Do Elephants Have Knees and Other Stories of Darwinian Origins: Sometimes convoluted, thoroughly informative

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Do Elephants Have Knees and Other Stories of Darwinian Origins by Charles R. Ault, JrDo Elephants Have Knees and Other Stories of Darwinian Origins by Charles R. Ault, Jr

In Do Elephants Have Knees and Other Stories of Darwinian Origins (2016), Charles R. Ault, Jr. takes a unique path to explaining the complexities of evolution, using children’s books such as Morris the Moose, Treasure Island, Diary of a Worm and others as springboards to discussing Charles Darwin’s path to discovery, from his time as an insatiably curious child to his adventure-filled twenties to the twilight years he spent focused on the lowly (though not to him) earthworm.

The focus is, as the title notes, on origins, and so we learn about the early ancestors and evolutionary route to those elephants (yes, by the way, they do have knees), whales, tetrapods, and probably most familiarly to readers, birds, who of course entered our world via the dinosaur evolutionary tree as just about any four-year-old now knows.

Ault’s book is filled with up to date information and discoveries, but perhaps my favorite aspect of Do Elephants Have Knees though is the way he presents us with a young Charles Darwin filled with life and a spirit of adventure, rather than the plum, bewhiskered elder of science we usually think of him as.

And this younger Darwin matches well with the children’s stories as he shares with them a playful curiosity about the world, the same sort of whimsical questioning and a willingness to accept the absurd (one of the best set scenes involves Darwin’s evocation of a “bear-duck” to explain how whales might have evolved baleen) and it is this “childish” spirit that lets him, well, evolve his theory of evolution. The other nice match with his choice of structure is that evolution is in itself a “story,” and so the idea of narrative makes a good sense in explaining it.

Unfortunately, the children’s stories themselves, as used in the text, I felt too often did more to obscure and distract than they did to enlighten or clarify. There were times I struggled not so much with the underlying concept of evolution being presented, such as shared ancestry or the manner in which new traits do not spring forth out of the blue but build upon earlier traits, but with the thicket of analog to the children’s book that I had to navigate in order to get to that underlying point. The same sort of obfuscation occurred at times with Ault’s use of pop culture references. Here are two examples of where I thought the references to the children’s texts or to modern culture hindered rather than helped comprehension:

The idea of “fish” serves many practical purposes, such as distinguishing hamburger from fish fillets and avoiding confusing the responsibilities of fishing with those of herding cattle.

Or:

Humans play basketball quite well with just one pair of shoes and naked hands. Because they have legs and not arms, horses will need two pairs. With its upper limbs free, a kangaroo might do okay on the court. Horses, however, probably cannot dribble or shoot well with their forelimbs. Still, you might wish to design front-foot sneakers for them and leave them to set picks — an awesome equine defense.

I found these moments, and there were more than a few such passages, more frustrating than clarifying. This was perhaps more pronounced coming after the very linear, very clear and compelling first few chapters that dealt with Darwin’s journeys. That said, if one works around these passages, Ault does an excellent and thorough job of carrying the reader through some complex issues dealing with paleontology, anatomy, geology, and of course evolution itself. Frustrating though it may be at times, Do Elephants Have Knees and Other Stories of Darwinian Origins is well worth reading for those interested in both Darwin the person and Darwin’s theory.

Published in 2016. Thinking whimsically makes serious science accessible. That’s a message that should be taken to heart by all readers who want to learn about evolution. Do Elephants Have Knees? invites readers into serious appreciation of Darwinian histories by deploying the playful thinking found in children’s books. Charles R. Ault Jr. weds children’s literature to recent research in paleontology and evolutionary biology. Inquiring into the origin of origins stories, Ault presents three portraits of Charles Darwin―curious child, twentysomething adventurer, and elderly worm scientist. Essays focusing on the origins of tetrapods, elephants, whales, and birds explain fundamental Darwinian concepts (natural selection, for example) with examples of fossil history and comparative anatomy. The imagery of the children’s story offers a way to remember and recreate scientific discoveries. By juxtaposing Darwin’s science with tales for children, Do Elephants Have Knees? underscores the importance of whimsical storytelling to the accomplishment of serious thinking. Charles Darwin mused about duck beaks and swimming bears as he imagined a pathway for the origin of baleen. A “bearduck” chimera may be a stretch, but the science linking not just cows but also whales to moose through shared ancestry has great merit. Teaching about shared ancestry may begin with attention to Bernard Wiseman’s Morris the Moose. Morris believes that cows and deer are fine examples of moose because they all have four legs and things on their heads. No whale antlers are known, but fossils of four-legged whales are. By calling attention to surprising and serendipitous echoes between children’s stories and challenging science, Ault demonstrates how playful thinking opens the doors to an understanding of evolutionary thought.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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