Little kids have a unique talent for exposing the limits of your own knowledge, particularly as it relates to complicated-but-common scientific phenomenon. That’s why, if your kid has ever backed you into a rhetorical corner over the concept of evolution, you might have thought to yourself, “If only Charles Darwin were here to handle this for me!” Well, exasperated evolution explaining parent, today’s your lucky day. Chris Darwin is the great-great-grandson of Charles; he’s also a father of 3 who’s carrying on the family tradition as a spokesperson for the conservation of endangered species.
So, let’s say your kid asks you the following questions — Chris says Grandpa Charles would recommend saying something like this:
Your Kid’s Questions
Where did we come from?
Nobody 100 percent knows for sure, because it happened something like 3 million years ago, and the first people aren’t around anymore to clue us in on how they got there. But there are scientists who devote their whole lives to answering the question, and most of them agree on what probably happened: We came from primates, like monkeys, gorillas, or chimpanzees.
How did monkey people turn into people people?
According to most of those scientists who have studied the question, it went something like this: There were 2 groups of primates — probably chimpanzees, because, if you look at both of us under the most powerful microscope ever, we are pretty similar — living near each other in Africa. One group of these chimps lives near a bunch of trees, which provided all sorts of good stuff for them, like shelter and food. The other group doesn’t have many trees, so they’re forced to spend more time on the ground and in the open fields.
That second group started to do things differently from the first group, like walking upright, which is much faster than walking on all fours like the first group did. Over millions of years, those differences became more pronounced, until the second group looked more or less like we look today and the first group stayed as chimpanzees.
Ok, so why did the monkey people turn into people people?
That’s what evolution is: Animals change over time in order to survive where they live. So, fish evolved to have gills because they needed to be able to breathe underwater. Some animals evolved to have sharp teeth or big claws so they could kill their dinner. Other animals evolved with scales or shells to protect themselves and not get eaten as dinner. Others evolved to fly or climb to get away from danger altogether. As people were evolving from chimpanzees, we didn’t get any of those things.
Instead, we got really, really smart brains. And we survived because we used those brains to think our way out of trouble. Plus, because we evolved to walk on 2 feet instead of 4, we wound up with hands that, combined with our smart brains, allowed us to do things like build houses, make clothing and weapons and — eventually — invent really important stuff. Like Legos. And Bacon.
But if we came from monkeys, why don’t we have tails?
Well, we most likely came from chimps, which don’t have tails. But, it’s still a good question because tails are awesome and would make lots of things way easier — like climbing trees, for example. Then again, they would also make sitting pretty hard, and without sitting, how would we play all our video games?
How do I respond to questions about creationism?
Chris Darwin has eminently reasonable advice for any parent whose kids are curious about theories on where people came from that don’t align with evolution: “The most important word I give my kids is, ‘Why.’ Just because Daddy says something doesn’t mean that Daddy is right. What I really want my kids to do is not accept what they’re told, but look at the evidence. Kids are really good thinkers if you give them a chance. We talk about creationist theory and, let’s face it, there’s a chance that it’s true. If god created all the animals and plants and set them up with DNA, put them all on the planet, and put the fossils down as well, that works as a theory.”
“What I say to my kids is, ‘Try to get away from the idea of right and wrong. It’s all on the balance of evidence.'”