Creating the tree of life

posted in: Brita Granstrom, Mick Manning | 11

As my contribution to this week’s Nonfiction Monday I’ve a review of What Mr Darwin Saw by Mick Manning and Brita Granström in association with the (London) Natural History Museum, one of six books shortlisted for the Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize 2011.

Through a series of visual and written cameos depicting key moments in Darwin’s life, Manning and Granström have created a picture book biography of one of the most influential figures in human history.

Starting with his childhood, through his failed studies at Edinburgh and Cambridge universities and onto, for the bulk of the book, his 5 year journey around the world on HMS Beagle, readers dip in and out of (what is presented as) Darwin’s thoughts; each double page spread features a short passage as if taken from Darwin’s personal diaries.

These “diary extracts” are supported by several boxes on each page further fleshing out the given moment in Darwin’s life. These are presented as facts about Darwin and his journey, rather than personal reflections.

Following the return of the Beagle to the UK, What Mr Darwin Saw follows Darwin’s route to publishing The Origin of Species, acknowledging the controversy it stirred up amongst the religious faithful, and also the important role played Alfred Russel Wallace, a contemporary naturalist who independently proposed a theory of evolution due to natural selection.

This great picture book tells a story you’re never to young to know about. On the down side I initially found this quite a difficult book to read aloud to my children. Although the book does tell a linear biography of Darwin, each double page spread stands alone and so readers have to make a lot of connections of their own when following the story from cover to cover. For example, on one page Darwin is studying in Edinburgh, whilst next he is in Cambridge and although one can infer what has taken place, it’s not immediately clear.

The decision to adopt a diary style for the main bodies of text makes the narrative immediately personal, but for adults and children very used to 21st century text, the 19th century echoes in vocabulary choices and syntax can make it a slightly stumbling read, at least the first time. This is definitely a case of where re-reading turns a good book into a great book.

On the plus side, everyone in our family learned a lot from What Mr Darwin Saw. It was fascinating to discover more about the journey of the Beagle than just the visit to the Galapagos islands; readers see Darwin in the Andes and Australia, making observations that impact upon his thinking about evolution.

This books is also brilliant as a springboard. It could be used to do so much with – from literacy projects based on diary writing, geography projects following the journey of the Beagle, through to science activities such as comparing fossil remains with their modern day ancestors.

The illustrations are enjoyable and certainly open out Darwin’s story to a wider audience. Do not be fooled, however, by the pictures – this book is a great example of a picture book ideal for older children, say 10-12, although M at 6 has thoroughly enjoyed it, and J at 3 will happily sit and listen whilst her older sister, inspired by Darwin’s story, asks all sorts of questions I don’t know the answer to!

Having lapped up What Mr Darwin Saw we felt the best way to celebrate Darwin’s contribution to science was to create our own evolutionary tree of life.

The Open University Tree of Life poster
First of all we had to learn a little about how different animals are related to each other, and how animals are related to other living things.

M did this mostly by reading the tree of life poster we have on our wall, but which you can see online here (this is an Open University resource created in collaboration with the BBC). I also did my “homework” by reading about phylogeny at the Tree of Life Web Project and in this post from DarwinBookCats blog.

Next M, J and I decided what animals we wanted to focus on in our evolutionary tree of life and then we lined up plastic animals according to how we thought they might be related to us (from those most closely related to us, to those least closely related to us). We did this by asking ourselves questions like “Does it have a skeleton inside its body?” and “Does it give birth to live young?”.

Once we had the basic relationships for animals sorted, we set about creating a 3D tree of life. We gathered a selection of wind-lopped branches from our garden and the nearby park. We chose the largest branch to be the trunk of our tree, and into the trunk of our tree we drilled 15 holes approximately equal distances down the trunk.

After our shed experience inspired by Findus, M was keen to try out the electric drill. Because of the size of our “trunk” we had to do the drilling in the kitchen. Because of the size of our “branches” we used a flat drill bit rather than a regular drill bit.

As you can see J didn’t like the sound of the drill, but M adored it! The raw power in her hands!

Once drilled we put our trunk in a pot of sand and hotglued our “branches” into the drilled holes. Our bare tree was ready!

Next up I printed out images of all the living things we were to include in our tree, this time extending what we had learned already with animals to include fungi, plants and bacteria. The girls coloured in the images and we stuck them to card. The images we used were of a chimpanzee, a lemur, a rabbit, a lion, an elephant, a kangaroo, a duck, a frog, a fish, a starfish, a tarantula, a jellyfish, a mushroom, a sunflower and a type of bacteria.

Then we hung our various life forms from our tree of life in the correct order ie with the life form most distantly related to us on the lowest branch, up to the life form most closely related to us hanging on the branch next to the top of the tree. At the very top of the tree we hung a picture of a person which M had drawn.

Finally, we brought everything together with streamers of DNA – paper party streamers, thrown in pairs to create a approximation to strings of double helixes. As the streamers were thrown the twisting paper looked quite a lot like DNA but by the time the streamers were on the tree, their helix features were for the most part lost! Still, a bit of discussion about DNA went down well with turning our tree of life into a decorated Christmas tree for non-Creationists.

Whilst working out how we are related to lions, ducks and mushrooms we listened to:

  • My brother the ape by They Might Be Giants on their brilliant Here Comes Science CD. You can enjoy it for free here:

  • Cells by They Might Be Giants – the song sings about DNA, as you can hear for youself:

  • We also enjoyed listening to Richard Milner, the singing Darwinian scholar (!) – you can watch a nice video about him on the New York Times website here.

    Other activities which might work well alongside reading What Mr Darwin Saw include:

  • Eating some unusual meat – a reoccurring theme in What Mr Darwin Saw is Charles Darwin’s interest in trying meat from unusual animals, such as owls and armadillos. You could try ostrich, kangaroo or even crocodile meat from this UK shop perhaps.
  • Getting involved with studying the evolution of snails – A great hands-on project in your own back garden, looking for banded snails.
  • Playing this online game about Darwin, suitable for 5-10 year olds who have enjoyed the book and want to reinforce some of what they’ve learned.

  • There are loads of online resources for learning about evolution. Here are some I enjoyed whilst teaching myself about the things I’ve forgotten since school, inspired by What Mr Darwin Saw:

  • An introduction to how life is related from the University of Berkeley.
  • BBC bitesize revision on the topic of evolution.
  • Lots of links to pages on “How to teach evolution to children” from HubPages.
  • A selection of resources for kids on Darwin and evolution from Cambridge University.

  • Over the next few posts I’ll be reviewing as many as possible of the six books shortlisted for the Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize 2011, an award that celebrates the best recent books that communicate science to young people. The winner will be announced on December 1st.

    Disclosure: I received my copy of this book from the publisher. This review, however, reflect my own and honest opinion.

    This week’s host for Nonfiction Monday is Anamaria at books together. Do click on through to see what other books are included in this week’s celebration of children’s nonfiction books.

    11 Responses

    1. jojoebi

      another book to add to the list :o) thanks.

      from an engineers eye – please tie the girls hair back when they are using power tools, it is so easy to get it caught and would be very last if they did.

    2. se7en

      Oh we just love Mick Manning and Brita Granstrom… can’t get enough of their books. I wish they had a dedicated shelf in the library!!! Actually I wish we just owned them all because honestly they are the most lovely readable science/art books around… We just had their artist book out of the library for the ten millionth time!!! Here’s our review of their fabulous seaside book:

    3. Zoe

      Thanks Jojoebi, I will definitely tie hair back from now on. Of course we talked about safety and tried the drill out in various ways (without power, with me holding it and M pressing the button, with her holding it in drilling thin air and trying different amounts of pressure on the button. looking at where the cables were, thinking about trip hazards etc) so M became familiar with the tool and we both felt happy with her ability to use it.

    4. Zoe

      Thanks Se7en, I was wondering if you’d comment today – I wouldn’t want to lose you as a reader because we might have quite different positions on this. Thanks for your link, off to check it out now.

    5. se7en

      Dear Zoe, I would never consider a difference of opinion or philosophy a cause to ruin a friendship!!! And let’s face it a great book is a great book and I would have no problem at all reading a book about Mr Darwin, or evolution to my kids!!!

    6. Zoe

      Dear Se7en, That’s so good to hear. I suppose I was just fearful because on twitter, and in writing blogs and comments there’s so much left unsaid, and it’s easy to misinterpret, or to see rudeness /lack of respect where none was meant.

    7. Tara

      This book is on my non-fiction “buy now” list. I love the way you detiled your projects and showed how the book served you as a springboard for more learning. Thank you!

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