Kids are perfectly capable of dealing with evolution — as if it were an issue with which “deal.” Kids who are not raised to fear hell-fire and the undiscovered country; kids who are not taught to believe that The Flood was a real event and not The Epic of Gilgamesh plagiarized; kids whose imaginations are left wide open and curious: these kids are fascinated and not fearful to learn about our evolution.
And why should they be fearful? My own son is four years old and fascinated to see in his own anatomy traces of our deep aquatic ancestry. He loves to recount the fact that when he was in the womb his testes were way up inside of him — just like a fish’s. He loves to recount the fact that, as he developed, his “little balls” slowly dropped from way up in his belly down into his “little sack.” He does not for a moment blush, ashamed of his animal body. He just gives an account of the curious and fascinating fact.
Nor is he terrified to learn that, for a short time in his mother’s belly, he was encased in an amniotic sack — water filled — which is a remnant of our egg-laying past, a remnant of our slow transition from fish to reptile. Nor is he terrified to learn that, in his mother’s womb, attached to his belly button, he had, for a just a moment, a little yolk sack. None of this terrifies him. He rather loves to learn of it; and he asks questions, unafraid of the adult dark.
For other kids, taught differently, evolution is not an enlightening inquiry, not a candle in the dark, but a subject fearsome, not for its ultimate implications, but for more immediate reasons: life at home. The theory of evolution pokes holes in the amniotic sacks of “safe” cultural teachings given them of their parents, whom they are taught to honor, in some cases, even as they were omniscient. To contemplate evolution for these kids is to risk cutting their umbilical chords before they are able to feed themselves. For some of these kids, to contemplate evolution is to risk wrapping that very line of life around their necks and to become bound and blue for a contradiction. How can these children at once honor their parents and yet ask questions of a fatherless past? It is psychically tantamount to patricide, and would leave mother to weep, cold and alone with serpents in the dark.
The evolutionary inquiry challenges traditional parental authority. So, we teachers tread lightly, and sometimes tremble to teach what would otherwise fascinate our students: that fish see better in dark than we do, because our wet eyes, like theirs, evolved underwater.
Though some bedtime stories help our eyelids to grow heavy, these will not improve our aquatic eyes. Nor do they help us to see into the deep. And yet our children sometimes grow out of their childhood beds and learn to read and think independently. Sometimes. And among these, many come to feel shame at father’s or mother’s cowardice for having taken refuge in children’s stories. Noah’s Ark, indeed. For shame. For pity.
What adult worthy of respect and authority; what adult on whom a child would rely; what adult in whom a child would place faith; what adult indeed would take such a story as it were a fact?
And for the rest of society, struggling with other problems — big boy and big girl problems — we suffer for these blinding stories. Too many a promising mind has been sacrificed to the monster hiding under the bed. We have pressing mortal problems to solve, sufferings to soften, and a sick, sick planet. Speak ye of a flood? Look ye to the polar caps, and welcome rapidly changing ecosystems and the next Great Dying — we know why more than 10,000 species are going extinct every year.
We need every promising young mind to the problem, for only we can steer this course. It is our moral duty to teach our children the best we know. Yes, we should be sensitive. No, we should not seek primarily to be polite.
We know how to solve many of our problems. To deny evolution is to deny practical, proven hope, and to sink our scientific ship, leaving our crew’s clear eyes to be picked at by indifferent fish as our own eyes stare blankly upward, through water, maladapted, at a refracting sun, as we clutch a book of maladapted myths in which our children’s names do not appear.