Last year was the 150th anniversary celebration of the publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species (and the 200th anniversary of his birth), with lots of hoopla in the form of academic conferences, museum exhibits, magazine essays, and the like. A little-noticed side phenomenon in academia was a surge in the publication of children's books on Darwin, especially picture books for kids in the 6-12 age range. As an historian of science with a special interest in science and popular culture, including children's literature (and who had recently taught a class on science and biography in which I made sure to include children's science biographies) I was curious about what I'd find by taking a look through some of these recent books, especially as "Darwin" and "controversy" is such an unyielding theme in American popular culture.
But I was interested for a more personal reason as well: in 2008 I'd begun to pull together a "home school" program on evolution for my daughter (who was seven going on eight), because she wasn't satisfied that she understood how life changed over time just by knowing that there were different kinds of pre-historic fossils and that dinosaurs had disappeared at some point -- she wanted to know more about how it actually worked. (We spend a lot of time in our house on "how things work," mostly when we come across various contemporary artifacts that have been taken apart in order for a certain someone to get a good "grasp" of the innards. It reminds me of what a young James Clerk Maxwell was supposed to have gone around demanding of elders who trafficked in vague and unsatisfactory explanations -- "yes, but what's the particular go of it?") The adventure of putting together what she calls "mommy science" goes into a future blog post, but in this one and the next I want to take up the question of the Darwin picture books as contributions to kids' informal science education.
The most striking dimension of the books is how so many of them are focused on Darwin's voyage as the core for the text and pictures. In some ways this must have been an overdetermined choice: a worldwide voyage has built-in appeal in terms of drama and plenty of room for the "exotic" to be on display as an attention-grabber; Darwin himself left behind an account of the voyage that has been popular since the 19th century, along with notebooks that allow the children's stories therefore to have the literal voice of the scientist inscribed within them for authenticity; and Darwin's role as naturalist on the voyage allows for a presentation that draws on familiar genres such as the nature documentary, animal tales, and picturing the globe as a patchwork of ecological habitats (not to mention resonances to more commercially-oriented fare such as Pirates of the Caribbean and the Rainforest Cafe). As an entry into the marketplace, using the voyage as the focal point for books on Darwin hits the educational/entertainment marketing sweet spot.
What I most appreciated about the voyage books in general were the opportunities for beautiful, sometimes inspired illustrations -- the merging of science and art makes for a wonderful partnership in presenting both, and allows for each to become something more complex and enticing than each alone. Because I wish there was more attention to the visual imagination in introducing children to science, this aspect of the Darwin cache was a delight. Even a book that had a more cartoon-like/graphic novel tone that didn't generally appeal to me visually still had some striking images that did, such as a vividly blue iguana dominating the title page or an almost psychedelic drawing of "The Tree of Life" in all its wildly branching forms (What Darwin Saw: The Journey that Changed the World, by Rosalyn Schanzer as author and illustrator -- the link to the book includes both images on the website, just scroll down). In general, the books' illustrations tend to the slapstick-y more often than not (with varying levels of pulling it off), but the variety of visual approaches is a treat, from the "ye old wood-engraving" style of Alice McGinty's Darwin (illustrated by Mary Azarian in jewel-like hues) to the mid-tone pastels of the impressionistic What Mr. Darwin Saw (text and pix by Mick Manning and Brita Granstrom) to the mixed-media collages that pop off the page of One Beetle Too Many by Kathryn Lasky, with illustrations by Matthew Trueman. In fact, in my science and biography class, we had a lively discussion of what might happen if the visual freedoms of children's picture book biographies infiltrated the adult book market (for some sense of the possibilities, the stunning and thought-provoking examples of biographies as art in the graphic mode of G.T Labs' "true science comics" are stand-outs, such as Suspended in Language: Niels Bohr's Life, Discoveries and the Century He Shaped, and my favorite of the bunch, Fallout: J. Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard, and the Political Science of the Atomic Bomb. And, yes, I've assigned both of these at one time or another as texts in my history of science survey courses.)
But the examples mentioned above don't exhaust the number of entries in the "voyage that changed the world" category. Others were even more elaborate, kitted up as "travel albums," really going to town with the 19th-century naval adventure "life at sea" theme, such as Charles Darwin and the Beagle Adventure by A.J. Wood and Clint Twist (with hefty boards and little pockets and envelopes inside with pull-out memoranda, photographs, and such) and Lifelines: Charles Darwin by Alan Gibbons and illustrated by Leo Brown, which uses the conceit of a ship's cabin boy observing the scientist and diarying his observations (the cover features a brilliant blue butterfly "specimen" under a half-globe of plastic surrounded by a compass rose to inaugurate the field collecting vibe.) And there are still others as well -- and after working my way through maybe one voyage too many, I began to have my doubts about the approach. The multi-layered cleverness of using the voyage as the focus began to seem to have another contributory current as well: with "the voyage" as the overarching frame, the potentially discomfiting aspects of the historical narrative regarding evolution are displaced by the focus on Darwin before he was an evolutionist -- with the evolutionary "aftermath" rendered literally as a textual aftermath.
Focusing on the voyage seemed to diminish an introduction to evolution in two key ways. First off, the evolutionary ideas that result from the voyage get nowhere near the same interesting treatment in the books as does the voyage itself, being relegated to the final pages (if covered much at all), and thus one curiously gets books on this score that allow you a kind of "safe" look at Darwin, because it is the joy of collecting oddities of nature and experiencing globe-trotting adventures (silly sailor pranks crossing the equator! earthquakes! volcanoes! painted natives! huge fossil deposits! gauchos on the Pampas!) that are front and center, rather than the evolutionary theories that Darwin and others will develop. And here, the emphasis on the sesquicentennial of the Origin itself encourages a truncated view, as Darwin says next to nothing about human evolution in the Origin, and it is in his later works -- which appear amidst a community of inquiry on evolution -- that you see him take on more controversial ramifications of "Darwinism" (which, of course, in and of itself, does not exhaust approaches to evolution in his own time period). The voyage theme elicits a child-safe book that enfolds evolution into a comforting Victorian patina of wonder at wild nature, with the difficult bits shoe-horned in later.
Secondly, by emphasizing the voyage as an empirical scrapbook setpieces /powerpoint slide presentation as instantiating how Darwin became the "discoverer" of evolution, a somewhat reductionist argument is embedded in the text, but especially in the pictures: that Nature displayed itself to Darwin, he saw and recorded, and evolutionary theory was revealed. (This is especially underwritten by how the visit to the Galapagos becomes the culmination of Darwin's intellectual journey, a kind of quest in which he has been tested and in the process increasingly honed his mind and body into a receptive vessel in which to receive the truth that the hand of Nature -- as we "know" with hindsight -- lays out before him on his pilgrim's progress.) Thus, evolutionary theory was there "in Nature" all the time, simply hidden from view by the tangled vines of the south American interior, and by the blindness of the scientific community prior to Darwin's voyage, and by the obscurantist haze cast by "Christians" ( . . . and how religion and science is understood in the books tends only to exacerbate misconceptions about their relationship in this time period).
It is true that the books usually note that many years of study and hard work followed Darwin's voyage, and they may even present little capsules about some of the other scientists from the time -- although Alfred Wallace, whose own voyage of discovery as the co-discoverer of evolution by natural selection could make up an interesting parallel in the books, usually only appears as a deus ex machina to get the Origin published, which is especially frustrating since "voyage" is the governing concept for the books and hence to bring in Wallace would seem to offer an intriguing point of comparison. But if you take the books on their own terms in regard to what the bulk of the pages feature and how they build to a crescendo -- and in what gets most intently presented in textual and visual form -- it is the voyage itself that matters most of all, not the later years. It is on his voyage that Darwin encountered nature's truth in its raw, self-evident essence, where the evolutionary facts are in plain view. They may need further consideration, but in the end, the scientific word is written on the rocks.
This isn't a perspective on the history of science with which I'm particularly comfortable, as it draws a veil over the hard work of how scientific knowledge emerges, is debated, and then rendered authoritative in a dynamic interplay along many dimensions. And it does, again, tend to make for a "safe" presentation of Darwin and science, rehabilitating him, perhaps, from invidious perspectives that have convinced many that the word "Darwin" is synonymous with hidden agendas that aim to hijack scientific thought for the purpose of destroying faith in God on dishonest pretenses. A depiction of a robust and engagingly curious young Charles who is almost a blank slate, aside from his fondness for beetles -- indeed, who is an orthodox believer at the start of the voyage -- as an alert conduit for Nature's empirical truth is hard to square with a vision of a sinister and conniving Darwin out to dupe the devout as the devil's chaplain. There's an undertone of scientific apotheosis that I'm not eager to pass along with lessons on evolution if that's what comes along with a child's-eye view of Charles Darwin.
My own reservations aside, I let my daughter rummage through the books and what she seemed to notice most was just the sheer bulk and repetitiveness of representations of Darwin and the voyage, Darwin being a relatively new name for her and his voyage as well: clearly here was something that mattered to adults, if it was repeated over and over for kids! One day, however, I came across an unfinished image she created in her computer art program, titled "discover with Mr.Darwin." Interestingly, it was not the young Darwin, and it didn't come with a portrayal of ships and adventure, or the wild and exotic. Instead, a disembodied Darwin, his long white bearded face aloft in the sky just under a smiling sun (although with the beard blending into the grassy expanse below), is introducing himself by name to a rather large bluebird in a tree, eye-to-eye, in a perfectly ordinary neighborhood setting.
It seems as if it was another Darwin that she took to heart and made her own, from an alternate set of children's Darwin picture books than those above. These were books that took a different tack, one significant aspect being that they threw off the overwhelming "a boys' Darwin" tone that tended to be embedded within these voyage books, with their affection for nautical hi-jinks and male bonding and the idea of Charles as a salty adventurer. They brought, if you will, a differently gendered Darwin into view, one which was made possible by taking liberties with the historical conventions so dutifully enacted in most of the picture books. And they -- Peter Sis' The Tree of Life, Anne Weaver's The Voyage of the Beetle, and Deborah Hopkinson's The Humblebee Hunter -- deserve a blog post of their own.
For more: For a short description of an undergrad book exhibit we put together at OU in the History of Science Collections, see The Children's Darwin. For reviews and notes on children's books about Darwin (especially around the recent anniversary-related publishing surge), see: School Library Journal Reviews; Bookslut; Children's Literature; the Dispersal of Darwin blog (the link matches up with a search for "children's books" on the site, so be sure to scroll all the way down to see everything), and the pdf list compiled at Charlie's Playhouse.