Imagining evolution

‘Dinosaurs’, by Lila Prap.

This book takes a whimsical look at various species of dinosaur, drawing attention to the evolutionary function of their various physical traits. It argues that modern-day birds – specifically, chickens – descended from flying, feathered dinosaurs. Factual information is presented alongside irreverant commentary by a family of goofy chickens who are initially sceptical about their dinosaur ancestry, but eventually come to embrace it. Replete with witticisms, this book is an excellent springboard for discussions of origins and evolutionary change.

Image from Hungarian edition, sourced from an interview with the author at Pagony

Discussion: Origins of life 

  • Where do chickens come from?
  • Where did dinosaurs come from?
  • How can we explain the chicken-and-egg (or dinosaur-and-egg) paradox?
  • How did life get started in the first place? Could it have happened by accident?

Discussion: What is life, anyway?

  • What are the defining characteristics of life?
  • If we were to search for life forms on another planet, what would be looking for? If we came across ‘intelligent life’, how would we recognise it?

How does evolution work?
For a simple introduction to the process of evolution – including an explanation of ‘fitness’, natural selection, random mutation and survival advantage – see the Natural History Museum, UK.

The constant threat of predation makes it difficult for many organisms to survive long enough to reproduce. Disease and competition for resources also pose threats to survival. Artwork by by Ray Jacobs, Canterbury Museum.

Demonstration: The primate family tree
With help from archaeology and other fields of study, it’s possible to trace the ‘family tree’ or present-day animals back in time to see the relationship between species, and when they diverged from a common ancestor. Take a close look at this ‘family tree’ for the primates. Can you see where human beings fit in?

Image from Little Scientist

Of course, the evolutionary family tree extends back far earlier than the origins of primates. Researchers have found a well-preserved fossil of a tiny, shrew-like animal that lived 160 million years ago. This creature, dubbed ‘the Jurassic mother’, was the common ancestor of all modern-day mammals, including species as diverse as kangaroos, bats, chimpanzees, whales, elephants, zebras, tigers, horses…. and of course humans, too.

Activity: Imagining evolution
For each of the modern-day mammals below, imagine the sort of animal that may have once lived on the ‘evolutionary path’ as it evolved from its shrew-like ancestor to the animal you know today. Then draw the animal you have imagined, and invent a name for its species.

Image credits: Shrew-like ancestor by Mark A. Klinger, Carnegie Museum of Natural History; kangaroo by Jeff Carillo; bat by Ward Walker, Jr.; chimpanzee from Chimps Inc; whale from Ultimate Holding Company; elephant by David Dancey-Wood; zebra from Webweaver.

Discussion: Evolution and the question of teleology

  • Does evolution have a direction? Does life ‘progress’ through evolution?
  • Does evolutionary theory suggest that there is a purpose to existence?
  • Can we make predictions based on evolutionary history?
  • Where is humanity heading?

Discussion: Scientific and non-scientific explanation

Rudyard Kipling’s humorous ‘Just So Stories’ tell fictional tales of how animals acquired their traits. One story says that the camel got his hump by rolling around in lumpy sand dunes. Another story says the baby elephant got a long nose because it was stretched by a crocodile that wouldn’t let go!

  • If you didn’t know that these stories were fictional, would you be able to guess?
  • How can you distinguish between scientific and non-scientific explanations?

Discussion: Facts and values

  • Did human morality evolve, the way human bodies evolved?
  • Can facts about human nature reveal values about how we ought to behave? Could you argue, for example, that non-violent cooperation among humans helps us to survive as a species, so that is the reason why human beings value friendship?
  • Where does morality come from? Is there more to morality than just biological facts? Can questions of value ever be decided by facts?

Philosohical Allsorts

“… the universe in its entirety can be regarded as one gigantic process, a process of becoming, of attaining new levels of existence and organization, which can properly be called a genesis or an evolution.” Thomas Huxley (1825 – 1895)

“Food comes first, then morals.” Bertolt Brecht (1898 – 1956)

The Philosophy Club runs co-curricular and extra-curricular workshops for children in Australia.




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