Doing Darwin Proud: Sneed B. Collard III introduces evolution to a young audience

Teaching evolution is not without it’s perils, even in the 21st Century. It’s an unfortunate reality. The internet has proven fertile ground for people to scream “Vaccines are dangerous!” and “The world is flat!” and “I didn’t come from no monkey.” And in the case of the last example, they’d be right. Man did not descend from the modern monkey. However, the two primates did share a common ancestor a very long time ago.

Of course, that’s not what those people are trying to say though, is it? They are actually declaring that they don’t believe in evolution. Ironically, their science illiteracy is so extensive and absolute that they don’t even realize that the so-called fact that offends them so much isn’t even a fact at all. They’re getting all worked up for nothing.

Sneed B. Collard III’s latest children’s science book, One Iguana, Two Iguanas: A story of accident, natural selection, and evolution, goes a long way toward addressing the fundamental illiteracy plaguing public understanding. With one eye on the future, he teaches the decision makers of tomorrow the basics of evolution through a captivating story. He set aside some time to discuss his book.

SCIENTIFIC INQUIRER: You’ve written a lot of books on a variety of subjects. Why evolution? Why now?

SNEED B. COLLARD III: I have always wanted to write a book about evolution. I knew, though, that it was a complex subject and would require the right approach. I just didn’t know what that approach might be!

When I had the opportunity to visit the Galápagos Islands a couple of years ago, however, I started thinking more deeply about the islands’ distinct iguana species. Here you had these land iguanas that lived in sandy burrows and, like other iguanas, ate land plants. Only a few yards away, you had this totally different creature that dived underwater to graze on algae. The amazing thing: the two animals were related!

With a little digging, I discovered a recent study showing that Galápagos marine and land iguanas did indeed evolve from a common ancestor, and I thought that would fascinate kids as much as it fascinated me. Fortunately, my editor at Tilbury House agreed.

SI: How did you settle on the Galápagos iguanas? What was the appeal?

SBC: The Galápagos offered a lot of animal vehicles for discussing evolution, but the drab Galápagos finches didn’t seem “sexy” enough and the tortoises have been written about ad nauseum. Not so with the iguanas, which sport dramatic “good looks”, fascinating behaviors, and sharp contrasts between species. Really, it was an easy choice—especially because I’ve always been a lizard lover at heart (see also my book Sneed B. Collard III’s Most Fun Book Ever About Lizards).

Evolution can be a complicated topic but at the same time, it can also be easy to oversimplify. You seem to have found the sweet spot between the two. How did you approach distilling it to the essentials?

I basically followed my own interests, asking myself, “What would I want to know about this if I were a young reader?” I always like learning through stories, so telling the story of how the original lizard got to the Galápagos and evolved into different species provided a perfect way to explore the topic.

As I told the story, however, other questions popped up that begged for answers: natural selection, genes, how species could be dated, the story of Charles Darwin. I either worked the answers into the narrative or put them into sidebars. Keeping the focus on the two iguana species, though, really helped keep me from getting sidetracked and stick with what was interesting and important.

SI: How do you ou keep children engaged with science in person and in books?

SBC: Whenever possible, I tell dramatic stories. Sometimes, such as in One Iguana, Two Iguanas, a single narrative arc drives the whole book. In other cases, I am including a lot of different stories that cover different aspects of a subject. If you read a book such as Woodpeckers: Drilling Holes & Bagging Bugs (Bucking Horse Books, 2018), you’ll see that I sprinkle the book with more than a dozen high-interest stories—along with plenty of humor.

Humor is another thing my books feature. Everyone likes to laugh and readers of science books are no exception. In Woodpeckers, for instance, I ask “What would happen without woodpeckers and their holes?” The answer: “A lot of bird species would be hanging out on street corners, shoplifting flies and beetle grubs, and getting into trouble with the law.” Kids—and adults—love stuff like that.

SI: How was a love of science passed on to you by your father when you were younger? How are you doing the same for your children?

SBC: Actually, both my mother and father were scientists. My mom taught high school biology and had a special love for marine mammals. My dad was into almost everything from parasitology to plankton to sea turtles. My summers with my dad were like one big animal hunt, whether it was looking for snakes or adopting orphaned opossums. He also put me to work in his laboratory identifying deep-sea fishes and sorting plankton samples.

I’ve shared my love of science with my kids in many ways. We go hiking and camping together, and are always looking at everything around us. My son and I especially have become impassioned by birds, and have spent the last five years learning about and finding different species. We did a Big Year in 2016—the same year I visited the Galápagos.

During that year, we tried to see as many bird species as possible and ended up seeing 338, as is documented in my humorous adult memoir, Warblers & Woodpeckers: A Father-Son Big Year of Birding (Mountaineers Books, 2018). We also just got invited to be on staff at our first bird festival, which should be a lot of fun and give me yet more writing ideas.

SI: Finally, what is next for Sneed B. Collard III?

SBC: Whew, good question! Currently I am working on a couple of science picture books for young readers. I also have a new photo-illustrated picture book out, Birds of Every Color (Bucking Horse Books, 2019), that explores the diversity, creation, and function of colors in birds. I’m really excited about that one because of all the STEAM tie-ins. I also just finished a novel about young birders and would like to write another adult bird/travel book soon. My editor at Tilbury House also continues to discuss books that are not only appealing but important in our rapidly changing world.

For more information about Sneed B. Collard III, visit his website at http://www.sneedbcollardiii.com/, follow him on Twitter @sneedcollard, or find him on Facebook at SneedBCollardIII.

For more books from Sneed B. Collard III’s publisher, find them at Tilbury House. You can also follow them on social media: @tilburyhouse (Twitter), tilbury.house.1 (Facebook), and tilburyhouse0102 (Pinterest).

IMAGE SOURCE: Creative Commons

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