Saturday, March 08, 2008


Two hundred years after Charles Darwin’s birth – and a century and a half after the publication of his book On the Origin of Species – the theory of evolution is as controversial as ever. In the United States, that is. According to a 2005 New York Times article, the idea that complex organisms developed from simpler species through random mutations is almost universally accepted in every other industrialized country. Ever since John Scopes went on trial in Tennessee in 1925 for telling his biology students about natural selection, however, American school teachers have shied away from discussing evolution in the classroom. Generations of us have grown up not really understanding evolution or the process by which scientific theories are tested and confirmed. So with a year to go until Darwin’s 200th, intelligent educators and scientists have designed Web sites to supply those missing links.
Swathmore College biology professor (and father of two young children) Colin Purrington believes parents can begin to “homeschool” their kids about evolution as early as kindergarten. And a fun place to start is Alaskan marine artist Ray Troll’s Web site Troll Art. Watch a single cell morph into a human being on Troll’s Evolvovision, then click on his somewhat retro comix-style poster The Way We Were: The Path of Human Evolution to read explanations by fish biologist Carl Ferraris. The site Becoming Human, from The Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University, challenges you to assemble a chimp and a human skeleton from a mixed pile of bones. And the Natural History Museum of London’s Evolution Web page includes a natural selection game where you play a young bird trying to eat enough bugs to get through the winter.
The PBS Evolution Web site is another great resource for kids. There’s a whole library of interactive features, including games like Evolution in Action, which that lets you change the environment to see how random mutations affect a creature’s ability to survive, and The Mating Game, where you help contestants pass their genes down the evolutionary line. There’s also the PBS series Nova’s Missing Link and Origins pages.
Still confused? Understanding Evolution, a collaboration of the University of California Museum of Paleontology and the National Center for Science Education is a comprehensive, clearly written site that touches on science, history, research and how evolution factors into daily life. There are explanations of the role DNA plays, common misconceptions and dozens of useful links. Or to find out more about the descent of man, check out the Smithsonian Institution’s Human Origins Program. Wander through the online Hall of Human Ancestors, then click on a branch of the Human Family Tree to look at virtual 3D fossils and read about human precursors.
In recent years February 12, has been celebrated as Darwin Day, with Phylum Feasts (including foods from all the plant and animal groups) and Primordial Soup, plans for a recreation of Darwin’s exploratory journey to the Galapagos islands on the HMS Beagle, and re-enactments of the Scopes Monkey Trial. The trial, which pitted celebrity lawyer Clarence Darrow against politician William Jennings Bryan, as recorded by humorist HL Mencken, is a fascinating piece of social history. My family watched the slightly fictionalized version told in the Spencer Tracy film Inherit the Wind, then checked the facts at the Famous Trials in American History Web site by University of Missouri law professor Douglas Linder.
It took Darwin 20 years to publish his theory of evolution, as you’ll learn from the companion Web site to the traveling exhibit which stopped at the American Museum of Natural History in New York in 2006. But you shouldn’t wait so long. Evolution is the unifying principle in biology, says Swathmore’s Purrington, make sure your kids have the facts they need to begin to understand the mystery of life.

Update: Find more evolution resources for kids at my blog Home Biology!

Family Online Picks (with additional links added):

Becoming Human
Natural History Museum London
Nova: Missing Link
Understanding Evolution
American Museum of Natural History Darwin exhibit


Anonymous said...

Thank you-this list is wonderful! I have been teaching evolution to my 4 year old daughter this year, and she loves it. She always wants to know what comes next!

Anonymous said...

May I suggest also visiting the online exhibit of Chicago's Field Museum's Evolving Planet? Ot's no substitute for a visit to the Field, but very, very good.

Josh Rosenau said...

You may also want to point people toward the National Center for Science Education. Our site is being redesigned right now because it can be hard to find stuff right now, but the Resources section has a lot of good material.

Anonymous said...

Also, there's the Tree of Life, which links information about different groups of organisms together using phylogenetic trees. They also have special pages for kids and kids can contribute to the site.

Michael D. Barton, FCD said...

Have you seen the recent children’s book about Darwin and his developing the idea of natural selection, The Voyage of the Beetle? You can read my review of this wonderful book here:

And other evolution books for kids reviewed here:

Lokilino said...

Very nice. I was looking for a child friendly text to tell my kids in class...

Sandra Foyt said...

Great resource! My homeschooled son recently read a children's book on Charles Darwin, just because it elucidated ideas in a novel he was reading. The links on this post will be an additional asset.

Anonymous said...

/...Two hundred years after Charles Darwin’s birth – and a century and a half after the publication of his book 'The Origin of Life'.../

The book is titled 'Origin of Species.' Big difference.

Kathy Ceceri said...

Thanks for pointing out that slip. I've fixed it in the post.