Teaching the Next Generation

(March 11th, 2014) The best stories are written by life, as they say. A group of evolutionary biologists, thus, gathered to think up a book explaining evolution to children. Through crowdfunding platform, Kickstarter, they now collected enough money to publish it.

There’s no shortage of children’s books with magical animals and enchanted powers. However, real animals and plants can be even more amazing and fascinating than fictional characters. This is exactly what a group of renowned scientists and talented illustrators is trying to show with a series of short stories about biology and evolution. The project is called ‘Great Adaptations’ and, according to the authors, it’s as if Dr Seuss met Darwin and wrote a book!

‘Great Adaptations’ was originally the brainchild of book producer Robert Kadar. In his search for the best writer, he “discovered” evolutionary biologist by day and children’s book author by night, Tiffany Taylor from the University of Reading, UK. Kadar’s idea was to develop a series of short stories to explain evolutionary changes in child-friendly terms. “When he described the idea behind the project I thought it sounded fantastic,” said Taylor. “The reason I wrote my first children’s book on evolution was because I didn’t like the way evolution was taught in schools, introduced very late as a side to biology, and dropped very quickly. Evolution underlies all biology. Understanding how and why things evolve is crucial if you hope to understand our world,” said Taylor. “It was Dobzhansky that said ‘nothing in biology makes sense, except in the light of evolution’, and I couldn’t agree more.”

The duo decided each story would be written in close collaboration with scientists in each particular field and illustrated by a science-keen artist. To find such talent, the team was completed with a second evolutionary biologist, David Wilson from Binghamton University. According to the “recruiter”, finding participants was an easy task. “Everyone was charmed by the idea,” he said.

Crucially, one of the first illustrators engaged in this project, Zach Weinersmith – coincidentally, his wife is an evolutionary biologist and one of the scientists also involved in the project - introduced the team to Breadpig, a self-entitled sidekick-for-hire. This company specialises in crowdfunding and was enormously helpful in finding additional artists and mounting a Kickstarter campaign.

In fact, the authors could not have wished for a better result for their project. Not only have they reached their $25,000 goal ahead of time, but they’re now on the way to reach $50,000 with 3 days still to go. Thanks to this support, “We are nearly done with the writing and illustrations, and the estimated time to completion is October 2014,” said Taylor.

Above all, the authors want to get children excited and enthusiastic about evolution and science. Evolutionary biology is often seen as a complex subject but, as Taylor explained, the “basics are easy and logical, making it easy enough for kids to understand. We believe in ‘Great Adaptations’ as an effective and, most importantly, fun way to get kids asking questions about the world they live in.”

One of the invited scientists, evolutionary ornithologist Niels Dingemanse from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen, Germany, also agreed. “Science communication is important and the earlier children get interested in science, the better.” The bird specialist is involved in a story about how birds rely on different personalities to thrive as a species: more adventurous birds are able to find the best food resources, but it’s up to the more cautious ones to stay at home and raise the chicks. Other stories include, for example, how crows’ natural curiosity makes them so successful in an urban environment and how partnerships between single-cell organisms and sea creatures have developed to be beneficial to both.

At the moment, the future of ‘Great Adaptations’ is looking bright. “The support for this book has been amazing,” said Taylor. “We are hoping ‘Great Adaptations’ is a success and we can write more. I will keep writing until someone tells me to stop.” Wilson echoed this wish. “‘Great Adaptations’ is a natural for a series of books. After all, we’ll never run out of great adaptations to feature.”

Alex Reis

Picture: Illustration for "The Mystery of the Vanishing Killifish", by Zach Weinersmith

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