Teaching Darwin to Children, a vintage view

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November 24, 2013 by kittynh

I am a devotee of used book stores.  I was recently enjoying the children’s section of my favorite of these stores, “Homestead Books” in Marlborough, NH, when I found a selection of books about Charles Darwin.

The biography section had a children’s book entitled “Charles Darwin” by Carla Greene.  The book was printed by the Dial Press in 1968.  I purchased the book, thinking it would be a good gift for a parent I know raising her child as an Atheist.

English: Photograph of Charles Darwin

English: Photograph of Charles Darwin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My only worry though, was how out of date was this biography going to be.  The basics of Darwin’s life seemed covered, the book is an “easy reader” chapter book.  I would guess it is appropriate for ages 8-12.

Chapters include:

Childhood and School Days

The H.M.S. Beagle Sails

Darwin Marries

The chapter that  interested me was “England is Shocked!”

Pages 56 to 59 contain this chapter, though page 58 has no text and is a drawing of Darwin receiving the Copley Medal.

So what would the student who pulled this book of a library shelf have read about Darwin in 1968?

A number of scientists of the Linnean Society  demanded that Darwin be expelled, and when he was not , several of them resigned.  Clergymen denounced Darwin as ‘the most dangerous man in England’ because his theories conflicted with the idea that God alone was the creator of animals and plants.

There follows a brief account of how many clergymen also supported Darwin. They believed  his ideas did not conflict with religion, this included the well known support of Charles Kingsley

The very fact of evolution, far from denying God’s existence, reveals him grander and more majestic than His worshipers had ever suspected.  The miracles of the Bible are child’s play compared to the marvels of nature recorded in The Origin of the Species.”

Page 57 assures the  young reader that “Over the years more and more people were won over to Darwin’s ideas.  In 1864, five years after publication of Origin, Darwin was awarded Britain’s highest science honor- the Copley Medal of the Royal Society of London.”

The book claims that when Darwin published “The Descent of Man”  in 1871 it created little controversy.

By this time, a great part of the public was ready to accept the animal origin of man.  Even leading churchmen declared that nature and the bible are the work of the same divine Author and therefore do not conflict with each other.

The chapter ends with this uplifting sentence:

Thus, as time goes on, Darwin’s theory of the descent of man is being accepted without question.

This book ends with a list of further suggested reading for children of different ages.

The book is written for inclusion in classroom and school libraries in the United States.  Obviously the “accepted without question” bit needs updating.  But it does reflect my own education about Darwin and evolution as a young child in the 1960’s and 70’s.  His theory, which was taught as fact that was constantly being confirmed by new scientific discoveries, was perfectly fine with the church I attended.

Mary Douglas Nicol Leakey (1913-1996) and her ...

Mary Douglas Nicol Leakey (1913-1996) and her husband Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey (1903-1972) (Photo credit: Smithsonian Institution)

My friends and I grew up fascinated by the Leakey family, digging up our ancestors in East Africa, and eagerly awaited the latest edition of “National Geographic” to read about their adventures.  I remember talking about the Leakey’s with Father Taylor after church, he was as fascinated and admiring as the children in his congregation with their work.  The assurance, that evolution and church, were compatible found in the pages of the 1968 edition of “Charles Darwin” and in my own childhood, has sadly has not held up to the test of time.

While advances in science such as DNA continue to affirm Darwin’s work, far too many on the religious right have reacted by becoming even more alienated from truth and science.

The dream that religion and evolution can exist together is one of contention, among both atheists and believers. Many so called liberal churches, such as the Episcopalian church I grew up in, accept evolution much as Charles Kingsley did.  Other churches still handle snakes and get their own reality show on “National Geographic”.  I suppose it is for ratings, but it makes me sad that the organization that had a TV show that introduced my generation to Jane Goodall, Jacques Cousteau and the Leaky family now has a network featuring snake handling religious fanatics.

The promise of 1968, if only in a small children’s book, will more than likely not happen in my lifetime.

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