Tuesday, November 3rd, 2009
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.
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.