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do elephants have knees?



by Gregory A. Smith


do elephants have knees? And other Stories of Darwinian Origins fires the imagination. Charles “Kip” Ault looks beyond the time Darwin spent on the Galápagos examining its flora and fauna, the episode from his five-and- a-half-year Beagle voyage. As a twenty-something, Darwin also rode with gauchos in Patagonia, joined mustered companies of marines, and worried about being eaten by jaguars on his shore leave expeditions. He collected the fossil bones of giant sloths and other megabeasts. Yes, Darwin may have been a nerd obsessed with collecting insect specimens during his childhood, but he was also a young man willing to risk everything—from violent storms to tectonic disaster—in order to answer the “impertinent” origins questions that seemed to come so easily to his mind.

By wondering about the relationship between fossil specimens and extant life forms, Darwin’s questions led to the rewriting of the origin stories that human beings tell themselves. In doing so, he justified the nickname “Philos” given to him by the Beagle’s Captain FitzRoy. Ault’s framing of this account brings to mind stories about other 18th and 19th century natural scientists like Alexander von Humboldt or David Douglas who set aside comfortable lives to explore regions of the planet previously unknown to people of European descent. What they and Darwin discovered set the stage for much of what has happened in the biological sciences in the decades since their pioneering work. They described, named, and categorized previously unknown life forms. Much of what this book is about is the process by which those names and categories—fish, bird, tetrapod, cetacean, artiodactyl, proboscidean, archosaur—are assigned and hence acquire meaning. The naming has become integral to Darwin’s theory of natural selection, the mechanism he believed underlay life’s extraordinary variety. There are stories of Darwinian origins embedded in the naming—whether of bones and joints or species and families—that are fascinating to tell.


Darwin was willing to ask questions not unlike those children might ask as they begin to make sense of the world. My youngest son lived his first two years in Alaska where he was able to get a ground-level view of moose grazing on winter-killed flowers just outside his basement bedroom window. On a car trip to Oregon the summer after his second birthday, he looked out the window in southern British Columbia, saw a herd of cattle and said, “Moose!”  In this instance, he didn’t ask a question, but he was making the same mistake that a lonely Morris made in Bernard Wiseman’s children’s book Morris the Moose when he approached a cow. Their ensuing dialogue in a humorous way considers the challenge mirrored in paleontology to properly classify the natural world, both living and extinct, in keeping with Darwinian ideas.


The process of scientific exploration does not have to be mechanical or dull. Ault makes this point by drawing upon children’s literature as well as Darwin’s writings. Referring to Kipling’s Just So Stories or Leo Leonni’s Fish is Fish, Ault stresses the importance of a willingness to think outlandish rather than prescribed thoughts. For example, as Darwin was attempting to discover what the precursor to baleen in whales, he imagined the possibility of an ancestor to modern bears developing the kind of filter that exists in the mouths of dabbling ducks. Illustrations throughout the book by Jan Glenn depict some of these biological possibilities. No such beast exists in the fossil record, but Darwin’s entertainment of their potential existence speaks to his willingness to think impertinent thoughts.


This playful aspect of thought coupled to the guiding role of imagery, Ault suggests, is central to the work of scientists and is often found in stories for children. This philosophical perspective lies at the heart of do elephants have knees?


Two college friends of mine who went on to study genetics and neurology and become medical research scientists were among the most childlike friends I knew in my twenties. One or the other of them played in rock bands, had memorized lyrics to numerous Beatle songs, climbed mountains, and wrote final exams for biochemistry courses on single sheets of paper with illustrations and creative lettering. Like Darwin, they were often impertinent and impatient with social constraints, yet carried with them a seemingly endless sense of wonder and delight in the world. Science provided a way for them to deepen and extend that delight. It is such delight that this volume seeks to engender. Read it and wonder—in all of the multiple connotations of that word.


Gregory A. Smith

Professor Emeritus

Lewis & Clark Graduate School of Education

author, with David Sobel, of Place- and Community-based Education in Schools

May 6, 2016

Challenging Science Standards


from the Foreword

by John L. Rudolph

As Challenging Science Standards reveals, the more we have learned about what science consists of—the many diverse intellectual practices that fall under the label “science”—the more untenable the project of standardization has become. When people talk about the history of education, one of the most common metaphors invoked is that of the pendulum swing, the idea that schools experience certain trends or fads that arise in one period and, years later, these surface again in nearly identical form with only a change in terms or slogans. A focus on student needs or personal interests, for example, was prevalent in the progressive educational reforms of the 1920s in the United States, and they appeared again in the student-centered reforms of the 1970s that emerged in reaction to the highly structured disciplinary teaching of the post-World War II period.


While the pendulum swings from one educational fetish to another and back again may be more products of our imagination than grounded in reality, we shouldn’t discount the fact that there are nonetheless key trends and phases in the history of education worth paying close attention to. Charles “Kip” Ault’s Challenging Science Standards is a book that highlights the borders between these important educational trends in a number of interesting ways.


For one, it marks the very beginning of a shift away from universalism and standardization in science education in the US. Indeed, this is the main focus of the book, showing us with rich examples and lively prose the inadequacies of the current march toward standards. Professor Ault demonstrates with a deft historical awareness how we got to this point and how our current conceptualizations of science have resulted from the need to manufacture representations of science that conform to the demands of the accountability movement in this country. In presenting the case against standards, this book represents, if we give in to the pendulum metaphor (at least superficially), the high point of the swing, the point of pause where society has collectively begun to reconsider whether the current path makes sense—whether there should be a move away from the rush to standardization and its consequences for how science is taught in schools. Challenging Science Standards exists at that boundary between educational visions and is a marker, if not a force, in changing our vision.


At a deeper, more contextual level, Challenging Science Standards provides a window into the complexity of change. Here the work makes visible the inevitable conflict between two distinct educational trends—one in school organization and governance and the other in the field of science and technology studies—that have unfolded and interacted in ways that fall well outside the pendulum metaphor. Ault’s book in this way honors the view that history is never simple and, properly studied, reminds us of the importance of context at each particular point in time.


The technological successes of the second world war (which were visible in things such as radar and atomic weapons) led to the recognition that scientific research and development needed to be nurtured by our country and others across the globe. The goal since that war has been to somehow ensure that we bend science to national needs (whether they be military or economic). This led, turn by turn, to the increasing focus on educational accountability and standardization we are living with today—to the current focus on standards in science education.


The recognition of the importance of science to the social and political fabric of modern nations at the same time sparked new forms of intellectual studies—the history, philosophy, and sociology of science that began to examine the very nature of the sciences as a path to new knowledge. What they found was that, despite the early twentieth-century (and mid-century) desires to cast the sciences as a universal entity, science was instead clearly multifaceted, a collection of different ways of making knowledge rather than some monolith.


Challenging Science Standards shows us clearly the collision course these two trends are on and demands that we seek to chart a new course. In this it gives us all hope for a new movement in science education, one more faithful to our understanding of science and how it works.

John L. Rudolph

University of Wisconsin-Madison

Author of Scientists in the Classroom: The Cold War Reconstruction of Science Education

Rudolph Review
Smith Review



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