Peter Sis grew up in Czechoslovakia (now two separate identities the Czech Republic and Slovakia) behind the Iron Curtain. Unable to travel or see the world he turned to maps. He was fascinated to see places and oceans he could not go to physically. He also grew in an environment where going against the grain could endanger one’s family and friends. It is this claustrophobic environment that later drew him to explorers and thinkers who dared to deviate from the norm. Christopher Columbus, Galileo Galilei and Charles Darwin are three out of the box, radical thinkers Sis has dedicated books to for their unconventional, world-altering ideas. Gentlemen who built their ideas on observation and collection of data. Yet another motivation to write and illustrate these biographies is to point out to children that the way to glory is built on hardship, a strong belief in ideas, an ability to stand against strong opposition to any change from established norms and conventions.
The Tree of Life: Charles Darwin outlines the remarkable ‘full life’ of Charles Darwin who proposed a theory of evolution so radical that we hear its reverberations even today. In this beautifully, well-detailed picture book Sis presents Charles Darwin, the naturalist, loving father, devoted husband, adventurer, truth-seeker, humanist, team player, concerned son and scientist.
Darwin was born in 1809 in Shrewsbury, England. He was the fifth child of the physician Robert Darwin and Susannah Darwin. His father was a liberal thinker and had wanted Darwin to become a doctor like himself. Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus Darwin too had been a free thinker. In fact, he had pondered about all life forms springing from one source. His ideas were considered preposterous and he was ridiculed socially.
“Would it be too bold to imagine, that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament…?”
Despite getting into medical school, in Edinburgh, Darwin was unable to stay the course. He was terribly disturbed when he had to watch surgical procedures being conducted without anaesthesia (as was the practice). He did get the chance to listen to the finest scientific minds while at Edinburgh.
He moved on to Cambridge where he hoped to graduate in divinity and please his father. His father was increasingly concerned that Darwin was spending too little time on studying for a profession but too much in shooting, riding, fishing and taking long walks collecting all sorts of insects and plants.
The pull of the divine was weak on Darwin and he gravitated to lectures in Botany. He studied under Professor John Steven Hendrow. In Cambridge, he ardently collected all sorts of beetles and hoped to be part of an expedition for naturalists. He enjoyed his time at Cambridge but recalled later that he learnt little and squandered most of his time. Yet, his time spent at Cambridge would be remembered as some of his happiest. He got a lucky break when he got to join the expedition of the HMS Beagle, under the captaincy of Robert Fitzroy.
The captain a young 27 and Darwin then aged 22 made good companions.Despite his father’s concerns Darwin set sail on a journey that would last for five years. The HMS Beagle was to sail along the coast of South America and make stops to determine the longitude of the earth.
Cape Verde Islands, the Equator, St.Paul’s rocks, Bahia (Salvador), Buenos Aires, Tierra Del Fuego, Rio Negro, Port Despas, Falkland, Chile, Andes, Australia, New Zealand, Tasmanian Islands and the Galápagos Islands were some of the key stops Darwin made with the crew. In his travels, he was saddened to see the persecution of the indigenous tribes by the settlers.
Once back in England, Darwin never left its shores again. His vast collection of plant and animal species, his notes and discussions with fellow naturalists and his publications were to keep him busy till his death.
He went on to marry his cousin Emma and sire many children. He lost a son and two daughters and suffered from poor health. He was also the recipient of many accolades and recognitions. He could have easily settled into a life of a rich aristocrat. But something was gnawing at Darwin. He drew a tree with a single trunk from which all forms of life, represented by branches came to life. He began to believe that man had descended from apes. He remained quiet about this theory fearing social ostracisation. He did, however, have discussions with his wife Emma and Joseph Dalton Hooker.
Self-doubt and a sense of all the work not leading up to anything dominated his thoughts. Slowly but surely the idea that had taken root in his mind became a conviction and Darwin felt he had to share his ideas, despite unfavourable consequences. Species he realised are not immutable, but constantly evolving. He believed they evolved in response to their environment and took on such adaptations to help them survive, neigh, thrive.
His personal life was not without distress. He lost Annie his ten-year-old daughter and his son Charles Waring to Scarlett fever.
Sis encapsulates Darwins theory outlined in The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.(Published in 1859) in the centrefold.
1.Plants and animals have more offspring than are needed to replace the parents.
2.The offspring of a set of parents are not all exactly alike.
3.The overall number of each kind of plant or animal stays the same. The struggle for existence- or natural selection, or survival of the fittest -keeps the numbers down.
The centrefold tries to capture the explosion of conclusions based on years of observation and understanding that Darwin had achieved. Life on earth he believed had generated over billions of years in a single branching tree- the Tree of Life.
The world lost Darwin in 1882, but his ideas have become forever the foundation on which we understand the evolution of all life on earth.
The Tree of Life: Charles Darwin is an elegant work of love by Peter Sis. It is his tribute to a man who brought new understanding of an uncomfortable truth with full knowledge of the havoc it could create in the accepted order of things.
Age Range: 5 – 8 years
Grade Level: 3 and up
Lexile Measure: 890L