Book Review: How Whales Walked into the Sea

The whole world is a family.” –My 5-year-old daughter on the beautiful message she gets from evolution, all of us derived from a common ancestor.

Cover image of the book How Whales Walked Into the Sea.

I previously reviewed Our Family Tree: An Evolution Story, and while it was a good introduction to concepts behind evolution, it’s a bit esoteric for young children.  I was lucky to recently come by How Whales Walked Into the Sea by Faith McNulty and illustrated by Ted Rand (who by the way began illustrating children’s books at age 70).

I know some Thinga-readers don’t believe in evolution; maybe I’ll have something more interesting for you tomorrow.

What’s exciting about this book is that it focuses on a single animal, an unlikely animal. We think of life starting in the oceans and migrating onto land, so it’s fascinating to learn about an animal that reversed course about 50 million years ago. Each page features a large color painting of an ancient ancestor from which whales descended, telling a little about the animal. You see the animals as they progress with slow adaptations over time, the legs getting shorter, the feet broadening, the jaw elongating, the tail widening, and so forth.

The last few pages focus on whales of today, explaining their differences and some of the vestigial structures that remain. For example, the bowhead whale still has tiny leg bones hidden inside its body with no exterior hind legs remaining.

I only wish there was an entire series of books like this one that so keenly explain the concept of small changes over time.

Since reading the book last week, we’ve been watching videos of whale song and reading about humpback whales that have sing-alongs. There’s a certain indefinable expanded experience seeing these giants when you know a little something about their biological history.

If there is a problem with this book, and it’s really more of a wrinkle, it’s that it begins with the Mesonychid, which was thought to be an ancestor of whales when the book was written in 1999. Today many paleontologists believe the Anthracotheriidae (also an ancestor of hippos) was the likely oldest known ancestor, a discovery not made exclusively by fossils, but by comparative gene sequencing of whales and hippos today.

The distinction matters more to adults than young children (is Steven Spielberg’s mostly-for-fun Jurasic Park film any less exciting given the discovery that velociraptors probably had feathers?), but this new information aptly demonstrates the power and value of science. Unlike, say, a creation story that is set in stone, science continually refines human knowledge. A discovery that invalidates a hypothesis or theory is still an advancement of knowledge to be celebrated. And, of course, fossil evidence isn’t even needed to demonstrate evolution at work in all living things, it’s really just icing on the cake.

The book is rated for 7-year-olds, but when read to by an adult, it’s easily done at age 4.

The bad news is that How Whales Walked into the Sea is out-of-print. We obtained our copy on loan from a library hundreds of miles away, one of the perks of having a wife who is university faculty. Buy your copy through AbeBooks, a vast database of books at independent bookstores around the world. Pay special attention to the listed condition of the book because most copies are not in new condition.


8 Responses to “Book Review: How Whales Walked into the Sea”

  1. gertie says:

    Thanks for the review! Sounds like a good book.

    November 3rd, 2009 at 11:16 pm

  2. Isi says:

    Good review. We have been on a space and ocean kick lately for our reading time. Our oldest – 8yo – is fascinated by space, planets, etc… and our 6yo is fascinated by various things about the ocean – in particular the large creatures that roam it.

    We have only touch a little on evolution. When they ask how something was formed or why this critter has wings and some other does not we talk about the slow process of natural selection.

    Thanks for the link as well. I usually rely on Amazon for finding books but they don’t always have everything. Other sources are nice to keep in the tool chest.

    November 4th, 2009 at 8:57 am

  3. Angelique says:

    AJ, been meaniing to tell you, we got “Our Family Tree” for our 4-year-old. He LOVES it. We’ve had to read it together every day for three weeks. In particular, he’s facinated with the concepts of cells and DNA and that they’re too small to see without a something called a microscope. With an awe-filled voice he asked, “can we get one?” And, so, that is what he received for his fourth birthday. Geeks are awesome.

    November 4th, 2009 at 9:15 am

  4. Lucy says:

    I read that to my 3rd graders when I was a teacher. They understand the concept and are blown away without you having to say “evolution”. I think kids have a harder time getting that we came from apes.

    November 4th, 2009 at 12:39 pm

  5. Lucy says:

    I read that to my 3rd graders when I was a teacher. They understand the concept and are blown away without you having to say “evolution”. I think kids have a harder time getting that we came from apes.

    November 4th, 2009 at 12:39 pm

  6. AJ says:

    Thank you everyone for your comments and thank you Angelique; I love to hear when someone buys something I’ve recommended.

    One point of clarification… it’s a common misconception that humans evolved from apes. Humans and modern day apes share a common ancestor that happened to look more like an ape than a human.

    November 4th, 2009 at 12:47 pm

  7. Angelique says:

    Huge pet peeve of mine, that whole “humans came from apes” thing. Bonobos and gorillas have been on their own evolutionary track just as long as humans! Evolution doesn’t imply any type of “ladder” or superiority; it refers to an organism’s adaptations, over massive amounts of time, to an ever changing environment.
    /off soapbox
    P.S. I’ve also purchased, among other things you’ve recommended, a Nose Freda. We refer to it as the “boogey sucker”. It is truly a wonderous tool.

    November 5th, 2009 at 8:40 am

  8. Elizabeth says:

    Looks like a cool book – I didn’t know whales came from a land animal. I’ll have to try and scrounge up a copy for my science-loving eight year old.

    November 22nd, 2009 at 11:58 am

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