The Big Girl has worked out evolution

by Deb on December 31, 2010

I don’t mean she’s intuited natural selection or anything like that, she’s 5 and not even I’m that deeply into Mummy pride.  And honesty compels me to admit that we’re just a little bit into ‘science activities’ around here so she probably has a head start on 99% of the population.  But I can track the way her understanding has developed and it’s fascinating to see.


She’s known about this for a long time, we made the fairy tree for her 4th birthday and she had a good grasp of needs, making sure they could get to the food, water and somewhere to hide.  Since then she’s learnt about all sorts of animals and plants and will tell you that lions have sharp teeth so they can eat meat or stick insects will freeze so you don’t spot them.

Dinosaurs = no people.

Most 5 year olds have stumbled on dinosaurs, she’s had lots of experiences but they’ve suddenly grabbed her in the last few weeks.  It really seems to have clicked with her developing sense of time – she’s been telling the hours on an analogue clock and talking a lot about before, older/younger and the past – and she gets that dinosaurs were around a long time ago and there weren’t any people.

You need boys and girls to get babies.

At the same time we have babies all over the place – human babies at playgroup, chicks, baby guinea pigs, pregnant guinea pigs, plus ducks and turkeys at the neighbours’ (who keep trying to give them to us).  She was ecstatic when we ended up with a rooster in our ‘sexed’ chickens even though Mummy and Daddy weren’t too impressed, because she wants more little fluffy chicks.  I think that counts as evidence she knows you need boys and girls to get babies.

She’s also exploring sexual dimorphism – since ‘Why are Daddies bigger than Mummies’ we’ve had many discussions about the rooster and male turkey and how they’re trying to impress the girls and intimidate other boys, unfortunately helped by the two male guinea pigs fighting.  So she’s at least heard the concept that girls are assured of having babies but boys need to fight for it.

“What would happen if there were no boys?”

This is the question she came out with the other day.

“Well, there would be no babies.”  I didn’t quite get the problem seeing we were feeding the rather prolific guinea pigs at the time and we’ve been talking about separating them.

“But what if there were no boys at all?  So no-one could have babies?”

“Eventually, they would all die.”

“But there wouldn’t be any left!”

“No, they would die out.”

“Like the dinosaurs.”

Extinction, tick.

“How did humans start?”

The next step, the big one.  The one that makes religious fundamentalists across the world froth at the mouth, coming out of her five year old mouth the next day while we were putting clothes away, with a puzzled little crease in her forehead.

“Because if there weren’t any around with the dinosaurs they must have started sometime.  How could there be no humans and then they’re there?  What was the Mummy?”

“Well, they weren’t sudden.  You know how you are a little bit different to Mummy and Daddy?  That’s how it happened.  The babies were just a little bit different to their parents and over a really, really long time they became people.”  [Seriously nerdy bit – while saying this I was thinking but what about large phenotypic changes caused by small changes in developmental timing?  It isn’t necessarily slow and gradual.  Get over it Mum, she’s 5.  One of the most important parts of teaching is knowing what to leave out.]  She accepted that and kept putting t-shirts away.  But the next day …

“But if there was only one it would die out.”

Well that came out of nowhere, did I miss half of this conversation?

“You know, the first person.  It needs to have both a boy and a girl to have more people babies.  So if there was only one it would die out.”

“Oh, from yesterday.  Yes, you’re right.  But people live in groups, so they’re all changing a tiny little bit at the same time.”  And here I have a confession that I mucked up.  So far she’s worked her way through the logic of evolution as it relates to extinction and descent with modification.  I was a bit thrown and didn’t think to tie in adaptation, which could then lead her to natural selection.  Oh well, she’s 5.  I have lots of time yet.


I should leave the story there so you can reflect but I can’t help it, I have to add my commentary as well.  What does this show?  She’s a bright little thing but even I don’t think she’s an extreme genius.  What she has is an enormous advantage – a science teacher with a background in evolution and human biology for a full time parent.  I’ve never tried to consciously teach her about evolution but we naturally do those sorts of things and when she asks a question I answer it.  I prefer to think of it as a demonstration of what all kids could do if you assume they are capable, give them opportunities and give them the time to process it.

(And I wanted to share because I’m a really proud Mummy :D)

This piece was cross-posted on She Thought.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

John Hunter January 2, 2011 at 3:47 am

Absolutely great post. Thanks.
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Subadra January 5, 2011 at 7:19 pm

Hi There,
I just happened to see your blog and read this post..Wanted to say that this is how my children learned at young ages…constant questions, observations and interactions…Lovely post! You have a great kid…

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