Guest Post – Daniel Loxton: Today is Darwin Day

Today’s guest blog comes courtesy of Victoria’s Daniel Loxton. Anyone interested in writing guest blog can submit a proposal to the editor, skepticnorth [at] gmail [dot] com

Guest Post – Daniel Loxton: Today is Darwin Day

Today is Darwin Day, the occasion set aside to celebrate the breakthrough insights of Charles Darwin, whose research revealed the hidden natural forces that shape life on our planet.

Darwin’s theory was revealed 151 years ago. Since that time, it has been continuously tested, probed, confirmed, expanded, and reconfirmed.

Beyond any doubt, Darwin was right. But you’d hardly know it, to listen to the endless news reports of “controversy” and opposition to basic biology.

As some of you may have heard, I have a brand new illustrated kids book out this month, entitled Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be. Based upon Junior Skeptic (the kids critical thinking section bound within Skeptic magazine), Evolution is published by leading Canadian children’s publisher Kids Can Press (a division of media giant Corus, and home to Franklin the Turtle and other well-known franchises).

It’s my first English-language hardcover, and years in the making, so I hope you’ll forgive me if I’m a bit giddy about the release. So giddy, in fact, that I’ve taken to some new-author habits I’m a little embarrassed to confess: checking the Amazon and Amazon.ca listings (it’s doing well!), reading reviews (I heart Phil Plait) and checking local bookstores to see if they have my book in stock.

Regarding that last, I had an experience a few days back that took me completely off guard — and which I think may surprise you as well. My dad and I were strolling through Victoria’s downtown core, and popped into the huge children’s section of the Chapters mega-bookstore to see if Evolution was in yet. While I scanned the shelves, my father did the obvious:

Excuse me, he asked the woman on duty. Do you have any evolution books for kids?

She checked. Sure enough, there was my book on pre-order. And “Yes,” she said. “We do have one evolution book for kids.”(That was the evolution volume of Dorling-Kindersley’s ubiquitous Eyewitness series.)

And that was it. In the largest kids’ book section in the largest bookstore in British Columbia’s provincial capital, they had exactly one kids book about biology’s central concept. A whopping three copies, in fact.

As we walked out of the store, that astonishing fact started to sank in. I said to my father, “You know, I’ve been saying in interviews that there are many high-quality kids books about evolution, with ours distinguished by its skeptical pedigree. But I think I may have underestimated the rarity of this project.

Perhaps I should have known that. Kids Can Press notes that Evolution has “Very little competition (topic highly controversial in the US).” But somehow I didn’t quite believe that the field could be quite so open.

This didn’t quite believe that experience is very, very common for skeptics. It’s human to assume that most people feel as we do,  but that assumption is wrong. Skeptics are routinely shocked to discover that their close friends see ghosts, or believe in aliens, or consult psychics, or use homeopathy. For me, it’s utterly obvious that evolution is a fact, but half the people we pass on North American streets disagree. Even rarer is the down in the bones feeling that evolution matters.

Can we change that? I think we can.

The first step is simply making the facts of evolution available. When even the largest bookstore chains carry just one or two kids’ titles about evolution when the largest children’s book publishers believe that evolution is “too controversial,” you know the topic is not reaching many families.

The second is to make the facts of evolution easy to understand and enjoy. That means clear writing, snappy production values, and pretty pictures. I believe we’ve achieved that with Evolution, creating something that can compete effectively in the marketplace of ideas.

I’m humbled to say that early reviews of Evolution are very positive. The literary review Quill & Quire calls the book “A full-throated defense and explication of Darwin’s theory kept light and accessible by Loxton’s sense of humour and breezy prose style”.  Over at Discover magazines’ Bad Astronomy blog, Phil Plait gives the highest praise any kids’ science writer could hope for: “I would’ve loved this book when I was a kid. It would have made me want to be a scientist.”

That’s not entirely my doing: the elegance, power, and simplicity of evolution just are inspiring. The problem is that we hardly ever share that perspective on the natural world.

But Darwin understood. 151 years ago, he ended his Origin of Species on an unabashedly romantic note. There is grandeur in this view of life, he wrote, openly awed that “from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

It’s no accident that my new children’s book closes with a similar sentiment. It’s how I feel. It’s the message I pass to my own four-year-old son; it’s the understanding I see sparking in his eyes when he tells me that birds are really dinosaurs.

And here’s the spine-tingling thing: You’re related to every species, every person, every living thing that has ever existed on this planet. Every single one.

All creatures, from the lowliest bacteria to the blue whale, are branches that have evolved on the great tree of life!

How To Help

As a writer, I hope this book will succeed. As a skeptical activist, I also have wider goals.

One is to ensure that the Skeptics Society is able to support educational outreach well into the future. You can do that by purchasing copies of Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be at Skeptic.com. (Even better, you can get Evolution as a free thank you gift with any donation to the Skeptics Society of $100 or more.)

I also hope to reward Kids Can Press for throwing their full weight behind an uncompromising kids evolution book. You can do that by buying copies of the book; reviewing Evolution on Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, or your own blog; by linking to the book from your website; and, by sharing the book on your Twitter feed or Facebook profile.

Creating an illustrated book is something like making a movie. It’s a huge process with many cooks and all too many opportunities for the project to lose its way. But my experience with Kids Can was wonderful. My editor Val Wyatt (veteran of over 100 kids books!) bent over backward to ensure that Evolution reached bookshelves with undiluted scientific accuracy and integrity. (The scientific content is first-rate, according to bestselling evolution author Donald Prothero.) Where US publishers felt the topic was too controversial, Kids Can Press boldly made Evolution a featured release. They gave it top production values, a Learning Resource Materials booklet for teachers and homeschoolers (download the free PDF), and a marketing budget. They even showcased the book in a full spread in their Spring 2010 catalogue.

Finally, and most importantly, I want kids to learn from this book,  about science in general, and about evolution in particular. For that to happen, kids, parents, and educators need to be able to find the book in the first place. That means getting it on shelves.

Amazingly, many people have already written to tell me they’ve bought multiple copies to donate to schools and libraries. I’ve even learned of a grassroots book drive campaign to donate copies of Evolution to every one of Vancouver’s 75 regional elementary schools! (That just knocks my socks off. It’s a perfect example of the power of “Skepticism 2.0″ to undertake organic, networked activism.)

Not everyone has those sorts of resources, of course. Luckily, if you like Evolution, it costs nothing to tell a friend about it, or to show it to your children’s teachers, or to loan your own copy to the family next door. Or, even better: call or write your local library or bookstore to ask them to stock the book. (They’ll need the publisher info.) If we want kids to appreciate the sweeping majesty of the history of life, we need to give them the chance to discover it.

* * *

Daniel Loxton is the Editor of Junior Skeptic (the 10-page kids’ science section bound within Skeptic magazine).  He has written for critical thinking publications including Skeptic, Skeptical Briefs, eSkeptic and the Skeptical Inquirer, and contributed cover art to Skeptic, Yes mag, and Free Inquiry.  He is the author of two nonfiction books for young readers Evolução (Gulbenkian Foundation, 2009) and Evolution (Kids Can Press, 2010). In a previous career, Daniel was a silvicultural shepherd for ten years (working mostly along the BC side of the Alaska panhandle). You can follow him on Twitter, @Daniel_Loxton

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  • Steve Thoms

    Steve is a professional music teacher living in Kitchener, Ontario. He studied recorded music production at Fanshawe College, and Political Studies/History at Trent University, where he specialized in political economy and global politics. He is an amateur astronomer, and an award-winning astro-photographer. Steve also runs the blog, Oot and Aboot with Some Canadian Skeptic." can can be followed on Twitter, @SomeCndnSkeptic.