Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Creationists: Are you smarter than a 7-year-old?

Fascinating dinnertime conversation with Ethan last night. Well, it all started when Amelia threw up (suspected winter vomiting bug, fortunately a very mild case) and he wanted to know why the food in your sick is always in such small bits, which obviously led onto a discussion of digestion and mastication, which led to talk about teeth and the different kinds of teeth used by different animals. Then he asked, "Why do apes have sticky-out jaws and people don't?" That is a good question, and a fine illustration of how a parent's life is made easier by the existence of Google. Short answer - the jaw became tucked under the brain case, reducing the angle of the lower jaw bone, with a corresponding increase in grinding efficiency (Principles of Human Evolution, Roger Lewin & Robert Foley). I also discovered that humans lack a functional copy of the MYH16 gene, which encodes a myosin protein that in primates is found only in particular jaw muscles. Stedman et al. speculate that this mutation could relate to the change in skull size during early human evolution and to the development of speech. Whether that's the case or not, Ethan found it intriguing.
Then he threw this one out: "If people evolved from other animals, how come there are still other animals?" Yes, the classic creationist objection, but one posed out of genuine curiosity rather than willful ignorance. Had all my reading of Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers prepared me for this moment? Or would my faith in evolution be shattered by this innocent child's query? Pffft. A simple sketch of Ethan's family tree and the rhetorical reply, "If you're descended from Granny and Granddad, how come you have cousins?" sorted that one out.
Then I had to deal with "How come first of all there were apes who didn't know how to cook, and then there were people and they did know how to cook?" This obviously required a discussion of gradual change. Your fun fact in this department is that early humans may have been using fire 790,000 years ago. Also, irrelevantly, blue eye color appears to have spontaneously arisen by mutation somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago.
This morning I got "When were the first trees?", for which my chronology was a little sketchy, but Ethan helped me out, telling me the first flowers appeared during the time of the dinosaurs, which he learned from David Attenborough.
What a shitty parent one would have to be to answer all those questions with reference only to the Book of Genesis.

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