Posted by: philosodad | January 7, 2010


I hate to call another skeptic dad to task, but I read Dale McGowan’s latest blog post and… well. It’s complicated.

Dale advises that you don’t teach grade school kids about evolution all in one chunk, because they really can’t handle it or something like that. This is because he didn’t understand evolution until he was 19 or so. Now, Dale gives some advice that is good, and some that is bad. Some things he says (like the story about his son and the dog’s food bowl) is downright irresponsible and dangerous: if your dog growls at you when you pretend to eat his food, you put that mutt in a settle right away and take away his food. You alpha dog. Son beta dog. Dog gamma dog, and you should never, ever let a large dog think anything else. My dog is allowed to chase cats out of his food bowl. The Highlander takes his food away with absolutely no fear, and the dog lets him. You haven’t lived till you’ve seen a twenty pound toddler put a fifty pound lab/chow mix in a settle.

Where was I? Right, evolution. When I was in second, or maybe third grade, my Dad (Our Father, who Art in University) was in an old time string band. The string band met at one of the members houses about twice a week to practice, drink beer, and eat tacos and spaghetti, and I went along on those jaunts. It was pretty cool, funky houses in a weird neighborhood in Columbia, SC. And the house owner had a bunch of those “Cartoon History” books about the origin of life and evolution and so forth.

I read them, along with a stack of “Flash Gordon” and whatever else was on hand. And I understood them. It wasn’t that hard. Because the books started with the beginning, and ended with the present. They weren’t presented as “We used to be apes”, but took the story from fish getting legs to the monkey to the people, and told that way it made sense. Plenty of sense. Those books were awesome and engrossing and helped me to become a young science geek.

Part of the problem of parenting is that you feel like you have to be an expert on everything, and sometimes you just aren’t. And when you aren’t, you have to know it. I wasn’t born knowing how to make a dog take crap from a six month old (Dark Phoenix orders him around too), but when I got Dog I hired an expert to help me understand him. I had had dogs when I was a kid, but I knew that as the primary trainer I needed a refresher at least.

Similarly, I’m not an expert in writing accessible cartoon books that tell stories about science appropriate for 6-year olds. But there are people who are. And if you want to teach a child, it’s probably okay to hire them… that is, to buy the books. Your 7 year old is smarter than you think, if you let them put the ideas in their head at their own pace.



  1. This blog entry presumably…

    I recommend everyone read The Science of Discworld books by Pratchett, Ian Stewart, and Jack Cohen. Which discusses “lies to children” extensively, meaning why we simplify stuff for kids.

    Humans didn’t evolve from apes, we evolved to be a different kind of ape, precision helps clarity these ideas – if and when you have the knowledge to provide it, I suspect I don’t for evolution despite being well read. Fortunately I have a copy of Climbing Mount Improbably and some other good texts on the topic for my son to read when he is interested.

    One of my physics lecturers was all for teaching Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity to primary school kids. I think he was mostly concerned we get too wedded to Newtonian space/time concepts. The most complex thing in the maths of special relativity is a square root sign (assuming you don’t want to teach them electromagnetism as well!).

    I think he was probably partly right, we need to choose our “lies to children” carefully.

  2. I agree completely with this post (I too, also subscribe to The Meming of Life), especially the part about the dog and food. My cousin has a badly behaved dog (part blue heeler (which is part dingo)) and one of his traits was that he did not like having his food taken away. This was indicative of a bigger problem, in that the dog seemed to think he was the alpha male, and not my cousin. Once this was remedied (in part by removing the food and discouraging growling), the dog viewed my cousin as the alpha male and things improved. Unfortunately, the dog still thinks it ranks above strangers . . .

  3. Well said. I always proceed with the idea that there is nothing children “can’t handle.” Properly presented, especially with an appropriate interest level in the child, there are no topics that should be verboten. It doesn’t take a prodigy to handle advanced topics at a young age, just a sufficient interest to work up to the topic, whether it’s evolution, genetics, calculus or what-have-you. I think we do our children a disservice by continually reinforcing a “you’re just a child; this is for older folks, so run along and play” attitude with them.

    We got our 9-year-old daughter the “Manga Guide to Molecular Biology” ( for Christmas. Is it too advanced for her? Probably – but she’s interested in the concept of genetics and will ask questions as she works her way through the story and that’s what counts. (I can’t wait for the Manga Guide to the Universe!)

    • Ah… Manga. Is there ANY topic that it can’t explain?

      • I’d say probably not, based on this one. Just needs to be well-done enough! My cousin is a genetic scientist and she said this is actually a pretty good introductory treatment of it. Go manga!

  4. I remember when my dad explained how the gene pool and evolution worked. I remember we were driving on 280 from san francisco to san mateo. I was probably 6 or 7 at the time.

  5. Philosodad,

    What are of these great children’s books on evolution you mention? It’s to preview these because none of them are in the chain stores, and from what I read on Amazon reviews, a lot of them are riddled with errors. Can you give some specific recommendations?

    • There are some errors in the “Cartoon History” series, I’m sure. But those were the books that I started on… and while I don’t remember the errors, I do remember the sense of wonder at the scale of time described. Small errors are, I think, less important than large conceptual errors when talking about comic books on science.

      I haven’t done any serious research into the available material that’s been written in the last 30 years. This actually would make a good series of blog posts.

  6. Thank you, philosodad! When I was a child, I was one of those precocious kids who constantly asked “why?”, and I clearly remember being regularly annoyed when people said things like “it’s too hard for you.”

    Fortunately, my parents never really said that; when I tried to learn about things that were over my head, they always found a way to say “you seem confused; try this illustrated book, it’s a better start to physics than that college text book.” Providing an accessible alternative, but never keeping anything from me.

    And my parents were fundamentalist Christians – to whom, ironically, I owe the critical-thinking and research skills (and hunger for knowledge) that eventually led me away from that path.

    Short version: kids are *way* smarter, more observant, and willing to learn than most people really understand. I think it’s pretty much bullshit that anyone would ever keep anything from a kid because it’s “too hard” (though “unsafe” or “not appropriate” are reasonable).

  7. In Dale’s defense, it is also important to discourage a kid from teasing a dog that has started growling at him. Even if a father has your understanding of pack psychology, and applies it rigorously to his dog, that doesn’t guarantee that the neighbour or any other person will be as responsible with their dogs. The kid needs to know that a growl is a dangerous sign.

    And, on the evolution/education thing, I’m going to say that you’re both partly right. Or rather, you are wrong for exactly the same reasons. Dale seems to be basing his cautious approach on his own late blooming of evolution-understanding. You are basing yours on an experience that happened to help you understand it early.

    Fact is, kids vary, and parents’ abilities to communicate and teach non-intuitive ideas vary. My wife and I incorporate evolutionary allusions into conversation on a fairly regular basis, just because it’s awesome and part of our understanding of the world. So our kids are getting a Dale-esque approach.

    We also enjoy explicitly learning about the details – be it in Climbing Mount Improbable, reading National Geographic, visiting the zoo, or whatever. I’ll try to keep track of recommendations here and elsewhere for accessible material to share with our kids as soon as possible.

    • I agree that you have to be aware that *strange* dogs are different than *your* dogs. But my point was that if you have a dog, the dog doesn’t get to be the alpha dog. In the post, Dale’s son thought that the dog wouldn’t bite him because he is the person who feeds the dog, and in this he should be completely correct.

      In other words, the boy knew that he had to be cautious around strange dogs, but he thought he could trust his own dog, and I think that the basic rules of dog ownership require that you can teach your dog.

      I agree that kids and parents vary a lot. FSM knows I’m not a perfect parent, or a perfect communicator of ideas. But I think that it’s just always a good idea to keep your eye out for good teaching materials and teaching moments… maybe without a prior assumption about what ideas your kid can handle, but more with an eye to evaluating the specific presentation of ideas you are looking at.

  8. Regarding the dog: I don’t think pet ownership requires leaving no remnant of evolved natural instinct in the animal. Our dog does not protest when we take food away, only when we feign to eat it. I can live with that.

    Regarding evolution and kids: I just knew the glib opening of my post (the nutshell) would get me misunderstood. I did not and would not say kids can’t handle evolution (“or something like that”) — only that putting natural selection first works best. My own failure to understand evolution until later was the result of receiving the two in reverse order — evolution first (wha?) and then, years later, natural selection (oh!!).

    All three of my kids have a well-developed grasp of evolution, well ahead of mine at that age — and I think it’s because they cut their teeth on natural selection. That, and nothing more, is what I’m advocating. Sorry to have been unclear.

    • I never said anything at all about “leaving no remnant of evolved natural instinct in the animal”. What I said was that you are the pack leader for this particular wolf, and it’s your job to set his boundaries. If you think he might attack and injure another animal in your pack in a food dispute, you’ve done a lousy job of leading your pack. He should always yield his position to any human member of the pack no matter what, not because you’ve removed his instincts, but because he recognizes that they are above him in his natural hierarchy.

      I’m suggesting that you acknowledge what kind of animal you have in your house and treat him with more respect. It would suck for you to have to kill your dog because you failed to define his position in the pack properly.

      Fair enough on the evolution discussion.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: