An article by Richard Dawkins from Eureka magazine.

“Please tell me something I can tell Daddy, which he doesn’t already know.” The heartfelt plea of this child from Northern Ireland is the more poignant because his father happened to be a devout Christian – as is common in that unfortunate province. What nonsense might the boy have been fed, from the cradle on? And what true knowledge could we offer in response?

Perhaps this little boy, when he asked the perennial question: “Where did I come from?” was told: “God made you.” Or “You came out of your mother, and she came from her mother and so on back to your great-great-great-great-grandmother who came from Eve. And Eve, along with her husband Adam, was made by God.”

No educated person believes the Adam and Eve myth nowadays, but it is surprising how many parents think that it is somehow fun to pass on this falsehood (and others in the same vein) to their children. Or they expect their child’s school to do so. Perhaps they think it harmless, like Father Christmas. Or maybe they think the truth is less poetic, less “fun” or harder to understand than the myth.

But I would want to argue that the truth of evolution is more interesting and more poetic – even more fun – than this myth, or any of the hundreds of creation myths from around the world. And – perhaps surprisingly- evolution could be taught in such a way as to make it easier to understand than a myth. This is because myths leave the child’s questions unanswered, or they raise more questions than they appear to answer. Evolution is a truly satisfying and complete explanation of existence, and I suspect that this is something a child can appreciate from an early age.

Nevertheless, many adults find evolution hard. It is a striking fact that nobody understood it until Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace in the 19th century, two centuries later than Issac Newton’s (on the face of it more difficult) comprehension of the laws of motion, force, acceleration and universal gravity.

Could there be aspects of science that children find easier than adults because adults are weighed down by misleading familiarity? Maybe weight itself is literally misleading? I was fortunate this year to attend a conference of scientists with astronauts – American, Russian and European – and I talked to some of them about what it is like to be weightless, but not massless. I quoted Douglas Adams to them:

“The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas-covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is obviously some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be, but we have done various things over intellectual history to slowly correct some of our misapprehensions.”

I suggested to the astronauts that, if children were ever to be born and brought up in a space station where they never experience weight, they will find Newton easy to understand. They will intuitively grasp the idea – so foreign to us troglodytes at the bottom of the gravity well – that the default condition for a moving body is to continue forever in the same direction. They will effortlessly comprehend the difference between weight and mass, and will understand that, although a cannon ball and a ping pong ball can have equal weight, they very much do not have equal mass. Try to throw a cannon ball across the space station and you are likely to shoot off in the opposite direction. Jump towards what you think of as the “ceiling”, and you will be shocked to find that the “ceiling” turns into the “floor” as you “fall” “heavily” “down” on it. Veightless children might even be primed to understand the Einsteinian equivalence between gravity and acceleration.

Computer games typically are programmed with a virtual physics which mimics, on the screen, the familiar physics of the outside world. Simulated objects don’t pass through each other, simulated balls bounce off walls and off each other, they follow ballistically calculated parabolic trajectories, and so on. What if a computer game were programmed with an alternative physics, perhaps even a virtual rendering of counter-intuitive quantum physics? Or of something resembling Einsteinian physics at close to a maximum permitted velocity? Might children brought up on such games have a head start when they come to study physics at school or university?

Newton and Galileo had to wrest themselves free of false intuitions born of their upbringing in the gravity well. Is there a similar barrier to understanding evolution? Is there a parallel respect in which naive children might actually find evolution easier to understand than adults?

According to the great German-American zoologist Ernst Mayr, the chief historical barrier to understanding evolution has been the philosophy of essentialism, for which he blames Plato and Aristotle. in geometry, the Greeks thought of triangles in the real world as imperfect approximations to an abstract ideal of triangliness. In the same way that individual rabbits, rhinos and cormorants – variable, flesh-and-bone individuals – were flawed approximations to the ideal rabbit, the perfect rhino, the essence of cormorant. Mayr argued that such essentialist thinking delayed, by centuries, humanity’s understanding of evolution. The idea that one species could turn into another – the idea that, given a sufficient number of generations, species of fish could gradually change so far that their descendants could be aardvarks or philosophers – is, according to Mayr, deeply antithetical to all our intuitions, and this is because we are dyed-in-the-wool essentialists. But maybe children are not.

Children’s fairytales are replete with anti-essentialist propaganda. Mice turn into white horses, and pumpkins into gleaming coaches at the touch of a fairy’s wand. It takes only a kiss for a frog to morph into a handsome prince. Such radical changes undermine Mayr’s essentialist bogeyman. Indeed, they go too far in the other direction. Magical transformations are not just anti-essentialist, they are anti-evolution, too. And anti-science. Complex things, such as horses, coaches and princes, cannot spring spontaneously into existence from nothing; nor can they be spawned in a puff of smoke from other complex things, such as mice, pumpkins and frogs.

To be sure, a tadpole can turn into a frog, and a caterpillar into a butterfly, but those are revealing special cases. A caterpillar’s DNA is dual purpose: full instructions for how to build a caterpillar from an egg, and then a second tier of instructions for how to build a butterfly from deconstructed caterpillar flesh. You can’t make a caterpillar or a butterfly or a frog or a prince by magic, from nothing. The DNA has to be already in place, and the only way we know for that to happen – at least until human technology catches up – is the slow, gradual, generation-by-generation filtering process of natural selection.

But at least fairytales give the lie to – or perhaps positively undermine – essentialism. Humans can’t turn into werewolves by moonlight. No species can turn into a radically different species. But any species can turn into a slightly different species. And given enough millions of years, slight difference adds to slight difference and then accumulates slight difference again…until eventually the descendant of a fish turns out to be a fishmonger.

“I’ll believe in evolution the day a monkey gives birth to a human.” So speaks the ignorant creationist, flat-footedly misunderstanding the gradualness of evolution. No animal ever born was a member of a different species from its parents. The trick is to understand how that truth is fully compatible with another truth: every one of us is descended from an animal which, were we to meet it today, we would classify (and very probably eat) as a fish. Before that, every one of us was descended from an ancestor that we would need a microscope to see, and that we would probably classify as a bacterium. All that is literally true, at the same time as it is true that every intermediate link in the chain would have been classified as the same species as its parents and its children.

It isn’t really all that paradoxical. Every child is familiar with gradual change, too slow to notice. The hour hand of your watch seems motionless. But look away for an hour and it has moved. You were once a baby, then you became a toddler, then you became a child. Yet there never was a day when you woke up and said, “Yesterday I was a toddler; today I seem to have become a child.”

In the same way, there never was a first Homo sapiens baby born to Homo erectus parents. When anthropologists heatedly argue whether a particular jawbone belongs to Homo or Australopithecus, they may turn out to be engaging in essentialist foolery. There never was a moment when Australopithecus parents gazed fondly down at the firstborn Homo baby. Every baby ever born belonged to the same species as its parents. Yet, if you sample an ancestor’s descendants at a sufficiently long interval (like sampling the position of the hour hand on a watch), you’ll find descendants that belong not just in different species but different orders, classes and phyla. It is a certain fact that there once was an animal that is the common ancestor of you and a snail.

I have sometimes wortied about the educational effects of fairytales. Could they be pernicious, leading children down pathways of gullibility towards anti-scientific superstition and religion? Maybe. But could they also be beneficial, in leading children away from static essentialism? and towards a state of mind that is receptive to the dynamics of evolution?

I don’t know. And, as so often when I don’t know the answer to a question, I’d like to find out.

By mh

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