The overwhelming number of recently-published children's picture books about Charles Darwin -- across a diversity of publishers and authors -- choose to feature his voyage aboard the Beagle, leading to a remarkable sameness in approach, in thematic choices, and in the texts themselves (particularly as they liberally feature Darwin's own words, from his journals and his published account of the voyage), even if as a species they offer a pleasing morphology of illustrative styles. As I wrote previously, when going through the books as I was putting together "home school" lessons on evolution for my 7- going-on-8-year-old daughter, the repetitive focus on "Darwin before evolution" that occurs by devoting the bulk of each book to the voyage seemed to me to leave discussions of the hard work of arriving at explanations for the transformation of life over time as a let-down, for that history was rarely able to compete with the descriptive and visual thrills provided by sailing the globe and collecting curiosities -- which disappointed me.
In general, however, the advertising copy and reviews insisted that this approach was exactly what would engage a child in Darwin's story: an emphasis on his youth, the globe-trotting, the familiar tug of nature stories that feature animals, and the exoticism of wild nature in all its startling forms. I was reminded of the venerable heritage of this framework with this post [thanks to the tip from the all-seeing-eye of evolution-on-the-internet, Michael Barton], from the Biodiversity Heritage Library, who had as a book of the week the late-nineteenth century volume, What Mr. Darwin Saw in His Voyage Round the World in the Ship 'Beagle' -- a work more than 100 years previous which also claims that doing a mash-up of Darwin's book on the Beagle voyage (with a special focus on the animal tales and pictures) lent itself to a perfect child's-eye view of Darwin. (And, perhaps not surprisingly, when I talked in 2009 with Bernie Lightman [see here for recent articles] about his work on biographical treatments of Darwin when he was on campus for our Darwin Anniversary lectures, his view of such 19th-century works of juvenile literature were that they allowed for a conservative approach, focusing as they did on the voyage and the doing of natural history, rather than evolutionary themes. That this tack persists into the 21st century is fascinating.)
But the adventuresome seafaring young Darwin didn't seem to make much of an impact with my
particular child reader at home, who, I realized one day when I saw a new computer art picture appear on the computer desktop, had come up with an illustration of Darwin on her own that seemed to owe less to the conventional voyage thematic than it did to three different, more original takes that a handful of children's authors had created. The first of these, Anne Weaver's The Voyage of the Beetle, takes Darwin on the by-now-too-familiar voyage, but gives it a sharper edge by working evolutionary theory right into the narrative, through the plot device of a talkative and knowledgeable beetle who has befriended Darwin (he names her Rosie) and who serves as his coach in seeking to make sense of the extravagantly diverse natural world he is immersed in. Rosie is not only an observer of Darwin's voyage, but a participant in it, literally sprinkling his research records with "footnotes," dipping her appendages in his ink bottle at night to add in details:
that Charles, as observant as he was, might have missed. Often, I would include a little clue to the mystery of mysteries for Charles to decipher, slipping clues on little scraps of paper between the pages of the diary.
The story that follows comes from these footnotes, and from conversations that Charles and I had as he sought the answer to the mystery of mysteries. In each of the chapters that follow, I have copied my clues for you to read. I suspect that you might be able to solve the mystery even before Charles does.
Although Weaver's book is imbued with some of the same conventions as the other voyage books (Nature "speaks" evolution to Darwin, becoming increasingly revelatory as he moves further along each waystation in his scientific pilgrimage), the clues to evolutionary theory that accompany the voyage offer a refreshing change, because both the child reader and Darwin are literally placed at the same level of asking questions and not knowing what the answers are. (An echo of this partnership is seen perhaps in the title my daughter gave to her drawing: it's not "Mr. Darwin discovers," but "discover with Mr. Darwin.")
Intriguing as well is that through the character of Rosie, Weaver inserts a female voice into a tried-and-true narrative that is almost relentless in its masculine vibe as presented in the children's books, especially when the 19th-century sailing ship focus commandeers the bulk of the text. What's interesting in Weaver's Rosie is that it is a female voice that has the scientific knowledge well in hand, and is the voice of authority -- although tactfully rendered as a guide on the side, rather than a sage on the stage, for both Darwin and the book's readers. In this imaginative provision of a fictional feminine presence for Darwin's voyage, Weaver re-creates this historical moment in an alternate key, one that perhaps keeps the celebratorily masculinist emphasis of the books for youngsters at bay in a manner that also allows for a depiction of cognitive uncertainty that is more human than the other triumphalist tales. In fact, to the extent that the reader identifies with Rosie and incorporates her knowledge, on second reading the former "audience" for the book likewise takes on the vicarious role of Darwin's tutor (as perhaps both the friendly bluebird and the artist who drew her is ready to do once Mr. Darwin has introduced himself in my daughter's picture).
Given that science is so often presented to children as an opportunity to "catch up" with what adults already know, it's a rare feat that a science book for children allows them to see a "real scientist" as being similarly at sea at such length regarding explanations about nature as they themselves often are. And in fact, Weaver's narrative ends with Darwin back in England and still unsure about how to solve the evolution puzzle (although readers are not left hanging, as Weaver sets out Rosie's clues once more, and provides Darwin's solution to end the book). It's a story that gets at the idea of scientific knowledge as real work, but real work on the order of being doable given curiosity, patience, thoughtfulness, care, and insight -- the antithesis of the idea that only a remote few have what it takes to make scientific contributions (the "Einstein" syndrome).
I was most amused to find that, despite the fact that the voyage figured extravagantly both in content and in the illustrations of the pile of children's Darwin books that I had brought home to study, the picture my daughter chose to draw owed nothing to the rainforest theme which would supposedly transfix childish imaginations, but instead depicted a much more sedate locale, fitting comfortably within the domestic backyard setting of a local neighborhood in the northern hemisphere. And here the influence I think of the second unusual Darwin book, The Humblebee Hunter by Deborah Hopkinson kicks in, for in this author's story the science literally does take place at home, as Darwin's daughter Henrietta and other family members join her father to investigate how many times a bee will visit a flower in a minute.
Once again, this story has fictional elements (while Darwin investigated creatures in his home environment, and the children sometimes assisted, we have no record of the observational study Hopkinson sketches), and the fictionalization allows for a girl "naturalist" to take center stage. (This is Hopkinson's second Darwin book -- the first is a conventional biography from 2005 with the voyage at the center, Who Was Charles Darwin?) The cover of the Humblee Hunter has Etty enlarged in the foreground eye to eye with a bee -- an image that resonates with the composition of my child's drawing -- with Darwin off in the distance, a smaller background figure. Her favorite stories, Hopkinson recounts:
were about Father roaming the world to collect fossils, shells, sea creatures and plants. I imagined myself beside him, touching the back of a giant tortoise, watching iguanas dive, or laughing at a blue-footed booby dance!
Darwin was still a collector, his daughter notes, although "most of all he collected questions." The illustrations (by Jen Corace) show Etty immersed in following her bee as it voyages from flower to flower, answering a question of scientific importance for which the answer is not yet known. It seems that the generation of scientific knowledge can occur in one's own backyard, with little more than a pocket watch and sharp eyes -- even if the eyes are those of a child.
In thinking about the ways in which my daughter's drawing seemed to be inspired by a particular set of authorial choices -- here, Weaver's and Hopkinson's -- I realized that casting an analytical eye on each story was about more than figuring out what happens to the historical Darwin or to the theory of evolution when it is scaled down for children's consumption. Especially in the ways in which fictionalized elements in these books transformed the stories so that they provided imaginative springboards for children to see themselves as participants in science for real, and not simply as "practicing" science, they were about something even more important than the scientific content itself: they were about what the scientific content represented in relation to the readers themselves. Somewhere around the ages of 7-10 American children begin to identify themselves as being "a science person" or "not a science person," when each one of them should be coming into their own through opportunities to experience themselves as competent interpreters of nature. The point of being exposed to investigating the natural world is not simply to start future scientists on their path, or to enlighten those who will not become scientists as to "what the scientific method is": it should be to nurture the multiplicity of ways in which each of us can feel at home as lifelong students of nature, most of all in "collecting questions."
Just last year, the competency of child students of nature became a news story, when a scientific paper on the "Blackawton Bees Project" was peer-reviewed and published in a major scientific journal -- the project being an experiment created by twenty-five grade-schoolers in Britain, in which they studied how spatial and color relationships influence foraging behavior in bees. The project and its publication garnered a great deal of commentary -- see, for example, the accounts by Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science and Alom Shaha in the Guardian, along with the comments for each post-- about the state of school science, the atypical advantages of having a scientist-parent of one of the students to guide the project, whether the bar was lowered for the students to publish (there were no references to other work) and more.
Our images of both childhood and of science come heavily-freighted, and we need to understand better what happens when we bring these two culturally-laden categories into contact with each other, whether as abstract idealizations, commercial products, educational efforts, or social reflection. Historians of science typically have spent little time thinking about science and childhood, given the seemingly sensible conclusion that science is adult business, not least in its post-graduate guise in the modern era. But I can't help thinking that we may learn more than we can currently imagine about science and culture by collecting questions about the intersection of scientific dynamics and childhood realities, and how we make and remake our world through both.