Evo Devo

One of the things that unschooling teaches me is how learning happens naturally in young children. Out of the blue a child asks a question that leads to a brief discussion. The discussion mulls around in the child’s mind for a while. How do I know? Because bits and pieces of that discussion manifest themselves in various instances for days later – a drawing, a comment made to a sibling, a particular book that gets pulled from the shelf, a scene in an impromptu puppet show. The way young children process information is so interesting to me. They mull it over in their words and in their play (play is a fascinating window into the child’s mind). You never know when and where it is going to appear.

Daughter is interested in the concept of evolution, something we’ve touched on briefly as I’ve been reading some books on the subject lately (our bedtime routine has changed from me reading her stories of her own choosing, to her requesting that I read aloud from books I’m currently working on; the latest are Endless Forms Most Beautiful: the science of Evo Devo by Sean Carroll (evo devo = evolutionary development) and Your Inner Fish: a journey into the 3.5 billion year history of the human body by Neil Shubin). The other day, out of the blue while we were eating lunch, Daughter asked me “Mama, why don’t humans have a tail?”. This led to a discussion of upright bipedal motion and how that differs from the bipedal motion of, say, a Tyrannosaurus Rex, who required his thick tail for balance (it’s all in the hips). I also pointed out that humans do have a tailbone (the coccyx), the vestigial remnants of our primate ancestors. And last night in “Your Inner Fish” there was a diagram of vertebrae in a human embryo showing that we indeed start out with a tail in our early development.

The book also illustrated the progressive development of limbs from early fish through to mammals. Daughter is already aware from her numerous dinosaur books that life on Earth has progressed from the ocean to the land, and from fish to amphibians to reptiles to mammals (loosely speaking). Evolution is now providing a context for that progression, a “reason” why fish came first, for example. Lately she has been playing games like “the last amphibian” or “I’m the last Dimetrodon”. She’ll say “look, I’m disappearing from the Earth!” and then hide behind the sofa or something. I’ll say “what happens after the last dimetrodon is gone (dimetrodon fascinates her because it is not, in fact, a dinosaur)?” and she’ll say “then came the dinosaurs!”.

These conversations are all necessarily brief; at not-quite-six years of age Daughter has little patience for lengthy explanations and lectures. It challenges me to reduce a concept like evolution into a series of short sound bites that give her mind something to chew over for the next few days. Fortunately, as you can tell from my reading list (and my collection of Stephen Jay Gould books), evolutionary development is one of my favorite subjects. So it’s wonderful that I can share this with my Daughter.

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