When our kids turn their irresistible little faces to us and ask about snack time, soccer practice, or the location of the remote, we parents can more or less handle the question. But when they focus their penetrating laser eyes on us and ask, “Where did humans come from?” we may wish for an easier question, or possibly a stiff drink. When did they get to be so inquisitive?
Introducing kids to biological evolution can be daunting. If you feel that way, you’ve come to the right place. If you don’t feel that way, you’ve also come to the right place. Grab a beverage, put up your feet, and read on for some strategies on how to bring evolution into your kids’ lives.
This is the first and most important strategy. Many people believe that understanding biological evolution involves conquering several barbed-wire intellectual fortresses. While such fortresses do exist—genetics, paleontology, geology—they tend to frighten children and grown-ups. Steer clear.
If you can read this book, you can understand enough about evolution to present it to children. If your grasp feels shaky, then the best course is to teach yourself alongside your kids. Do some Googling together, or read some of the recommended books. Not only will you learn about it yourself, but you will also model the process of fearless investigation. We don’t know how evolution works? Great, let’s go find out, kids! Nothing here to be intimidated by, and definitely no shame in saying, “I don’t know.”
At its heart, the evolution of life through natural selection is simple. In a nutshell:
Animals change slowly over time because the ones that have traits that help them survive are the ones that go on to have the kids. Because those kids have the same traits as their parents, they can also survive well. Some of the kids might also be a little different from their parents, in ways that make them even better able to survive than their brothers and sisters. Meanwhile, the animals that can’t survive die off before they can have any kids. Carry that on over many, many, many generations and voila, animals have shapes and organs that suit them to their environments.
The handy acronym VIST sums up four central concepts of evolution: variation, inheritance, selection, and time. The above description contains all these concepts, but in plain language. As long as these concepts show up in your conversations with your kids, jargon is unnecessary.
Over the years I have collected many explanations of evolution by natural selection. I give points for brevity, clarity, and friendliness. Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, even though it kicked off this whole party, loses points for its length, density, and solemnity. One brilliant winner is a double-page illustration involving frogs in Life on Earth by Steve Jenkins, written for ages seven to ten.
I also give points to this exquisitely brief explanation, understandable by people aged 1 to 100: When you make copies of something, then there are more of them.
Keeping evolution simple for children is just like presenting any other complex subject. We teach six-year-olds about government not by reading them the Constitution but by explaining one-person-one-vote. We teach them about the solar system not with Newtonian physics but with a plastic model of the sun and planets. These descriptions of a complex underlying reality are oversimplified but not grossly incorrect, and we wouldn’t berate ourselves for omitting the gritty details. We also wouldn’t say that these subjects are just too complicated and not appropriate for kids to even contemplate. Most importantly, kids grasp these simpler explanations. Let’s do the same for evolution.
Kids learn best about any topic when it is woven into daily life, discussed repeatedly, and treated as normal. Once my two sons basically grasped evolution, we were amazed at how frequently it came up day to day. Here are some examples:
Looking at some sparrows clustered at our bird feeder, the kids noticed that some birds pushed in toward the food more aggressively than others. There it is: The more aggressive ones get the food, which makes them more likely to survive and eventually produce pushy, aggressive little baby birds.
The Star Trek episode “Amok Time” involves Mr. Spock traveling back to Vulcan to mate, but his wife excitedly orders him into a fight to the death with Captain Kirk instead. The whole thing ends up being a textbook example of evolutionary pressure through sexual selection. Watch the episode, you’ll see.
Why, my kids whined, do they have to get flu vaccines every single year instead of just once like other vaccines? Well, kids, it’s because viruses evolve so quickly that our bodies are facing new strains all the time. By next year, the flu viruses that survive this year will have evolved into something else.
So give it a try. Once your ears are pricked to listen for it, you’ll find evolution everywhere.
Truly, the evolution of life is mind-blowing. It is a sweeping creation story, complete with thrilling battles, unexpected reversals, and epic upheavals, played out over hundreds of millions of years with an immense cast of fascinating characters. If ever there was purely secular awe, this story will inspire it.
Each kid is connected to the history of all life on earth. And not just connected: We literally embody the history of life. Inside our genes are a bunch of Neanderthal genes, trilobite genes, hell, even jellyfish genes! How strange and cool is that?
Take a look around at our lavish living world, kids. There are lemurs, bacteria, baobab trees, hammerhead sharks, luna moths, ostriches—and on an on. All this extravagant life took hundreds of millions of years to develop. What stunning luck that we should be alive now to see it all, and how wonderful that this rug of life will keep unfurling long after us.
That said, evolution is also a cold, purposeless process in which countless cute animals that would have made excellent plushy toys have met with grisly extinction. How to break this to the kids?
I have three suggestions. First, call on your larger strategy for dealing with death. Personally, my strategy as a secular parent is pretty prosaic: Death is part of life, kids. When you die, nothing happens, just like before you were born. Looked at this way, the brief time we have to live on this planet gains richness, importance, and purpose. All those cute fuzzy animals did die, yes, but they also had their rich, important time on this earth, just like us.
Second, remind the kids that evolution also generates the beauty of the living world. Every time your child gasps at a peacock’s display, laughs at an axolotl, or snuggles with the family cat, she is reveling in the wonderful products of evolution, inseparable from the vicious parts. In other words, the bad is inseparable from the good.
Third, although the evolutionary process is generally indifferent to the survival of offspring, we parents are not. As Homo sapiens, we have evolved a ferocious, protective love of our progeny, so our kids need not fear that they face grisly deaths. Also, they can look forward, if they have their own kids one day, to feeling that ancient ferocious love as well. It’s pretty great.
Like it or not, the social context of evolution in the United States is fraught. Perhaps Grandma believes that God made all the animals in their current form, or the kids at school ask why there are still monkeys if we supposedly evolved from them. Evolutionary biology attracts this homespun skepticism more than other sciences, even though other fields propose much freakier ideas, like infinite multiple universes or time flowing backward. But no matter.
Since we have to live with this social context, at least we can put it to use as a critical thinking exercise for the kids. In a scientific worldview, competing ideas are always welcome, and they are always treated to the same essential scrutiny: How well does this idea correspond with what we can observe about the world? The idea of Helios driving the sun chariot across the sky each day was a pretty good match for the daily observations of the ancient Greeks, but our observations are so much richer now, and Helios’s chariot no longer cuts it.
Likewise, our vast observations of animals, fossils, rocks, and genes need some splainin’. This is your chance to think it through with the kids: Which explanation best fits what we see in the world? Challenge them to go get the scoop from Grandma, hear out the kids at school, talk to anyone about it. Have the kids gather information about competing theories and try to convince you, or more importantly try to convince themselves. What makes the most sense?
For help on specific arguments arising from creationism or intelligent design, see the Wikipedia page on Objections to Evolution or TalkOrigins’ archive of creationist claims and refutations.
We don’t need to be biologists to present evolution to our kids, and we don’t need to get every point scientifically correct down to a gnat’s knees. Yet certain misconceptions about evolution just seem to persist in this country. Let’s do the future a favor and get rid of these myths as we raise the next generation.
Cognitive science tells us that very young children have a teleological view of the world, meaning they naturally assign intentions to inanimate things and processes. To a child, wind in the trees may seem, for example, like a purposeful force trying to push the trees down. This thought pattern is probably itself an evolved trait, deeply baked into our brains and difficult to counteract in kids as well as adults.
Evolution is a process that takes in random events like genetic mutations or environmental changes and spits out creatures of astounding order. How can that be? We naturally assume that evolution works according to some purposeful agenda, yet in truth it is just a series of inevitable consequences with no purpose at all. A great analogy for children is a sieve, which perfectly and efficiently sorts out larger pebbles from the sand at the beach, yet is no more purposeful than, well, a sieve.
This myth goes hand in hand with thinking evolution is purposeful. If evolution has some kind of intention behind it, then of course humans would have to be the ultimate aim of that intention, being as brilliant, charming, and good-looking as we are, right? Actually, we’re just one of the zillions of species that have come and gone, no more or less important than any other.
This one exasperates me. Humans are apes, yes, and monkeys are cousins of apes. We all evolved from an unknown common ancestor that is now extinct. Any illustration of the tree of life will show this clearly enough for any child of reading age. And there are still monkeys in the same way that kids still have cousins.
A puppy will become a dog, a caterpillar will morph into a butterfly, and a delightful baby will turn into an insufferable teenager. These transformations, so easy for kids to witness and grasp, are also easy to mistake for evolutionary change. Individual creatures may change form during their life cycle, but evolution happens only on the group level, across generations.
When we say, “Fish evolved to have legs,” kids often take it to mean that one individual fish one day sprouted some legs. Instead we mean that over many, many generations the fish who had more leg-like fins were more likely to survive and breed than others. So a million years later, all the fish being born were the ones with legish fins. Species evolve, not individuals.
If your kids play the trading card game Pokemon, you may be in trouble on this one. In that game, a variety of cute imaginary critters have three body forms that they grow through in their life cycle, akin to the human cycle of infant-child-adult. The game uses the word evolution for this process, as one individual critter can “evolve” from one form to the next. Beware this poorly named game mechanism. Next time your kids are playing, try poking at them with something like, “Your Pikachu just evolved? But that’s not evolution,” and see what happens.
The dinosaur obsession swept over my kids right on schedule, lasting from about ages four to nine. It was a wonderful time, abundant with dino books, figurines, movies, music, and museums. When this happens to your kids—and I hope it does—take the opportunity to slide in some evolutionary ideas while they aren’t looking.
The variation in dinosaurs is fantastic: the huge guys with the long necks, the fierce guys with the tiny arms and gigantic teeth, the armored guys with bony frills and spikes. Many kids love to sort their dinosaur toys by size and shape, like tiny taxonomists, noticing what makes them different from each other. Kids can perhaps see the survival advantage of these various traits: that ankylosaurus’s tail looks pretty nasty in a fight, and that apatosaurus’s neck probably let her reach tall trees for food. Then of course there is the vastness of time. The dinosaurs lived mainly over three geologic periods, the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous. Your kids don’t have to know or pronounce those words, but they can notice that certain families of dinos lived in the first part (Triassic), other kinds in the middle part (Jurassic), and still others in the last bit (Cretaceous). Look how those body shapes morphed into each other over time! And best of all, despite the best efforts of that meteorite 65 million years ago, descendants of dinosaurs still live among us as birds. If your kids have trouble seeing the bird-dinosaur connection, just Google archaeopteryx. Once they get it, they will never look at a sparrow the same way.
In the biblical story of Noah, a man collects a bunch of animals into a boat and changes the world forever. Hmm, sounds like the story of Charles Darwin, too.
If your kids have a Noah’s ark play set, you can hijack that narrative. Put a piece of masking tape on the ark and relabel it the HMS Beagle, the ship that transported Darwin to the Galapagos Islands and elsewhere. Rename the Noah figure as Charles and have him board the ship not because of divine commandment but out of curiosity and love of the natural world. Instead of saving the animals from disaster, Darwin studied their lives in their home environments, taking samples on board when he could. (No need to emphasize that Darwin’s samples were—ahem—mostly dead, and that the Beagle’s crew killed and ate Galapagos tortoises with abandon.) Darwin disembarked with his animals not onto Mount Ararat but into his home laboratory, where he went on to basically blow up the worlds of science and religion with his magnificent ideas. Kids, when you grow up, you could do the same!
See the book recommendations for more on Darwin’s voyage, mainly the excellent and engrossing Inside the Beagle with Charles Darwin, by Fiona Macdonald and Mark Bergin.
For this you’ll need a roll of butcher paper, available at any craft store; some books on evolution (see recommendations later in this chapter); some Magic Markers or crayons; some kids; and a rainy afternoon. Find the longest hallway you can and unfurl the paper as much as possible. Then mark one end as “Today” and the other end as, say, “400 million years ago.” Make lines along your timeline at intervals of 50 million years or so, keeping in mind that fun is way more important than precision.
Then have the kids open any book and choose the weirdest, biggest, ugliest, or silliest creature they can. Bust out the Magic Markers, and they can draw the creature on the timeline, placing it at about the time that it lived. Many grown-ups like joining in on this one. And if you leave the timeline out for several days (or weeks, as it lasted in our house), the kids can keep adding creatures, perhaps as a bedtime ritual. Eventually you will have a one-of-a-kind work of art, and your kids will have a visceral understanding of the kinds of life that existed over the geologic ages.
If you go on Amazon.com and search under “Toys and Games” for “evolution,” you’ll find bike helmets, Star Wars merchandise, and Pokemon. Fail. But if you search a little deeper, you’ll find some great things to buy to support the kids’ evolution habit. Plenty of books are available now, for all ages and dispositions. Also, basically any dinosaur merchandise can be repurposed for evolution education. Here are some other treats:
“Tree of Life Puzzle” from EuroGraphics (1,000 pieces)
“Evolution of Man” play set from Safari Ltd. (figures of Australopithecus afarensis, Homo habilis, Homo erectus, Neanderthal, and Cro-Magnon)
“Prehistoric Man Evolution Science Kit” from Clementoni (Italian company, may be hard to find in the United States)
Any natural history museum is basically a temple to evolution. Do not miss—please do not miss under any circumstances—a chance for your kids to visit any of the big three: the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Field Museum in Chicago, or the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Their little minds will be blown. Many smaller cities also have natural history museums and are definitely worth a day trip.
Zoos and aquariums are also monuments to evolution. At your next visit, try playing some simple games with the kids. When they see an animal, for example, the kids have to find a trait that might help that animal survive in the wild. What about that giraffe’s long neck? What about the shark’s big teeth or the cheetah’s fast legs? You can also try picking out the closest cousins in the family tree. That macaroni penguin looks a lot like that chinstrap penguin, so they are probably close cousins on the tree. The elephant doesn’t look much like either of them, so elephants must be more-distant relatives. Who is close and who is far away?
If you are homeschooling or if your kids show a deeper interest in learning about evolution, you will need some more in-depth educational resources:
The “Understanding Evolution” website from the University of California Museum of Paleontology is a marvel (evolution.berkeley.edu). It offers full curricula and lessons for kindergarten through high school, plus a vast array of tools for teachers and parents to better understand evolution themselves. Go here first.
The PBS program NOVA has an excellent online “evolution lab” with games, videos, quizzes, and other tasty educational morsels for kids and adults alike (pbs.org/wgbh/nova/labs/lab/evolution/).
The academic journal Evolution: Education and Outreach is on the cutting edge of evolution teaching practices, with the aim to “promote accurate understanding and comprehensive teaching of evolutionary theory for a wide audience.” Highly readable and freely downloadable, its articles often include instructions for novel games or lessons teaching various evolutionary concepts at all levels, from kindergarten to 12th grade. Go poke around; you’ll be intrigued (link.springer.com/journal/12052).
A fair number of children’s books on evolution are available, in a broad enough selection to require curating. Some of my highest recommendations:
• Cartoon History of the Earth series, by Jacqui Bailey and Matthew Lilly (A & C Black Publishers)
• The Story of Life: A First Book About Evolution, by Catherine Barr, Steve Williams, and Amy Husband (Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 2015)
• When Bugs Were Big, Plants Were Strange, and Tetrapods Stalked the Earth, by Hannah Bonner (National Geographic Children’s Books, 2004)
• When Fish Got Feet, When Bugs Were Big, and When Dinos Dawned, by Hannah Bonner (National Geographic Children’s Books, 2015)
• Prehistoric World, by Fiona Chandler, Jane Bingham, and Sam Taplin (Usborne, 2000)
• Evolution (Eyewitness), by Linda Gamlin (Dorling Kindersley, DK, 2009)
• Evolution: The Story of Life on Earth, by Jay Hosler, Kevin Cannon, and Zander Cannon (Hill & Wang, 2011)
• Life on Earth: The Story of Evolution, by Steve Jenkins (HMH Books for Young Readers, 2002)
• Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be, by Daniel Loxton (Kids Can Press, 2010)
• Inside the Beagle with Charles Darwin, by Fiona Macdonald and Mark Bergin (Enchanted Lion Books, 2005)
• The Beast in You! Activities & Questions to Explore Evolution, by Marc McCutcheon and Cindy Blobaum (Kaleidoscope Kids Books, 1999)
• Totally Human: Why We Look and Act the Way We Do, by Cynthia Pratt Nicolson and Dianne Eastman (Kids Can Press, 2011)
• Our Family Tree: An Evolution Story, by Lisa Westberg Peters and Lauren Stringer (HMH Books for Young Readers, 2003)
• Evolution: Why Did Fish Grow Feet? and Other Stories of Life on Earth, by Anne Rooney (TickTock Books, 2014)
• Bones, Brains and DNA: The Human Genome and Human Evolution, by Ian Tattersall, Rob DeSalle, and Patricia Wynne (Bunker Hill Publishing, 2007)
• The Kingfisher Book of Evolution, by Stephen Webster (Kingfisher, 2000)
KATHERINE MILLER is a scientist and mother whose fieldwork included researching women’s reproductive health, largely in sub-Saharan Africa. She holds a Ph.D. in demography from the University of Pennsylvania and a master’s in public health from Columbia University. In 2008 she founded Charlie’s Playhouse, a company creating educational toys and games that help children learn about evolution.