Lessons on evolution

How to help school children understand one of the central findings of science.

I have written about evolution (which was part of my university studies of evolutionary epistomology). So now, bringing up two wonderful grandkids, the subject keeps coming up — as you can see in some previous articles: How evolution works and On Evolution and Acorns. These interactions with Enders and Hennes took place just over a year ago, so the time had come to see if they had understood what we discussed. It started with Billy.

This autumn we kept seeing a beautiful tuft-eared squirrel in our garden. We called him Billy, and started laying out nuts for him. He would come two or three times a day to search for them. So I had an ambition: I decided to induce Billy to take a nut out of my hand.

I’d see Billy at the end of the garden and I would hold out a walnut for him. He’d see me and the nut, and come running over. But before he reached me, he’d stop and then turn away. If I tossed the nut onto the ground he would run back and retrieve it, but never take it directly from me. I was able to get him to within a foot of my hand, but he always stopped, turned and scampered into the trees.

Enders and Hennes saw this happen, and my question to them was: why does he behave in this way? Enders immediately had a solution: “It’s the evolutionary thing,” he said. “Squirrels that were not afraid of large animals all got eaten.” Right he is: in many thousands of years of evolution, it was mostly squirrels which were adequately cautious that survived until breeding age, and passed on their genes to their descendents. Enders has understood evolution and natural selection.

Hennes, who is a year and a quarter younger, is catching up. We have picked the two up from daycare and school over 700 times, and spent the afternoon with them. “Why do we do it?” I recently asked, in mock exasperation. “Because you love us?” Hennes replied. “Yes, but why do we love you? Why do we do it for you, and not for other children? Why do we defend and care for you?” With a little help from Enders he worked it out: in the course of millions of years animals that defended and cared for their young were more likely to pass on their genes than the ones that didn’t. In homo sapiens (Hennes loves that designation) the inclination to do that was driven by a feeling we developed — which we call “love.” It is something we pass on with our genes.

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The Friedel Chronicles

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.