Darwin is a lizard

The annual Science Festival is always a big event in Cambridge. The entire city is packed with exciting scientific events for children as well as adults. There are many who partake in the festival in various different contexts. In 2009, I went to one of the local schools to explain Darwin and evolution to children ages 8 to 11.

I have never had such a lively and active audience. All of my concerns about how to activate the students and convince them to participate were quickly put to shame. Hands were constantly in the air. Instead of showing them a lot of pictures of Darwin, animals, and plants, I asked them to draw a picture of Darwin. Their only task was to listen to what I was telling them and use that as inspiration. They had complete artistic freedom. They were ecstatic.

Darwin as standard scientist

The final result was a far cry from the standard image of the noble and elderly gentlemen wearing a hat, cloak, and big white beard. The only common feature of the drawings was Darwin’s beard which for the most part was black and short – and his glasses. The last feature was somewhat of a surprise. Darwin did not wear glasses. However, it corresponds with all of the studies investigating children’s perception of scientists: according to these studies, scientists are predominantly male, wear glasses, are partly bald, and for the most part, they wear lab coats.

The white lab coat had not even been invented when Darwin was alive. Nonetheless, there were several “lab coat-Darwins” among the drawings. There was also one single Darwin wearing a gown – the special black cloak worn at dinners and special events in the Cambridge colleges. The children’s drawings clearly reflect their parents’ occupations and there are many children of academics in the schools of Cambridge.

And a lot of Darwins

Among the drawings, there was also “monkey Darwin”, “mad Darwin”, “cowboy Darwin”, “cirrhosis Darwin” (he did not look particularly healthy), “alien Darwin”, and the fantastic “lizard Darwin”.

When I asked the boy why he had drawn Darwin as a lizard, he gave me a very nice explanation. I had just told them that by studying the evolution of life, we had discovered that ultimately all life makes up one great big family. Therefore, we are related to the apes. However, in the end, cats, hummingbirds, hakes, caterpillars, climbing plants, and chanterelles are also part of that family, if only farther back both lineage and time wise. That message had stuck with him. If we are related to all living things, we are of course also related to lizards. Therefore, he naturally drew a “lizard Darwin” – with a beard of course.

Why should we care?

Why should we take this sort of thing seriously? If fact, why should we worry about the perception of science when it comes to children of such a young age? In connection with the Darwin Year in 2009, this was discussed intensively. The building blocks that make up the foundation of the world view and thereby the perception of science and scientific knowledge of children is created during the years of this age group.

However, the majority of the building blocks that we give the children, presenting a coherent view of how to create meaning in life, come from religious ideas. We provide them with mythical and religious perceptions of the world before giving them the scientific facts. This means that later in life, they will perceive the scientific understanding of a meaningful world as challenging the already established religious order. And that is unfortunate.

We should not wait

There is no reason to wait. Children at the age of 8 are quite capable of understanding evolution and some of its fundamental mechanisms. Fossils are exciting. Plants and animals are immensely fascinating. Children can easily relate to someone like Darwin. And they are able to understand that we know a lot more about nature today than Darwin did. But most importantly, they are easily engaged and excited.

All of the children at the Newnham Croft Primary School understand that when it comes to science, a natural explanation is all you need. They also understand that no matter where in the world you come from, no matter what you look like, what culture you are from, which language you speak, or what religion you belong to, if any, the scientific results are always the same. The language of science is what unites us. The results of science are what bring us together in a common understanding of nature.

The children of the school come from all over the world and speak with all kinds of different and charming accents. From our discussion of evolution and the Darwin drawings comes the children’s conclusion, that science is a common project: we should use our knowledge to help where help is needed. That is an important conclusion. Children can relate to it regardless of the differences of the world. It can begin anywhere. Even by drawing Darwin as a lizard - with a big smile on your face.

Peter C. Kjærgaard

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