Young children are notorious for their surfeit of why questions, often directed at aspects of the biological world. Take a three-year-old to the zoo, for example, and you might be asked to explain why zebras have stripes, why elephants have trunks and why flamingos have such skinny legs. (Also: why you can't pet the lion, why another cookie is off limits and why it's really, really time to go home.)
Yet this childhood curiosity about the adaptive traits of biological organisms, which Rudyard Kipling recognized with his whimsical "Just So Stories," is all but ignored by current education standards in the United States. It isn't until high school — more than a decade after that curious preschooler wandered the zoo — that children start to learn how natural selection really works.
There are some good reasons to delay comprehensive evolution instruction. For one thing, an understanding of natural selection rests on concepts — such as deep time, randomness and probability — that are pretty hard to wrap an adult head around, let alone a child-sized head. In fact, even adults commonly have misconceptions about how natural selection works.
But in delaying evolution instruction, we may miss an opportunity to leverage children's natural curiosity about the biological world, and to establish the foundations for a more accurate scientific understanding before misconceptions become deeply entrenched. So here's the challenge for educators (and parents): figuring out how to teach evolution to children in a way that's compelling and effective.
It may be Kipling had it right. His explanations for how the leopard got his spots and how the camel got his hump won't win accolades for scientific accuracy, but they each tell a tale of biological change in a form we can all understand: a children's story. And in what might be a case of convergent (pedagogical?) evolution, two different groups — one of biologists and one of psychologists — have converged on the storybook as a medium for teaching evolution. These efforts show that scientists can create exciting, scientifically accurate materials for children, and — critically — that children can actually learn from them.
The first group just reached its initial goal of raising $25,000 on kickstarter.com for the creation of Great Adaptations, a children's book about evolution.
The book brings together evolutionary biologist Tiffany Taylor, children's book author Robert Kadar, founder of the online magazine This View of Life, David S. Wilson, a well-known evolutionary biologist, and a team of scientists and artists who will work together to create stories illuminating subjects such as crow intelligence, cooperation and photosynthesis.
Tiffany Taylor corresponded with me by email about the book, which she describes as "true 'just so stories' with a solid biological foundation." She highlighted the project's complementary aims of fostering genuine scientific curiosity alongside teaching basic evolutionary thinking:
My hope is that [the book] will equip children with the right tools to view the living world from an evolutionary perspective. By understanding how adaptations benefit an organism in a given environment, it will hopefully allow them to look at any living thing and make a good guess as to why it might look or behave the way it does. The first step to becoming a scientist is to be curious about the world, and we hope this book will inspire and encourage curious minds.
The book, which targets 8- to 12-year-olds but is designed to appeal to a broad range of ages, is expected to be ready in October.
Of course, it's one thing to provide children with beautiful, scientifically informed material. It's another thing to have them actually learn from it. That's where a group of psychologists comes in with the timely publication of a paper demonstrating that evolutionary understanding in 5- to 8-year-olds can be improved by — that's right — a storybook.
The paper by Deborah Kelemen and colleagues, just published in the journal Psychological Science, reports studies in which children worked through a 10-page storybook about fictional "pilosas" and how they changed from having highly variable trunk widths to predominantly thin trunks today.
In an email conversation, Kelemen explained some of the background to the studies as follows:
There have been a slew of education studies over the past 30 years indicating that adults don't tend to understand adaptation even after instruction. This is often because they maintain inaccurate teleological ideas that natural selection transforms animals to give them the body parts they need or animals transform themselves through their own efforts.
These kinds of misconceptions, which focus on change within individuals, are extremely effective at shutting down an ability to accurately see natural selection as a population-based process.
In other words, people tend to think of evolution as a goal-directed process that changes individual organisms rather than a selective process that changes the makeup of a population of organisms over successive generations. To illustrate this crucial difference (and to test your own scientific literacy for good measure!), consider this question from an assessment of evolutionary understanding developed by psychologist Andrew Shtulman:
A youth basketball team scores more points per game this season than they did the previous season. Which explanation for this change is most analogous to Darwin's explanation for the adaptation of species?
(a) Each returning team member grew taller over the summer.
(b) Any athlete who participates in a sport for more than one season will improve at that sport.
(c) More people tried out for the same number of spots this year.
(d) On average, each team member practiced harder this season.
The correct answer is the third. But the others may be compelling because they exemplify plausible — but inaccurate — mechanisms by which biological adaptations could arise: by a process analogous to growth (option a), to a change in strength or force (option b), or to intentional action (option d), the process that figures in many of Kipling's "just so" stories.
Using measures more appropriate for young kids, Kelemen and colleagues assessed their participants' understanding of the "population-based logic" of natural selection both before and after reading their storybook. For example, kids were shown an image depicting "Wilkies," and were asked to explain how grown-up Wilkies went from mostly having short legs many hundreds of years ago to having longer legs today.
The results were encouraging. In one study, only 11 percent of 5- and 6-year-old children met the minimum criterion for population-based understanding before reading the story. But 54 percent did so immediately after, and 43 percent continued to do so three full months later. For children aged 7 and 8, the learning gains were also significant, jumping from 42 percent before the story to 90 percent after.
Kelemen credits the intervention's success in part to its storybook form, including the use of narrative and drama:
Narrative is a great way to offer a very extensive explanation-it ties together a lot of different ideas into a cohesive theoretical unit.
The picture book format is [also] wonderful because kids are intrinsically motivated. Even though the storybook itself is pretty stripped down—no bells and whistles even in the pictures—there's a lot of drama. The story is about life and death. Kids want to know what is going to happen next.
Naturally, Kelemen is enthusiastic about the potential implications for science education:
Children learned a lot from one pretty basic storybook intervention so imagine what a curriculum spread over several years might do for scientific literacy long term. It's an exciting thought.
Given the poor track record for most educational interventions targeting evolution, a short (and pleasant!) activity that actually works is exciting for both educators and science-minded parents.
Understanding the basics of natural selection isn't just important for appreciating contemporary issues like antibiotic resistance and answering your three-year-old's questions at the zoo. It's also a thrilling scientific theory at the core of contemporary biology. To quote Great Adaptations' Tiffany Taylor:
Evolution is a foundation of biology, not an optional extra.
You can keep up with more of what Tania Lombrozo is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo
Every year Bob Boilen, NPR Music's Stephen Thompson and I prepare for South by Southwest by listening to songs from roughly 1,500 artists. And when you go through that many bands you start to see trends in the names. The two most commonly occurring words are always — always — "black" and "DJ." In addition to those two, this year we noticed that "white" appears an awful lot, too, as does the name John. Michael, Paul and Jesse are also pretty popular. Go figure.
Using the power of Internology, we compiled a list of all (or nearly all) of the bands playing SXSW this year (there are a lot). Then we used that list to create a tag cloud. The names used most often are in larger type.
If you make a new band name using just the most popular words, you'd end up with something like "Wild White Ghost DJ Black Band." But the possibilities, just from the pool of words used in this year's batch of SXSW bands, are seemingly endless. Here are a few I came up with:
Team Joe Orchestra
Young Wild Sound
Of course, if you find this colletion of words too limiting, you can always refer to the online Band Name Maker or the Wu-Tang Clan Name Generator (which is reportedly how actor and musician Donald Glover came up with is rap name Childish Gambino).
Tell us your new fake band name in the comments section or tweet it @allsongs. And stay tuned for a boatload of coverage on SXSW, coming this week from NPR Music, starting with the All Songs Considered SXSW preview show, coming Tuesday.
Our Sense of Place: Austin guest today, Shakey Graves, has been described as one of the best solo acts in town. With his finger-picked guitar and suitcase drum he takes over the stage. He put out his full length debut Roll the Bones in 2011 and an EP Donor Blues a year later. He has also spent time chasing acting parts, including one in Friday Night Lights. He even moved to LA to pursue roles, but ended up spending the time working on his music. It turns out performing is in his blood — his parents were in the theater and he practically grew up onstage.
Making foods portable has long been a focus of food engineers. Gogurt did it for Yogurt, the McLeash made it easier to drag all your favorite McDonald's foods along with you. And now, by turning the open-faced sandwich closed and upping the viscosity of its Hollandaise, Dunkin' Donuts has brought portability to Eggs Benedict.
Miles: The full name is Eggs Benedict Arnold, because this sandwich is a traitor to everything breakfast should stand for.
Peter: I'm happy Dunkin's is going more upscale. I'm looking forward to the sous vide Munchkins.
Ian: I'd just like to point out how disturbing this choice on the Dunkin' Donuts website is:
Ian: Carrier. It's infected with Eggs Benedict but is not yet showing symptoms.
Miles: Typhoid Benedict.
Ian: I always get mixed up on the grammar. It's Eggs Benedict, like attorneys general, right?
Robert: Lives Threatening.
Peter: Finally, a gourmet brunch the same diameter as your cup holder.
Robert: Yeah, it's great to be able to enjoy brunch on my drive in to work, but if I get pulled over, it might be hard to explain the mimosa.
Ian: OK, "brunch" is "breakfast" plus "lunch," so this is technically "brisgusting."
[The verdict: a split decision on this one. I liked it. Peter liked it. Robert started crying and we haven't seen Mike in an hour. I think the high-viscosity Hollandaise is a real marvel of engineering, and the proof is that I did not spill one drop on my pants.]
Sandwich Monday is a satirical feature from the humorists at Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!
Ukraine appears rather helpless in the face of the Russian intervention in Crimea. But what if Ukraine still had nuclear weapons? The confrontation might look rather different, and perhaps much scarier.
When Ukraine gained independence in the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, it inherited a nuclear arsenal that included some 1,800 warheads, making it the third largest in the world, trailing only Russia and the U.S.
Ukraine could have clung to those weapons at a time when it and many other former Soviet states faced varying degrees of turmoil. But in 1994, Ukraine agreed to relinquish them and eventually sent the warheads by train to Russia. In return, Ukraine got assurances its sovereignty would be respected.
At the time, the Budapest Memorandums on Security Assurances seemed like a win for everyone.
The agreement symbolized the new possibilities of cooperation in a post-Cold War world. A major nuclear arsenal was being destroyed. The newly independent Ukraine received promises that the signatories would "refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine."
Today, that memorandum looks rather flimsy in the face of the effective Russian takeover in Crimea. And events in Ukraine may also send a strong signal to countries like North Korea about the value of maintaining a nuclear arsenal as a deterrent.
Some Ukrainians Wish They Still Had Nukes
"We gave up nuclear weapons because of this agreement," Pavlo Rizanenko, a member of the Ukrainian parliament, told USA Today. "Now there's a strong sentiment in Ukraine that we made a big mistake."
Nuclear weapons may make the world nervous, but foreign troops rarely pay unannounced visits to nuclear states.
"In the future, no matter how the situation is resolved in Crimea, we need a much stronger Ukraine," Rizanenko added. "If you have nuclear weapons, people don't invade you."
Perhaps Russia would have changed its calculations and shown more restraint if it knew it was dealing with a nuclear nation. Then again, the current crisis would potentially be even more dangerous if Russia had intervened and Ukraine had nuclear arms.
India and Pakistan are both nuclear nations and whenever tensions rise, usually over the disputed region of Kashmir, a relatively small skirmish can raise the specter of a nuclear confrontation. A regional problem can instantly take on much greater dimensions.
The Obama administration has imposed some punitive measures against Russia and is discussing the possibility of stronger sanctions. But there's been no mention of possible military force.
No Promise Of Military Action
While Ukrainians may feel let down by the response in the West, the U.S. did not pledge to take military action under the 1994 memorandum, said Steven Pifer, who worked on the negotiations at the time and went on to be the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 1998 to 2000.
"I think it's very clear that Russia is in violation of its commitments," Pifer told Weekend All Things Considered. "What you see happening over the last week in Crimea is nothing less than a Russian military occupation of the peninsula.
But, he went on to say:
"There's a very important reason why it's the Budapest Memorandum of Assurances and not of guarantees. We were very clear — and the Ukrainians understood this back in 1994 — that we were not going to use the word guarantee because we were not prepared to extend a military commitment."
So 20 years later, Ukraine can no longer play the nuclear card. But Russia can.
Russia's Ministry of Defense said Saturday that it may halt international inspections of its nuclear weapons in response to sanctions threats from the U.S. and other Western countries. The inspections are part of the START nuclear treaty that the U.S. and Russia signed in 2010.
Greg Myre is the international editor for NPR.org. You can follow him on Twitter @gregmyre1.