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Using Baseball Cartoons to Introduce Concepts Related to Convergent Evolution

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This post was written by Lesley Anderson, 2021-2022 Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow at the Library of Congress.

For biology students, evolution can sometimes be a tricky topic to understand and engage with. These resources offer a unique entry point to studying convergent evolution. Sequencing the segments of a whimsical baseball image can introduce students to some of the evidence-weighing processes scientists use when looking at the fossil record.

First, group students into small teams of two or three and hand out an envelope to each team with the frames from the Evolution of a Catcher image cut out individually. Ask students to place the cards in order. Tell students to use their observation skills to make a claim based on evidence for the order that they believe the pictures should be arranged. Encourage students to share their claims and specific supporting evidence from the frames. If there are multiple answers, encourage students to discuss the merits of each argument.

Five panel illustration beginning on the left with a cat, sitting on its hind legs, playing with a ball of yarn, which evolves into a baseball catcher standing upright.
Evolution of a Catcher. H.S. Crocker and Company, 1889

Five panel illustration beginning with a ceramic pitcher on the left which evolves into a baseball pitcher.
Evolution of a Pitcher. H.S. Crocker and Company, 1889

Before showing students the complete Evolution of a Catcher primary source, show them the Evolution of a Pitcher primary source and ask them to look back at their sequence and determine if this new resource supports their claim or encourages them to revise their claim. Ask students to discuss the reasoning behind their claim and how the new resource affects their thinking. Students may note that the Evolution of a Pitcher ends with a baseball player and they may use the claim that their card sort should also end with a baseball player, following the same pattern.

This is similar to the reasoning process that scientists use when they map out the fossil record. Each of these slices of a picture depicts one moment in a process, just as a fossil is like a snapshot of one moment in evolutionary history. When students discover that the final image for each picture is a baseball player, they can make a connection to an important concept related to convergent evolution – the idea that two independent species evolved similar traits over time, but are unrelated to each other. Of course, these two pictures aren’t depictions of evolution; they’re a record of the artist’s sense of humor.

Some questions you may ask students during a reflection on this exercise:

  • How did you change your thinking or solidify your claim?
  • How can you be sure your claim is correct?
  • How sure are scientists that their claims about the fossil record are correct?

Students may be excited to learn the correct answer to the puzzle. I encourage you to treat your students like scientists and explain that it is impossible for scientists to know with 100% certainty what happened in the past because no one was alive to experience it! But we can use evidence, lots and lots of evidence, to make a claim about our current and best understanding of the fossil record. Your students may be frustrated by this notion, but perhaps it will spark some curiosity about and interest in the scientific method and evolutionary biology.

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