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When Should You Introduce A Child To Evolution?


All life on earth is related. The way children wiggle, breathe, cuddle and grab objects can help them to realize their ancient link with fish, reptiles, mammals and apes.

This is the message of Grandmother Fish, a new book for 3- to 7-year-olds written by Jonathan Tweet and illustrated by Karen Lewis. Funded by a Kickstarter campaign and offered free in PDF form online, the book has won praise as a child's first book of evolution.

Stephanie Keep, writing for the National Center for Science Education, noted that because explanations of evolutionary concepts are usually diluted to the point of inaccuracy for children, she opened Grandmother Fish with an expectation of discovering "cute but completely cringe-worthy content." What she in fact found, she says, is a book that's "heads and shoulders above any evolution book for children that I've ever seen."

It was Keep's review that spurred me to take a look at Grandmother Fish, — and I, too, think the book does a dynamite job for kids at the preschool to early-grades level. With its gorgeously colorful illustrations of fish, reptiles, mammals, apes and humans, and its rhythmic-repetitive language focused on animals' behaviors (including our own), the book is a feast for the senses.

If in a critical mood, I could point out that some of the apes look to me suspiciously monkey-like. This point aside, far and away the strongest attribute of Grandmother Fish is its streamlined accuracy: This book is very good on the science.

OK, let's acknowledge a skeptic's question here: Aren't kids of this age too little to be taught evolution?

My answer is no — not too young. Tweet doesn't weight the story line with technical details about descent with modification and natural selection and differential mortality, after all — though an appendix does explain key concepts to parents and other adults in ways that will help them answer kids' questions.

And think of it this way: On a starry night, we may take our child outdoors, point out the Big Dipper, and talk a little bit about the long, long time it takes for the light of distant stars to reach our eyes. That's a fun activity, full of wonder, and an age-appropriate story to tell. So is having Grandmother Fish read aloud.

We all know by now that more than 40 percent of Americans say that God created human beings in our present form in the last 10,000 years. That is, 4 in 10 Americans reject the knowledge that anchors our scientific understanding of the world and all its creatures. That dismal situation cries out for big efforts in science education and, as Tania wrote in a neat post last year, there's hard evidence to show that the storybook route can be effective in kids' mastery of evolutionary concepts.

Grandmother Fish is a fun way to start children down a path of scientific literacy and, what's more, can help instill in them a vital sense of connection with the living world.

Barbara J. King, an anthropology professor at the College of William and Mary, often writes about human evolution, primate behavior and the cognition and emotion of animals. Barbara's most recent book on animals is titled How Animals Grieve. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

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Barbara J. King is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. With a long-standing research interest in primate behavior and human evolution, King has studied baboon foraging in Kenya and gorilla and bonobo communication at captive facilities in the United States.

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