Darwin and Evolution for Kids: His Life and Ideas with 21 Activities

Darwin and Evolution for Kids: His Life and Ideas with 21 Activities

by Kristan Lawson


View All Available Formats & Editions
Members save with free shipping everyday! 
See details


Darwin and Evolution for Kids traces the transformation of a privileged and somewhat scatterbrained youth into the great thinker who proposed the revolutionary theory of evolution. Through 21 hands-on activities, young scientists learn about Darwin’s life and work and assess current evidence of evolution. Activities include going on a botanical treasure hunt, keeping field notes as a backyard naturalist, and tying knots for ship sails like those on the HMS Beagle. Children also learn how fossils are created, trace genetic traits through their family trees, and discover if acquired traits are passed along to future generations. By encouraging children, parents, and teachers to define the differences between theories and beliefs, facts and opinions, Darwin and Evolution for Kids does not shy away from a theory that continues to spark heated public debate more than a century after it was first proposed.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781556525025
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 10/01/2003
Series: Chicago Review Press For Kids Series
Edition description: ACTIVITY
Pages: 160
Sales rank: 626,825
Product dimensions: 11.00(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.30(d)
Lexile: 1060L (what's this?)
Age Range: 9 - 12 Years

About the Author

Kristan Lawson is the author of California Babylon, Weird Europe, and The Rules of Speed Chess.

Read an Excerpt

Darwin and Evolution for Kids

His Life and Ideas with 21 Activities

By Kristan Lawson

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2003 Kristan Lawson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61374-041-5


Before Darwin

This is not just the story of a man. It's also the story of an idea that changed the world.

Charles Darwin is as unlikely a hero as you'll ever meet. He spent almost half his life sick in bed — or at least pretending to be sick. He was a bad student and barely made it through school. He authored several famous books but found writing a painful chore and struggled to express himself with words. He had terrible stage fright and couldn't defend his work in public. Though he sailed around the world, he would immediately get seasick whenever he stepped onto a boat. Despite being considered one of the greatest thinkers who ever lived, he was unable to control his own thoughts or emotions: he drove himself to distraction obsessing over unimportant details, and was often in a foul mood. He was filled with fear — of disease, of dying, and, worst of all, of rejection.

What a strange man! Why is he so famous? Underneath all these personality quirks was a reluctant genius. Although he didn't realize it, his whole life was spent creating and polishing one of the most important ideas in history. Nowadays, we use a single word to sum up this earth-shattering concept: evolution. But amazingly, Darwin himself never used this term to describe his theory. He preferred the more accurate (though harder to remember) phrase transmutation through natural selection. Yet even this term (which will be defined later) fails to convey the universe of ideas hidden within it.

Darwin was trying to explain where all the animals and plants in the world had come from. But in so doing he accidentally revealed one of the underlying principles of the universe. Evolution, it turned out, was not just about animals; it happens all around us, every day. We've slowly come to realize that almost everything evolves: languages, galaxies, fashions, ecosystems, ideas, relationships, diseases, cultures, and much more. Even the theory of evolution has itself evolved! Yet Darwin could never have predicted how far-reaching his ideas would someday turn out to be. He was only trying to figure out why the birds he saw on an obscure group of islands had different-sized beaks.

Evolution Before Darwin

Charles Darwin was not the first person to discover the concept of evolution. It had been around for centuries. He did not even invent the principle of natural selection. Darwin's unique achievement was to be the first person who brought these two ideas together into a single theory and to present overwhelming evidence of its truth.

Before Darwin, the vast majority of people in the world never gave a thought to the origin of animal species. They assumed that animals had looked and acted the same way forever. A cat was a cat, a pig was a pig. It was common sense. After all, no one had ever seen one kind of animal changing into another. Besides, the Bible says that God created all the animals long ago, and most people believed the Bible is always right. But as far back as ancient Greece, deep-thinking philosophers had speculated that evolution — or the changing of one species into another — must occur. What no one before Darwin had ever figured out was how it occurred.

Around 450 B.C. a Greek philosopher named Empedocles wrote that animals of every type had evolved from plants, but that most of them never survived. If they had features that did not enable them to eat and reproduce, then they would naturally die out. That is why, he reasoned, we only see well-adapted animals; the ill-adapted animals all went extinct. Amazingly, this idea from ancient times was very close to the concept of natural selection that Darwin developed 2,300 years later. Unfortunately, few people ever learned of Empedocles' ideas.

Aristotle, the famous Greek philosopher from the fourth century B.C., believed that certain types of animals were more advanced than others. He was the first person to create a taxonomy, or classification of life forms. He taught that all of life could be organized into a "Ladder of Creation." Bugs and snakes were the lowest because they crawled on the ground. Humankind was the highest because of its powerful minds. This way of looking at the world was very influential, and in Darwin's era most people agreed with Aristotle that human beings were "more advanced" or better than the "lower animals."

Many other ancient philosophers, such as Democritus and Anaximander, also promoted evolutionary ideas in their writings. They believed the world and everything in it had slowly evolved from nothingness and was constantly changing.

This period of intellectual freedom was not to last. During the Dark Ages and Middle Ages in Europe (about 400–1400 A.D.), the Catholic Church reigned supreme, and belief in the literal truth of the Bible was enforced by law. Evolutionary thinking disappeared entirely. The ancient philosophers were forgotten. The common belief was that God had created all animals on the fifth and sixth days of Creation, as described in the Book of Genesis. After that, God's job was done, and nothing new has ever come into the world. Therefore, all types of animals have existed since the beginning of time. Any other belief was considered heresy, a crime punishable by death.

The Rise of Science

During the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment (15th–18th centuries), people become more open-minded and the Catholic Church gradually became less influential. Scientific discoveries — such as the fact that the Earth revolved around the sun — showed that the Bible isn't always literally true. So, at this time, people began to regard the Bible mostly as a moral guide instead of a source of historical or scientific information. The change in the intellectual climate was slow and gradual, however. In England, the Anglican Church was still very conservative.

Many scientists tried to present their discoveries in a way that wouldn't offend the church. The concept of "Special Creation" was one attempt to merge new discoveries with church doctrine. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, more and more animals, plants, and fossils were being discovered by explorers all over the world. People began to wonder: Did God really create these thousands of species all across the globe all at the same time? What about the fossil record? New animals appear in certain layers, and old ones disappear. Where did they come from if God didn't make them on the fifth and sixth days of Creation?

The answer was a compromise called Special Creation. Each new species was indeed created by God, but not necessarily at the beginning of time. Every now and then, according to this approach, God created new animals and plants in acts of "Special Creation" that took place after the incidents described in the Book of Genesis. This would explain the origins of species that seem to have appeared fairly recently. But once species are created, people said, they always stay the same, the way God made them.

The doctrine of Special Creation satisfied nearly everyone. The explorers, natural historians, paleontologists, and scientists could continue their advances without worrying that some new discovery would contradict Christian belief. And the church was happy to confirm that everything on Earth was still indeed created directly by God.

By the late 1700s, a new push for evolution emerged, however. The leading proponents were Erasmus Darwin (Charles's grandfather) and Jean Baptiste Lamarck. They both proposed a concept now known as "the inheritance of acquired characteristics." Lamarck, who was a professor of zoology at the Museum of Natural History in Paris, knew more about animals than almost anyone in the world at the time. Noticing the many striking similarities between species, he became convinced that they were related to each other, and that evolution was the only way to explain the connections. He was right about that. Yet he was unsure what caused evolution. Like Erasmus Darwin, he proposed that animals changed their forms either through willpower or through being influenced by the environment. Then when these altered animals had offspring, their babies inherited these new characteristics. Lamarck gave a famous example: a giraffe would stretch its neck to reach the tastiest leaves at the top of a tree. After a while its neck would grow longer. Then when it gave birth to baby giraffes, they too would inherit longer necks from their mother. (Try the "Acquired Characteristics" activity in Chapter 2 to see if he was right or not!)

The problem with this theory is that no one had ever seen it happen, and there was no evidence it ever occurred in nature. There was evidence against it. Critics pointed out that blacksmiths, who had developed strong arm muscles from pounding iron, still fathered children with normal-sized arms, like those of any average baby. A woman who had a finger chopped off would still give birth to a child with 10 fingers. As far as anyone could tell, characteristics acquired during people's lifetimes were not passed on to their offspring.

A Divine Watchmaker

Another blow to evolution arrived in 1802. An influential clergyman named William Paley published an interesting argument: If you were to find a stone on the ground and someone asked you, "Where did that stone come from?" you might answer, "It's probably been here forever." But if you were to find a watch on the ground, and someone asked you the same question, you'd have to stop and think. The watch has hundreds of tiny gears and springs and dials, and is so finely made that it couldn't have just appeared randomly on the ground or somehow magically assembled itself out of natural materials. The watch was obviously designed and made by someone — a watchmaker, presumably. Now, Reverend Paley went on to argue, look at all the animals of the world. They are much more complicated than a watch. Wings and veins and brains and muscles and cells and bones, all working together in perfect harmony. It seems impossible that such a thing might arise by chance, at random, without a plan. If the existence of a watch implied the existence of a designer, Paley said, then something more complicated than a watch — the anatomy of any animal — implied the existence of a designer even more. As Paley put it, "Design must have had a designer. That designer must have been a person. That person is God." In other words, something as random and purposeless and unintelligent as nature could never have accidentally created something as intricate and interconnected and "perfect" as a living body — especially a human being.

Many were convinced by Paley's argument. It just didn't seem possible that evolution (i.e., the blind forces of nature) could have led to the immensely complicated life-forms all around us.

And this is about how things stood when Charles Darwin was born in 1809. The argument over evolution continued, but the people who believed in Creation (or Special Creation) and in Paley's "Divine Watchmaker" theory had the upper hand. Why? Because no one had yet come up with a convincing explanation for how evolution occurred. Until the evolutionists could discover what principle caused species to change, evolution would remain pure speculation. The idea was interesting to a few, funny to some. But to most people it was a dangerous notion that contradicted the Bible. Evolution still faced a tough road ahead.

Darwin's England

Charles Darwin was born in 1809 and died 73 years later, in 1882. The era in which he lived — 19th-century England — was quite different from the modern world.

Most of the inventions now taken for granted did not yet exist. There were no airplanes, automobiles, telephones, computers, lightbulbs, televisions, refrigerators, radios, or thousands of other devices used every day. To communicate with their friends, people wrote letters. To travel long distances, they sailed in ships over the ocean. To travel short distances, most people either walked or rode in horse-drawn carriages. All household chores had to be done by hand. Most homes did not have any indoor plumbing or running water, and none had electric outlets or any electrical appliances.

But the world was beginning to change. Shortly before Darwin was born, between 1760 and 1790, England entered into a period of history now known as the Industrial Revolution. This revolution was not a war like the American Revolution or a political upheaval like the French Revolution. It was instead a rapid series of technological and engineering advances that altered how people lived their day-to-day lives.

Steam engines were invented to power machines that could do as much work in an hour as a man could do in a whole day. Iron was used to build bridges and railroads for the first time. Factories sprouted like mushrooms in a landscape that was once entirely covered by farms and forests. Men flocked to the factories to find work, leaving their farms behind. Factory towns grew into cities, and cities grew into huge urban areas. People believed that machines would make England more prosperous and powerful.

In earlier centuries, English society had been sharply divided. At the top were fabulously wealthy aristocrats. At the bottom were the peasants, who were poor, hungry, and downtrodden. There wasn't much aside from these rich and poor social classes. But the Industrial Revolution was changing all that. New classes were arising. Rural peasants became urban factory workers. Middle-class tradesmen made money buying and selling. Highly educated professionals such as doctors, engineers, and lawyers used their skills and expertise to climb high up the social ladder. There were still aristocrats and peasants, of course, but throughout the Industrial Revolution the new middle classes were rapidly growing in size and importance.

These changes also brought problems. Cities became crowded, dirty, and poverty-stricken. The poor were still poor — they just had different jobs, in uglier surroundings. There were not yet any rules or laws about how much workers should be paid or how they should be treated. As a result, workers were often paid as little as possible for working long hours under dangerous conditions. They started to complain, demanding higher wages and more rights. Meanwhile, starving people wanted handouts from the government. The upper classes felt that feeding the poor didn't solve poverty; it only created more poor people in the long run. These social crises frequently threatened to boil over. Riots were common. (It was against this backdrop that Malthus wrote his famous book about overpopulation.)

Children rarely went to school; there were very few schools in all of England! Children with wealthy parents (such as the Darwins) were taught by private tutors and attended expensive boarding schools and exclusive universities. But most children — starting at 8 or 9 years old — had no choice but to work in coal mines or factories. Without an education they had little chance of ever getting better jobs.

Charles Darwin's family was far away from most of the problems of the era. Both of his grandfathers — Erasmus Darwin and Josiah Wedgwood — were wealthy, as were his father and mother. Throughout Charles's life, he lived in homes full of servants who cooked the meals, tended the gardens, watched the babies, cleaned the rooms, and washed the clothes. But in his autobiography he made almost no mention of this fact. It was as if the servants were invisible. Like most wealthy gentlemen of the 19th century, he assumed that this detail would not need to be explained to his readers. Later in this book, when you read that Charles and Emma Darwin had 10 children, you might wonder how he could manage to raise all those children and be a full-time scientist at the same time. It's simple: the Darwin house (like most upper-class 19th-century houses) was filled with nannies and nurses and governesses to take care of the children. These employees went about their business unnoticed and unmentioned.


Excerpted from Darwin and Evolution for Kids by Kristan Lawson. Copyright © 2003 Kristan Lawson. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Time Line,
1 Before Darwin,
2 A Comfortable Youth,
3 To Distant Lands,
4 The Search for Reasons,
5 A Turning Point in Human Understanding,
6 The Idea That Changed the World,
7 Reluctant Celebrity,
8 After Darwin,
Selected Bibliography and Further Reading,

Customer Reviews