19 October 2012

Dad Tip: Teaching Evolution

[I am thinking this will be a semi-regular thing on my blog now. Sure I am not the greatest Dad in the world, and my experience is limited to a single son; but at the end of the day every little step along the way is an important one, and perhaps some of my experiences will have merit beyond my own doorstep. Let me know what you think in the comments below.]

In my six odd years of having a son, I have discovered that one of the hardest things to try and explain to him is the concept of evolution. I see this as a bit of a problem, as being a dinosaur nut like his old man, evolution is vital to his understanding of these creatures.
From our recent trip to the Melbourne Museum, where Harrison could finally tell me most of his favourite dinosaur's names. #DadPride
This problem can be doubly difficult because at its most basic level, the theory of evolution is a very simple concept, however it relies on a lot of concepts and grounding that is just out of reach of young children.
Saying to your child that evolution is how animals change over time to adapt to their surroundings can lead to a lot of misunderstandings of how exactly they change, and how they adapt. I often found myself getting exasperated trying to explain through simple examples such as a giraffes neck; explaining how having a longer neck helps them reach higher food, but then being sure to stress that the individual didn’t get a longer neck because they want one, but that their children, if born with a slightly longer neck, will pass that trait on down.
Before you know it, your explanation has gone on longer than you wanted it to, and has included too many new words and concepts for your child to really stick to the point.
Don’t get me wrong, my son is one bright kid. Ask him what light is made of and he has two answers; a joke one (light is made from torches), and the real one (light is made of photons). It is just that getting kids’ minds to work on the scale of evolution takes a lot of mental effort on their part. Kids very rarely want to think of the consequences of their actions beyond the days play, let alone the consequences of animal’s actions across the generations.
Over the years my son’s understanding of the natural world has progressed quite well, and I am very proud when he talks about biological features as evolved, and ponders what their purpose is in helping the animal survive. But it was just the other day when we were discussing evolution (yes this is what my son and I do sometimes) that I hit on a better way to explain it to him.
I don’t quite recall how we got onto the subject, but I shocked Harry by telling him that our dog was descendant from wolves. Now perhaps this isn’t the most surprising fact for a child, but consider my dogs appearance:
This is why when i write of my dog, i often put inverted commas around the word 'dog'....
 That’s a wolf?!” He exclaimed (with an inflection well worthy of an interrobang).
I explained that back when man was still living somewhat in the wild, we domesticated wolves for companionship and to help make our lives easier.
I reminded him that a lot of traits in animals can be inherited from their parents (he is aware that he got half his DNA from me, and the other half from my wife, but luckily he hasn’t asked how they got mixed yet…), then asked him what would happen if we picked the ‘nicest’ wolves, got them to have babies, and then keep picking the nicer, friendlier, ones to have around us. He was pretty quick in understanding how these traits could be selected, and bred into the population. It was working a treat.
Next example I used was the domestication of the cow. I explained how we domesticated them from Aurochs, creatures that were twice as big, and quite nasty customers. Picking the smaller, more docile ones each time and having only those in your paddock, I was able to show how this selection can likewise change a population over time.
Perhaps I should have caught onto utilising artificial selection as a way of explaining this long ago after all Charles Darwin, the great man himself, used this introduction to his theory of evolution in On the Origin of Species.
Once this fundamental concept is understood, it is pretty easy to cross from artificial, to natural selection. All that has to be explained then it how animals in the wild aren’t selected by people because of the traits they want to propagate, but instead the individuals are ‘selected’ by nature, because they are the ones that survive better and have more kids.
It is a great feeling to see that you have successfully explained something to your kids, when you see that little click of comprehension, and the pride they feel having learnt something new. The only thing that worries me now is that he is garnering all of this information at a rate that much exceeded my own at his age. If our generation isn’t careful, these guys will be taking over in twenty to thirty years……

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