some creation-minded folks also discredit the idea that humans have had an effect on the climate of this planet. Certainly understandable if one views themselves as above nature and given dominion over it. But my son is not going to be taught that he belongs to some group of humans created by some god (he will of course learn about religions). He will learn what we can know for sure about our world and our place in it. He will learn about evolution and how humans are not the epitomy of creation but just one (and yes we are unique, but so are all other organisms) animal in the tree of life. This is not indoctrinating a young mind, as some might suggest. Rather, it is teaching a young mind about his place in a world that could get along just fine without him. Earth is not ours for the taking, but ours for the caring.

I’m fond of a snippet from an 2009 article in Forbes by Kathryn Tabb, “The Debate Over Intelligent Design”:

But what would this ghost [Darwin], who would find the separation of church and state unthinkably radical, have to say about the legal battles over evolution being waged across America? An indifferent student, Darwin preferred the outdoors to the schoolhouse and once confessed, ‘Observing, thinking & some reading beat, in my opinion, all systematic education.’ My guess is that Darwin would urge the children … to take advantage of all the mayhem to sneak out while the adults aren’t looking — and, equipped with magnifying glasses and notebooks, take to nature and draw their own conclusions.

Take to nature, indeed.

I encourage you to look into the Children & Nature Network, a nonprofit organization that promotes connecting children to the outdoors (its founder is Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder), and the blog writings of paleontologist and science educator Scott Sampson, which describe his vision of an evolutionary worldview.

Connecting children to nature

Over the last week I teamed up with the organization Nature Rocks to provide tips about getting children outside and into nature. My voice came through on their Facebook and Twitter pages as I posted on my other blog, Exploring Portland’s Natural Areas. If you’re interested, here are those posts, with plenty of pictures of my son exploring in nature:

October 31st – This week I am a Nature Rocks Ambassador!

November 1st – Getting outside with your children should not be a tedious affair. Simply put, just get outside!

November 2nd – Keeping essential exploring tools handy makes nature play a more natural part of the day

November 3rd – Ways to extend outdoor experiences beyond outside

November 4th – Nature in your neighborhood

November 5th – Who explores nature for a living? Learning from naturalists and biologists

November 6th – We are all connected: Chemically, ecologically, and evolutionarily

Olivia’s Birds

Olivia did a small event on Monday night at Powell’s bookstore in Beaverton, OR (near Portland). It is wonderful to meet a young person with not only a tremendous passion for nature, but the motivation to do something positive with it. We are happy to have a signed copy of Olivia’s Birds: Saving the Gulf in our collection. Patrick was rather shy with her, though:

Myself, Catherine, and Patrick with Olivia and her Pileated Woodpecker puppet

“Captured by C. Darwin, Esq”

Darwin's Room, Christ's College, University of Cambridge

Darwin's Room, Christ's College, University of Cambridge

Darwin, from his autobiography, on beetles:

But no pursuit at Cambridge was followed with nearly so much eagerness or gave me so much pleasure as collecting beetles. It was the mere passion for collecting, for I did not dissect them and rarely compared their external characters with published descriptions, but got them named anyhow. I will give a proof of my zeal: one day, on tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas it ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as well as the third one. [MB: for this passage using the names of the species he lost, go here]

I was very successful in collecting and invented two new methods; I employed a labourer to scrape during the winter, moss off old trees and place [it] in a large bag, and likewise to collect the rubbish at the bottom of the barges in which reeds are brought from the fens, and thus I got some very rare species. No poet ever felt more delight at seeing his first poem published than I did at seeing in Stephen’s Illustrations of British Insects the magic words, “captured by C. Darwin, Esq.” I was introduced to entomology by my second cousin, W. Darwin Fox, a clever and most pleasant man, who was then at Christ’s College, and with whom I became extremely intimate. Afterwards I became well acquainted with and went out collecting, with Albert Way of Trinity, who in after years became a well-known archæologist; also with H. Thompson, of the same College, afterwards a leading agriculturist, chairman of a great Railway, and Member of Parliament. It seems therefore that a taste for collecting beetles is some indication of future success in life!

I am surprised what an indelible impression many of the beetles which I caught at Cambridge have left on my mind. I can remember the exact appearance of certain posts, old trees and banks where I made a good capture. The pretty Panagæus crux-major was a treasure in those days, and here at Down I saw a beetle running across a walk, and on picking it up instantly perceived that it differed slightly from P. crux-major, and it turned out to be P. quadripunctatus, which is only a variety or closely allied species, differing from it very slightly in outline. I had never seen in those old days Licinus alive, which to an uneducated eye hardly differs from many other black Carabidous beetles; but my sons found here a specimen and I instantly recognised that it was new to me; yet I had not looked at a British beetle for the last twenty years.

The words “captured by C. Darwin, Esq.” did not really appear as such, for Darwin was probably summarizing his many mentions in Stephen’s work. Much information about Darwin and his early beetle-collecting is available at Darwin Online, including the 1987 monograph “Darwin’s insects: Charles Darwin’s entomological notes, with an introduction and comments by Kenneth G. V. Smith.”

Beetles, Finches and Barnacles, University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge

Beetles, Finches and Barnacles, University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge

The above passage reflects Darwin’s passion for insects, and for the thrill of discovery – outside, in nature. Following his time at Cambridge was of course his time on and off HMS Beagle, followed by work in London to organize and research his collections from the voyage. Once he got heavy into his transmutation ideas, Darwin focused on collecting facts and writing, writing, writing in notebooks. In 1846, he turned to a study of barnacles, for several reasons: he felt he needed to cement his status as a naturalist, and he felt that a taxonimc study of a group of marine invertebrates would give insight to his developing transmutation theory. He thought the study would take him a year. Barnacles became such a part of not only Darwin’s life, but his family’s as well that, according to Darwin’s son Francis, one of the children once inquired of a friend, about his father, when visiting their home, “Then where does he do his barnacles?” Darwin expressed in letters to his botanist friend Joseph Dalton Hooker that he saw no end to this work, “but do not flatter yourself that I shall not yet live, to finish the Barnacles & then make a fool of myself on the subject of Species.” In the end, the barnacle work took him eight years, and produced 4 volumes, which resulting in his being awarded the Copley Medal from the Royal Society. Done with barnacles, Darwin was surely tired of sitting at a table peering through a microscope. He reflected in his autobiography:

My work on the Cirripedia possesses, I think, considerable value, as besides describing several new and remarkable forms, I made out the homologies of the various parts—I discovered the cementing apparatus, though I blundered dreadfully about the cement glands—and lastly I proved the existence in certain genera of minute males complemental to and parasitic on the hermaphrodites. This latter discovery has at last been fully confirmed; though at one time a German writer was pleased to attribute the whole account to my fertile imagination. The Cirripedes form a highly varying and difficult group of species to class; and my work was of considerable use to me, when I had to discuss in the Origin of Species the principles of a natural classification. Nevertheless, I doubt whether the work was worth the consumption of so much time.

Darwin then in September 1854 moved on “to arranging my huge pile of notes, to observing, and experimenting, in relation to the transmutation of species.” One such series of experiments were on the germination ability of various seeds after their immersion of saltwater, for Darwin desired to know how plants could disperse across oceans to islands. Like the barnacles, this work was also crucial for On the Origin of Species, in the chapters on geographical distribution. Studying seeds in 1855, however, was no more exciting for Darwin than barnacles. He complained in a letter to his cousin Fox: “Seeds will sink in salt-water – all of nature is perverse & will not do as I wish it, & just at present I wish I had the old Barnacles to work at & nothing new.” To Hooker he called them “horrid seeds” and “ungrateful rascals.” Darwin tired of the whole process. “Thanks, also, for your little note with all the terrible wishes about the seeds,” he wrote to a skeptical Hooker, “in which I almost join for I begin to think they are immortal & that the seed job will be another Barnacle job.” Again, Darwin’s work became a family affair, for the children asked their father if he “should beat Dr. Hooker?!!”

Darwin worked tirelessly in his home outside of London. Down House became a “country house” laboratory for his scientific endeavors, and he utilized many areas of the house and its grounds for his experiments. Yet while he worked away on his “one long argument,” all he really wanted to do was get outside. To the entomologist John Lubbock, also Darwin’s neighbor, he wrote in 1854:

I do not know whether you care about Beetles, but for the chance I send this in a Bottle, which, I never remember having seen, though it is excessively rash to speak from a 26 year old remembrance. Whenever we meet you can tell me whether you know it.—

… I feel like an old war-horse at the sound of the trumpet, when I read about the capturing of rare beetles— is not this a magnanimous simile for a decayed entomologist. It really almost makes me long to begin collecting again.

Darwin’s move to Downe marked an event in his life that had lasting influence. This transition in physical location mirrors the transition, although in an opposite direction, of his work from stationary barnacles to mobile seeds. Darwin biographers Adrian Desmond and James Moore suggested in Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist (1992, p. 232) that thinking about transoceanic dispersal in the seed experiments allowed a solitary and confined Darwin to travel once more. “Thinking about blue seas took him back to the voyage,” they wrote. “During those years island-hopping himself, he would have given his right arm to be home. Now he was dreaming himself back to the sea again.” We return to Carson’s passage about dispersal in The Sea Around Us, and we can envision Darwin imaging himself as one of those plants “drifting on the currents” or an animal “rafting in on logs.” It seems daydreams sailing upon seeds were not enough to satiate a shut-in naturalist.

Caricature of Darwin by fellow beetle collecter Albert Way (from the Darwin Correspondence Project website: By permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library. Copyright CUL)

Darwin continued to reminisce about beetle-collecting. To Charles Lyell’s sister-in-law, Katharine, Darwin wrote in 1856: “With respect to giving your children a taste for Natural History, I will venture one remark, viz that giving them specimens, in my opinion, would tend to destroy such taste. Youngsters must be themselves collectors to acquire a taste; & if I had a collection of English Lepidoptera, I would be systematically most miserly & not give my Boys half-a-dozen butterflies in the year. Your eldest Boy has the brow of an observer, if there be the least truth in phrenology.” If he could not go back to collecting, he surely encouraged others to. In 1858, he shared with Fox, “I am reminded of old days by my third Boy having just begun collecting Beetles, & he caught the other day Brachinus crepitans of immotal Whittlesea-mere memory.— My blood boiled with old ardour, when he caught a Licinus,—a prize unknown to me.” To his caricaturist Way, in 1860: “It is a very long time since we met.— Eheu Eheu, the old Crux Major days are long past. I sincerely hope that you are well in health.” And finally, in 1862 Darwin wrote to Fox: “About two years ago I stumbled at Down on a Panagæus crux major: how it brought back to my mind Cambridge days! You did me a great service in making me an entomologist: I really hardly know anything in this life that I have more enjoyed that our beetle-hunting expeditions; Prince Albert told Lyell, that he looked back with more pleasure to collecting insects, than he had ever found in stag-shooting.”

Texas Trip Day 2

So happy that my son is curious and willing to pick things up!

PLAY AGAIN

[Cross-posted from Exploring Portland’s Natural Areas]

On Friday night Patrick and I headed to the Multnomah Arts Center in Portland for a free screening of the documentary PLAY AGAIN. Here’s a description:

One generation from now most people in the U.S. will have spent more time in the virtual world than in nature. New media technologies have improved our lives in countless ways. Information now appears with a click. Overseas friends are part of our daily lives. And even grandma loves Wii.

But what are we missing when we are behind screens? And how will this impact our children, our society, and eventually, our planet?

At a time when children play more behind screens than outside, PLAY AGAIN explores the changing balance between the virtual and natural worlds. Is our connection to nature disappearing down the digital rabbit hole?

This moving and humorous documentary follows six teenagers who, like the “average American child,” spend five to fifteen hours a day behind screens. PLAY AGAIN unplugs these teens and takes them on their first wilderness adventure – no electricity, no cell phone coverage, no virtual reality.

Through the voices of children and leading experts including journalist Richard Louv, sociologist Juliet Schor, environmental writer Bill McKibben, educators Diane Levin and Nancy Carlsson-Paige, neuroscientist Gary Small, parks advocate Charles Jordan, and geneticist David Suzuki, PLAY AGAIN investigates the consequences of a childhood removed from nature and encourages action for a sustainable future.

I really enjoyed the film, and the different personalities of the six Portland-based teenagers and their various reactions to being outside. They were taken into wilderness by TrackersPDX, a wilderness survival education group in Portland. While the teenagers learned to construct their own bows and arrows, I felt something was lacking in the film: a general sense of wonder about nature. In order to connect our youth with nature, to get themselves away from their televisions, computers, and various hand-held devices, must they learn to be, as TrackersPDX classifies, Rangers, Wilders, Mariners, and Artisans? I believe connecting to nature is fulfilled by the simple act of being in nature, by observing landscapes and wildlife and flowers and rivers, and the interactions between it all. If students want to learn how to survive in the wild, that’s okay, but I think the first start to moving away from screens is by showing children the inherent awesomeness of nature.

That said, the film is great, and there are some nice thoughts from Louv, McKibben, and Suzuki about the larger picture. How can we expect our children growing up now and children-to-be to make crucial decisions about their world if they have never had any experiences in nature. From the film: “What they do not know, they will not protect and what they do not protect they will lose” (Charles Jordan, previous Portland Parks and Recreation Director).

I wish I had the money to buy a copy of the film they had there.

Producer Meg Merrill was on hand at the screening, as were two of the teenagers. Some photos:

Play Again producer Meg Merrill

Play Again producer Meg Merrill

Play Again producer Meg Merrill and teenagers from the film

Play Again producer Meg Merrill and teenagers from the film

Play Again poster

Play Again poster

Patrick on stage at the Multnomah Arts Center

Patrick on stage at the Multnomah Arts Center

Teenagers from Play Again film talk to viewers

Teenagers from Play Again film talk to viewers

I encourage you to peruse the film’s website, Facebook page, and here’s the trailer:

Further clips from the film (some not in final version):

Some local media:
Moms’ film counters nature-deficit disorder Moms make work of play, nature in film
New documentary ‘Play Again’ unplugs six Portland-area teens
‘Play Again’ returns to Portland roots with environmental cause