Evolution for Kids

Please don’t tell anyone, but I bought my granddaughter, Alex, a new book for her tenth birthday. Her birthday is in April, so that gave me plenty of time to read the book - and what a splendid book it is!

The book in question is Darwin and Evolution for Kids: His Life and Ideas, by Kristan Lawson (Chicago Review Press, 2003, 144 pp., $16.95).

It is a well-formatted book, printed in two colors. The bulk of the printing is brown, so the wonderful old photographs and engravings appear almost sepia. The 21 activities are printed on a light-green background. At least few of the activities could well inspire science fair projects among the 9-and-up set for whom the book is intended.

Lawson occasionally defines a term for her younger readers, but she never talks down to her audience. Indeed, I am several times 9 years old, and I found the book very much to my liking and not too simple for a technical writer whose model is Hemingway.

I recently made a pilgrimage, so to speak, to the Galápagos, and some of my fellow travelers were surprised at how an Anglican priest could visit there for a short time and suddenly develop the theory of evolution. Lawson puts Darwin’s life into better perspective, and we realize that Darwin’s formal education was not half as important as, for example, his apprenticeship with Henslow, his taxidermy lessons with Edmonstone, and his hobby of collecting beetles. Further, Lawson makes clear that the theory of evolution had historical antecedents. Darwin did not invent the concept of descent with modification but rather discovered the mechanism now called survival of the fittest. Finally, the theory did not just spring from Darwin’s head while he was in the Galápagos; he spent decades mulling over his observations and verifying his hypotheses.

My only quibble with the biographical sections is that they did not fully describe Darwin the man, as opposed to Darwin the scientist. Thus, we know that Darwin was afraid of controversy and consequently afraid to speak in public - but what was he like to his friends and family? I also have some doubt that the younger Darwin was the hypochondriac Lawson makes him out to be; I suspect he was really sick (though I admit he could have been both).

The last chapters discuss the theory of evolution in detail. I am not a biologist or even a lawyer, but I thought that those chapters were clear and, as far as I can tell, accurate. They cover not just Darwin’s theory, but also genetics, the modern synthesis, genetic drift, and sexual selection. I thought Lawson was possibly a bit too deferential toward social Darwinism, which is not a “controversial philosophy” but rather a pernicious doctrine used in various guises to maintain a rich upperclass and a poor underclass. On the other hand, she does not pussyfoot around creationism but states clearly that evolution is universally accepted among scientists and that only “misinformed nonscientists … insist that evolution does not exist at all.”

If you have 10-year-old grandchild or if you do not, run out and buy this book, and read it cover to cover. You won’t be sorry.