Don’t try to teach about evolution before your morning coffee

Some of the greatest teaching opportunities come just after I’ve woken up, while I’m standing in the kitchen in my underwear, furiously cursing the coffee maker for being so damned slow



“How come the dinosaurs are extinct?”

If I were ten years younger, I’d answer that it’s because of time-traveling big-game hunters who over-used a common resource to satisfy the bizarre appetites of jaded restaurant-goers in the year 3000, and that the only solution is to recover dinosaur DNA, clone the scaly beasts, and farm them for their meat. But I’m less of a wise-ass than I used to be. And that’s too complicated to come up with before my coffee has brewed anyway.

So instead I try to explain natural selection and the effects of cataclysmic events to a tot while the ten-year-old Krups gives every indication of needing a hefty dose of Flomax. Even to me it sounds garbled and incoherent. I do, that is. The Krups just sounds … obstructed.

“Tell you what. Let’s get a book out of the library.”

But is there a decent book on evolution that’s appropriate for not-quite-five-year-olds? And can a copy be found at the Cottonwood Public Library in a town where a fair percentage of the population seems to think babies come from using public restrooms?

Thank Darwin, the answer is yes, and yes.

Allow me to recommend The Beagle and Mr. Flycatcher: A Story of Charles Darwin, by Robert Quackenbush. Published in 1983, the book is apparently now available only in second-hand form, but it’s worth putting up with a few stains on the binding. It’s a well-written, but basic, outline of Darwin’s life, his voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle, and his theories on natural selection and evolution. It’s also pretty funny, with amusing illustrations. Here’s a sample, about Charles Darwin’s experiences in the Galapagos Islands:

… he also found thirteen varieties of finch, each with beaks of a different size and shape. Darwin concluded that the finches must have descended from one variety of South American finch that had flown across the ocean to the islands in prehistoric times. The finches had evolved in different ways in order to survive. On one island, where only berries were available for food, the finches gradually developed larger, rounder beaks. On another island where there were seeds to eat, the finches’ beaks became smaller and more pointed. Over¬† the thousands of years it took for this to happen, the original finch ancestors tended to die off and become extinct, because their beaks were less useful for finding food.

The day we borrowed the book, Tony asked me to read it to him twice.

There may well be other books that handle this topic as well for a (very) young audience (it’s actually targeted at kids rather older — about ten — but Tony had no problem understanding the concepts), but I’ll be damned if I can find them.

Remember, it’s not a serious gap in your knowledge or your ability to explain scientific concepts; it’s a teaching moment!

Now I’m just waiting for the little SOB to challenge me to delve into theology. Well … again. We’ve actually already ventured in that direction, with very strange results. Beware of holding funerals for plush toys. That’s all I’m saying.


  • Jorge says:

    This comment may be inappropriate, but given this, and other posts both here and at Disloyal Opposition, I just do not see how you can send Tony to school. I am sure you are aware of all the literature which indicates that school kills creativity, kills curiosity, kills the natural love of learning all children have and in general stifles individuals.

    Additionally, unschooling, basically living life as you are doing now, is the only approach compatible with our philosophy.

    Finally, you can teach Tony way better than any school. If fact, you are.

    I do apologize if this is out of line, school is a topic I feel strongly about.


  • J.D. Tuccille says:

    I don’t think your comment is inappropriate. I agree that homeschooling is the best approach for educating a child since it’s not actually a specific approach — done right, it’s tailored to fit the child. My wife agrees, and in fact was pushing for homeschooling. We settled on a charter school, at least for now, not because of concerns about Tony or homeschooling, but about me. Frankly, I’m not sure I’m temperamentally suited for what might constitute full-immersion parenting. I’m an off-the-chart introvert, and I need a lot of alone time or I … umm … flip out. Badly.

    That said, kindergarten is a step toward more homeschooling, since it’s half-day, leaving Tony with me from 11:30 am on. I’ll get my mornings, and we’ll have afternoons to go to museums, the library, Tae Kwan Do, hikes …

    The charter-school we chose uses a curriculum developed by Hillsdale College. It’s more conservative than me, but takes academics seriously and encourages intellectual inquiry to the extent possible in a structured environment.

    If, after a year, I’m more comfortable with the time and attention commitment, we can reexamine our educational arrangements. And, as Tony gets older, he’ll become more self-directed so that homeschooling won’t equate to full immersion for me.

    Believe me, we’ve thought about this a lot.

  • Jorge says:


    I do not know if it is the same one, but we used a Hillsdale curriculum as a base when our daughters were younger. Good stuff.

    My comment was a bit unfair, as I was not the one who spent most of the time with the girls at that age. I certainly understand the need to have your own time.

    As you say, the older he gets the more self-directed he will be. I hope the school is one that will encourage curiosity and not view it as a hindrance.

    Good luck, I sincerely hope it works out well.

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