Review: Mammals Who Morph
"Long ago, humans intuited that the Universe had a beginning, and told creation stories the world over. Science now confirms that ancient tradition."
— Jennifer Morgan
Mammals Who Morph is the third and final book in Jennifer Morgan's trilogy for children on the earth's history, preceded by Born with a Bang and From Lava to Life. As in her previous two accounts, Morgan's chronicle opens with a "Letter from the Universe" in which the reader is invited to follow the universe's life story, as told in first-person by the universe.
As readers, our time travels begin with "mousy mini-mammals" who "ruled the nights" in a world of giant dinosaurs "who ruled the days"; that is until the great meteor struck the earth 65 million years ago. The mini-mammals then disperse across the land, sea, and air, with some mammals returning to an "easier life" in the seas.
Along the way, Morgan effectively demonstrates the powerful force of co-evolution using an example of the bargain struck between horses and grasses. "Unlike other plants, grass grew from the bottom so it didn't get damaged when the top was eaten ... over time the horses ... had just the right teeth for grinding grass." Hominins enter the story wielding a variety of tools and strategies for survival, capturing the power of fire and sun, and close the story by confronting the current environmental crisis with the "creative powers of the universe that reside within each of us: imagination, love, and decision making."
Throughout the storyline, the universe moves from "crisis to crisis". In each episodic occurrence, Morgan characterizes the crisis as an opportunity for inventiveness and emphasizes how the interconnectedness of all life forms is very much in evidence today. For example, a lightning storm brings fire to the humans; a human's backbone was "fashioned by fish"; the deepest part of the brain was "built by reptiles"; the cells "are directly descended from ancient single cell organisms"; the rotating shoulder was "developed by primates in trees".
Morgan's tale is vividly told and thoughtfully supportive of teachers or parents who plan to use this narrative with their children. Each page contains a timeline of events and in the footer Morgan succinctly captures the science concept or concepts being developed. For example, when she relates how the "morphing of the earth" resulted in the creation of wide-open plains, the science concepts are listed as "Earth cools down and new partnerships form"and a page number links the reader to a more complete scientific explanation of the event. Morgan also provides the reader with a comprehensive list of books, videos, and websites to use in extending the scientific concepts introduced.
While Morgan's combination of storytelling and science is a compelling format for young readers, it may also prove provocative for some. First Nations readers will likely be troubled by the reference to the peopling of North America via the Bering Strait; their creation narratives do not recognize migration from Asia. Is this a case where Morgan's personification of the universe undermines her effort to advance the reader's scientific way of knowing the world? Will the reader infer then that the theory of evolution is just another story?
As I pondered these questions and how Morgan might respond, I read Morgan's farewell to the reader. Here she explains that "God is purposefully not in the story so that it can be embraced by people of all religious traditions, or of none at all ... people usually refer to "God" as a transcendent, supernatural creator who exists outside the physical world ... today we're rediscovering a sense of divine creativity, not simply in the transcendent mode, but also as immanent, as present in the Universe itself."
While this adieu did not provide an answer to any of my questions, I do know this. In these pages Morgan elegantly captures the richness and wonder of an interdependent and ever changing world where who we are cannot be separated from where we are.
Lisa M Blank
Department of Curriculum and Instruction
University of Montana
32 Campus Drive
Missoula MT 59812
Lisa M Blank is Associate Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction of the School of Education at the University of Montana.