Darwin’s Tree of Life is an accurate yet appealing introduction to the basics of evolution for readers 8–12 years old. Many key concepts – such as deep time, natural selection, and the common ancestry of all species – are highlighted throughout the book. A two-page glossary provides understandable definitions of various unfamiliar terms; there is also a brief but useful index. While scientifically literate parents will love Michael Bright’s content, children will adore Margaux Carpentier’s amazing artwork on every page. The beauty of the illustrations alone is enough to keep the kids turning pages all the way to the last page, inhabited by Homo sapiens, although readers are admonished, “The Tree of Life does not stop growing.” Nor should their wonder.
The overall approach of the book is to present a number of branches on the evolutionary tree of life, explaining what makes them unique with a memorable heading (like “Lots of Legs” for the arthropods) while providing beautiful illustrations of the key members in each group type. On the inside cover of the book is a complete geological time scale, with explanations and definitions to help a novice understand the amount of deep time that occurred as these organisms evolved. Several pages focus on a major evolutionary event, such as the transition from algae to land plants, the development of a backbone, or the tetrapods’ leaving the ocean. Additionally, every page has an actual tree branch drawn twisting around the organisms it discusses, giving a sense of continuity as the reader in effect “climbs” the tree of life.
Although Darwin’s Tree of Life will make a nice addition to any young scientist’s library, there are a few caveats. First, it follows a more traditional organization, using Linnaean taxonomy for the majority of the content and does not address more modern and conflicting phylogenetic relationships seen when using evolutionary cladistics. For example, the placement of turtles and crocodilians with respect to the reptiles has been much debated owing to recent analyses that suggest they may need their own taxonomic branch on the tree, beside instead of with their reptile cousins. Also, humans are referred to as “apes,” not “hominids,” which could reinforce a misconception about how the primate family evolved. Finally, in a commendable effort to keep the vocabulary at the appropriate age level, Bright sometimes oversimplifies, misrepresenting the scientific process by writing that “scientists believe” and anthropomorphizing nature by writing that a species “came up with” an evolutionary strategy. Yet these problems provide opportunities to engage children in further discussion or more challenging literature on the same subject in the future.