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chimpskull edinburghWhen I (ever) get around to shooting the sixth YouTube video in the Parenting Beyond Belief series, it’ll be about teaching elementary age kids about evolution.

My advice in a nutshell? Don’t. (That’s why I don’t usually put my advice in nutshells.) [Added: Please note that this is a joke, apparently too subtle. The next sentence reverses it. See? All is well.]

What I mean, of course, is DO teach them about it — but do it in the same way you might teach an eight-year-old about a Shakespeare sonnet or a Bartok string quartet. I wouldn’t sit my second grader down in front of Bartok’s Fifth Quartet and expect her to plead, please oh please Daddy, for the Sixth. The trick is to lay a groundwork by exposing her to music of a hundred kinds, so that later, when she encounters Bartok, she’ll have the experience and the conceptual grounding to make her own informed judgment about it.

Appreciating Shakespeare starts with exposure not to Sonnet 138, but Green Eggs and Ham. (Or maybe a marriage of the two.) Get them savoring meter and wit itself, then they’ll step up into more and more subtle examples of it very naturally as their palate matures. To understand why Bartok and Shakespeare are so friggin’ incredible, it helps to have come across a thousand other examples of their arts to get a sense of what’s possible and what’s been tried. Then you can really savor what they achieved.

Evolution is another thing that’s best approached in sensible steps. It’s an immense, complex and subtle thing that takes place in achingly slow increments as random variation is acted upon by decidedly non-random selective pressures. It’s directional in the short term and directionless in the long term. It is heartless and wasteful and elegant all at once.

In my early teens, I had a very basic grasp of evolution — condensable I’m sure to 50 words or less, half of which were “very.” I majored in physical anthropology in college because I knew juuuust enough to know how much I didn’t know — and how very much I wanted to know it.

I was nineteen before I had a solid grasp of evolution, its evidence, its mechanism, and its astonishing implications.

Since my kids are on track to beat me in everything else — looks, personality, sports, general maturity and fashion sense — I figure I’ll do what I can to help them grasp the greatest realization in human history a lot earlier than I did. The key is to focus not on evolution first, but on natural selection, the much more graspable process that drives evolution.

I addressed this in Raising Freethinkers (pp 17-18):

Q: My six-year-old is fascinated by the natural world. I’ve tried to introduce her to the idea of evolution, but when I say, “A long time ago, apes turned into humans,” she squinches her face—and I know she’s picturing something pretty funny. How can I help her understand the long, slow, fascinating process of evolution?

A: By teaching it the same way evolution happens—in small steps over many years:

1. Draw her attention to adaptations. If I’m out on a walk in the woods with my own daughter and we see a deer with protective coloration, I’ll often say, “Look—you can barely see it! What if I was an animal trying to find a deer to eat? That one wouldn’t be very easy to find. And its babies would have the same coloring, so I’ll bet they’d be hard to find, too.”

2. Imagine a poor adaptation. “Hey, what if it was bright pink? I think I’d have a pink one for supper every night, they’d be so easy to catch.” I step on a twig and the deer bolts away. “Ooh, fast too! I’ll bet I’d have to eat slow pink ones every night. Soon there wouldn’t be any slow pink ones left because I’d have eaten them all!”

3. Move to natural selection, using a non-human example and a shortened timescale. Evolution itself requires thousands of generations and a massive timescale, so above the microbial level we can’t see it in action. But we can study natural selection, the mechanism by which evolution occurs. Once natural selection is understood, evolution is an inevitable consequence of the passage of time. And one creature in particular is just waiting in the wings, so to speak, to explain natural selection to our kids: the peppered moth. [See the Activities section in RF Chapter 1.]

4. Use analogy to teach the otherwise unimaginable timescale. Analogies can be difficult for very young kids, but once your child is able to handle that level of abstraction, there’s no better way to render the inconceivable conceivable. Saying a million Earths would fit inside the Sun is fine, but saying “If the Sun were a soccer ball, Earth would be a peppercorn”—now I get it. Same goes for time. Use either Sagan’s Cosmic Calendar or Dawkin’s armspan analogy.

That’s been our approach, and once in a while, I get a hint that it’s working. Two weeks ago during the Christmas break, Connor (14) was sitting bored, looking out our back window. Suddenly he said, “Dad! Plants don’t feel pain.”

We had a conversation long ago about the many remaining open questions — like whether dolphins are actually smarter than we are, to what extent other animals communicate with each other — and whether plants feel pain.

“How do you know they don’t?” I asked.

“There’d be no reason for them to evolve that,” he said. “Pain is a warning so you can get away from something like a predator, or take your hand out of the fire. But plants can’t move anyway, so pain wouldn’t be an advantage. It wouldn’t help one plant survive to reproduce more than another one. It would just…hurt.”

I reel a bit in moments like these. Never mind whether he’s right — I have no idea myself. The wonderful thing is that he’s thinking creatively and in the right terms. In this case, that means thinking “selectively.” With that grounding, once he encounters evolution in greater depth, it’ll slip on like a glove.

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Dale McGowan is chief content officer of OnlySky, author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies, and founder of Foundation Beyond Belief (now GO Humanity). He holds a...