Evolution for children and other animals

It is difficult to make evolution easily comprehensible. Far too many believe that they know what they are talking about. They rarely do. That is made obvious by the numerous myths and misunderstandings relating both to Darwin and the theory of evolution. The fact is that all modern science is difficult to comprehend without extensive specialist knowledge. This is also true of the theory of evolution.

The theory of evolution is difficult to understand

If you want to understand evolution today, it is necessary to have a fundamental knowledge of modern genetics, geology, palaeontology, physiology, climate conditions etc. Darwin’s original theory is often perceived as easily comprehensible. The principles are simple and they correlate with observations as well as experiments. They did so 150 years ago and they do so today. That is part of the reason why Darwin’s theory is a good scientific theory. But even back then, it required a specialised scientific knowledge to document, demonstrate, and argue ancestral relations, dating, connections, distribution, extinction, survival, and of course evolution.

It is difficult enough to understand Darwin and his peers. During the last 150 years, science has not become any more easily accessible. As any other scientific theory, the theory of evolution has of course also evolved. For us as parents, it means that we are faced with a huge challenge. How do we explain evolution to our children?

Fortunately someone can

Robert Winston can. He is one of the most well-known scientific faces in Great Britain and he has recently published the illustrated book Evolution Revolution: From Darwin to DNA. Here everything moves quickly. Filled with a cheerful mood, funny stories, beautiful images, profound knowledge, and an ebullient energy, we get an entertaining and educational rollercoaster ride through the theory of evolution that lasts over 100 pages. It covers (almost) everything.

Lord Winston is a better communicator of science than he is a historian. But that suits the topic quite perfectly. Evolution becomes relevant, present, important, and comprehensible. That is an amazing achievement – and you could not have picked a better person to steer the ship. Winston has never shied away from communicating his extensive scientific knowledge and voicing his opinions on controversial subjects such as artificial insemination. This is also the case with regards to evolution. I met him at a Science Soirée at the Royal Society of London. Sharp, witty, and knowledgeable, he talked more convincingly than anyone I have ever met about the significance of us as scientists kicking the doors of the scientific world wide open. Science thrives on enthusiasm. The children should be allowed to experience that.

Fantastic book on Darwin in Danish

When you have figured out the essentials of evolution and wish to learn more about Darwin, what do you do then? Here, Danish readers are in luck. With Livets Træ (The Tree of Life), children’s author and illustrator Peter Sís has created a gem of a book. It is so enchantingly and well narrated through text and illustrations that it almost comes across as a mosaic of Darwin or maybe more accurately a journey of discovery of oneself, and you are drawn in already from looking at the cover. 

Amazingly, it is still the best book about Darwin available in Danish. Here are many exciting hours of reading in good company where everyone learns something – children, parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, educators, friends, and other animals, all sitting on our branch in the tree of life.

Historical documents

If this has sparked an interest and jumpstarted your thirst for knowledge about evolution and the archives of the Cambridge University Library are not easily available to you, you can have fun exploring John van Wyhe’s Charles Darwin: The Man and his Theories of Evolution. It is more of a treasure trove than a book. Filled with impressive and exciting reproductions of a number of essential Darwin-documents, the book invites you on a very special and personal journey of the archives of Darwin’s life and thoughts. In fact, the reproductions are so well done that it is impossible not to lose yourself in them – even for someone who has held the original documents from the archives in their hands.

Here, you can see notes from diaries, pages from manuscripts, and even an invitation to Darwin’s funeral. You can also unfold the legendary, crumpled up piece of paper on which Darwin listed the pros and cons of getting married. Clearly, it was not an easy decision to make and it is amusing to see how Darwin in all aspects of his life proceeded scientifically and methodically. However, he did end up deciding to propose to his cousin Emma. He concluded that after all, a wife was better that a dog.

Peter C. Kjærgaard

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