Charles Darwin was famously reluctant to publish On the Origin of Species, which he did 150 years ago this week. Fearing it would degrade people's religious convictions, he stalled on the manuscript for two decades. But he didn't shield his own children from the science he thought would harm adults. Instead, he enlisted them in his experiments. When they were babies, he scrutinized their faces like an anthropologist for his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals; later, he assigned them to "sprinkle bumblebees with flour and chase after the bugs" for a study of cross-pollination, harnessing the children's curiosity as a means of teaching them about nature while also discovering some things about it himself.
What Darwin knew about kids should be obvious to anyone who has one: They make good amateur scientists. "At age 3, 4, 5, 6, all they ask is, 'What's that and where did it come from?' " says Colin Purrington, an evolutionary biologist at Swarthmore College and a father of two. So why, like Darwin the theorist, holding back his book—and unlike Darwin the dad, letting his kids loose in the lab that is the world—are so many parents and teachers loath to give kids straight, scientific answers about natural selection?
"What's that?" It's a bird. "And where did it come from?" The correct, and interesting, answer is "from a dinosaur that was well-adapted to changing conditions millions of years ago." But in a lot of schools, kids are just as likely to hear "from the sky." "I think a lot of people believe that if we can get evolution taught well in high school, we should just be happy with that, because teaching it in middle school will bring angry parents out of the woodwork," says Purrington. "As for elementary school, that's a line almost no one wants to cross."
Even parents and teachers who have no religious objection to evolution often balk at sharing the concept with young kids. Some of them say it's too complex, to explain to kids who are still learning the basics. "I think there's a perception by teachers that evolution is horribly hard to teach," says Purrington. "There's a fear that if they don't have an advanced degree in biology, they'll get something wrong."
And yet, all science is complicated. Untangling the thicket for children is what teachers are supposed to do. If anything, that's a harder task if teachers don't allow themselves to talk about the founding principle of life science, the theory that explains and underlies nearly everything about the field.
Perhaps a bigger issue is that evolution is more than just complicated. It's brutal. "It's not a nice cuddly theory," says Paul Horwitz, senior scientist at the Concord Consortium, an educational think tank. "It's a theory where an awful lot of organisms have to die for things to work." Like Darwin fretting over the delicate minds of his readers, a lot of parents worry that "survival of the fittest" is, well, unfit for young ears.
Another baseless objection, say supporters of early evolution education. Only the most cloistered, coddled child isn't already exposed to competition and its rewards in the course of daily life. Kids compete at school, on the playground, at home with siblings. And, says Kate Miller, creator of the Charlie’s Playhouse line of evolution-focused educational toys, they "just get natural selection" intuitively. "When my kids' eyes light up at the strangeness and beauty of the evolution of life, I get goosebumps," she says (you may get some too reading about her children’s personal discovery of the theory). Stick a child in front of a bird feeder for long enough, and he may just figure things out for himself.
He shouldn't have to. Britain has just made evolution a mandatory part of the curriculum for even its youngest students, and American states ought to follow. Without evolution, biology isn't really science—it's just memorization—and our kids, even the littlest ones, deserve a more interesting introduction to the natural world than that. It's time we gave it to them.
The Concord Consortium is already working on one way to teach evolution to kids—an interactive, technology-driven fourth-grade curriculum called Evolution Readiness. The group is testing the approach in classrooms in Massachusetts, Missouri, and Texas. It's purposely keeping things simple, but it's not talking down to its students. "When you're 10 years old, the time to your next birthday is a long time, so it's really hard to understand things that take place over millennia," says Horwitz, who leads the project. "So we're looking at adaptation over a few generations, not a few million years." The group is also keeping things at the macro level, leaving out discussions of the genetic change that drives evolution—which, of course, is how Darwin did things, too, since genetic science hadn't been worked out in his time.
So far, Horwitz says, Evolution Readiness has been a hit. Yes, he's run into a little resistance from some parents. "At least one of them called a teacher and said, 'I believe in Jesus, and I don't want any part of this,'" he says. "But we have not yet run into what I call the pitchfork phenomenon, the angry mob." As for the students, he says, "there's one thing we can definitely say: they aren't bored." Darwin and his adventurous kids would surely approve.