Dawkins teaches children how, not what, to think

Free Press FREE PRESS “The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True,” by Richard Dawkins. Illustrated by Dave … Continued

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“The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True,” by Richard Dawkins. Illustrated by Dave McKean.

When my niece was seven years old, she saw another child, with a severely deformed torso and cleft palate, on the merry-go-round we were riding. Then she asked me the question, about why bad things happen, that every parent must dread: “How did that little boy get hurt so he looks like that?” I explained, as best I could, that he hadn’t been hurt by anyone but had been born the way he was. Since cleft palate is often genetically determined, I talked about DNA as a set of “instructions” that make each of us unique and explained that sometimes, for reasons no one fully understands (though we understand much more than we once did), the instructions are mixed up.

The next question, which I should have expected, was easier to answer. Her mother was pregnant at the time, and my niece had already been told that she was going to have a little sister. “What if my sister’s instructions are mixed up?” she asked. Without going into the details of amniocentesis, I told her that the same tests showing her mother was having a girl had also showed that the baby was healthy. My niece had seen a sonogram, so that made sense to her.

The third question was the toughest, since this wasn’t my daughter and I knew she was being brought up to believe in God. “Why would God let a baby get the wrong instructions?” she asked. Here was the theodicy problem, earlier than I might have imagined. I don’t believe in lying to children, so I told her that not everyone believes in God and that sometimes, nature makes mistakes. She seemed satisfied but then asked, “Do you believe in God, Aunt Susan.” “No,” I said, “but people have different ideas about this and you should ask your parents what they think too.” Then I went on to talk about the work of scientists and doctors who were trying to find cures for children born with problems and even to help babies who were sick while they were still inside their mothers’ tummies. Later, my sister-in-law told me that God never came up after this discussion but DNA did and she was frustrated because she couldn’t find a book to explain genetics with scientific accuracy in terms a child could understand.

Richard Dawkins helps fill that need with a new book,
The Magic of Reality
, that discusses not only DNA but everything from rainbows to evolution. The great virtue of this volume, enchantingly illustrated by Dave McKean, is that it leads the young along the path of logical thinking instead of piling fact upon fact in an effort to tell children what they should think.

This is the first book by a prominent member of the “new atheist” generation to address the urgent task of how to help children distinguish between myth and reality. Whether people prefer to call themselves atheists, agnostics or just religious skeptics, there is no more important issue than the promotion of logical thought among the young. (I should say here that I know Dawkins and his positive comment appears on the cover of the British edition of my 2008 book,
The Age of American Unreason

Nowhere in the developed world is this issue more important than in the United States, where the Christian right is actively engaged in trying to reshape public school curriculums to conform to its religious doctrines, keep evolution out of science classes and promote the lie that the founders established a Christian government.

Dawkins uses a simple, brilliant technique highly appealing to young and old: He opens each chapter with a set of myths from different cultures and then goes on to talk about what science has learned about the real origins of humanity, the real probability of “good luck” or “bad luck,” and the real explanations for bad events and bad experiences, from the destruction of earthquakes to disease.

Each chapter begins with different versions of myths, with the more familiar Christian and Judaic stories given no more or less credibility than unfamiliar mythology. In the chapter titled, “Who Was the First Person?” I was particularly delighted by a Tasmanian aboriginal story, which features a dying god who fell to earth after losing a battle among the stars and decided to create humans as his parting gift before death. Being in something of a hurry, he forgot to give people knees and gave them inconvenient kangaroo tails. The victorious rival god in the sky, seeing that the new people on earth were unhappy with their limited mobility, descended to earth to give them knees and cut off their tails. (For early humans in what is now Australia, this myth also provided an explanation of why people have no tails and kangaroos do.) This myth is followed by the story of Genesis, attributed to Hebrew tribes in the Middle East who believed in only one God.

All of this unfolds without didacticism and Dawkins presents the myths not as silly or stupid but as examples of early human beings’ first efforts to understand the world around them-and how they themselves came to be. Although this approach would of course be unacceptable to parents who indoctrinate their children with a literal interpretation of the Bible or the Koran, it would be entirely congenial to many religious liberals whose faith does not require them to see the stories in sacred books as anything but myths or metaphors and who do not teach their children that the universe was literally created in six days.

Whimsical as Dawkins’ tone is at times, he shows children the great respect of not talking down to them. One caveat: unless a child has already had an unusually good science education, the book is unlikely to be fully understandable to those below fourth grade.

In the chapter on miracles, Dawkins talks about David Hume’s definition of a miracle as a “transgressing” or breaking of a law of nature. Then the author quotes Hume’s famous observation that “no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.” Dawkins does “translate” Hume’s statement into words more understandable to children today by offering an example of a friend named John who claims to have watched a cow jump over the moon. “No matter how trustworthy and honest John might normally be,” Dawkins writes, “the idea of his telling a lie (or having an honest hallucination) would be less of a miracle than a cow literally jumping over the moon.”

Alas, this explanation is absolutely necessary in a culture where many young readers have become accustomed to lowest-common-denominator “young adult” books in which one of the basic tenets is that authors must reach readers “at their own level” and never use unfamiliar expressions and cultural references that would require them to make a special effort to understand.

One of the saddest, most common public misapprehensions about atheists-and about all who are dedicated to the promotion of reason and science-is that they are prigs who want to take all of the fun out of childhood. These worshippers of childhood innocence are the same people who consider it depressing rather than a sign of intellectual growth when a child figures out that there is no Santa Claus. They also apparently think it is “fun” for a child to believe she is descended from a pair of first parents created by a god who then drove them out of paradise for eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge but unsettling to suspect than monkeys might be among our more recent evolutionary ancestors.

Dawkins’s book is dedicated to the proposition that the truths of nature are just as pleasurable and awe-inspiring as any fairytale. “Miracles, magic and myths-they can be fun,” Dawkins concludes, “and we have had fun with them throughout this book. Everybody likes a good story, and I hope you enjoyed the myths with which I began most of my chapters. But even more I hope that, in every chapter, you enjoyed the science that comes after the myths. I hope you agree that truth has a magic of its own.”

Note to readers: If you’re acquainted with any particularly good books about science for children, your recommendations would be greatly appreciated.

Susan Jacoby
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  • WmarkW

    I’ll have to borrow this when the holds come off in my county library system (lacking regular contact with children, I can’t see spending money for it or keeping one from the hands of a parent who needs it.).

    The part about contrasting myths reminds me of something that came up here a year ago discussing The Bible and Its Influence (a secular bible literacy textbook designed for public schools). One critic complained that it encouraged students to “look up some examples of other ancient literature and mythology of the origins of the world,” suggesting that the Bible was just another piece of religious mythology.

    Let’s get our sleeves rolled up for library censorship hearings.

  • jeremyharewood1

    This is a pretty good science book for kids.

    Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be: Daniel Loxton (Author, Illustrator)

  • jeremyharewood1

    This is a pretty good science book for kids.

    Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be: Daniel Loxton (Author, Illustrator)

  • jeremyharewood1

    This is a pretty good science book for kids.

    Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be: Daniel Loxton (Author, Illustrator)

  • persiflage

    ‘Let’s get our sleeves rolled up for library censorship hearings.’

    Mark, while I’m certain Romney would never condone such a thing, if the book is censored I guess you and I both know which party will be responsible.

    You mentioned limousine liberal totalitarians in a recent post – and while I’m sure they exist, they don’t typically ban books or debate creationism vs evolutionary theory. Just saying…….

    Susan writes, ‘Dawkins teaches children how, not what, to think’.
    And what an excellent job he does! I’m wondering why his own cover of the book is suddenly missing from On Faith…….

  • sambricky

    Nice write up. I especially liked the story with your niece. It’s nice to see people explaining facts to there kids instead of copping out with some magic explanation.

  • daniel12

    Part one.

    Is it possible to teach a person how to think as opposed to what to think?

    Much is made of the difference between a mind which is merely a mass of what it has been told to think as opposed to a mind which reflects on material, a mind which knows how to sort, apparently, between truthful and false or useful and useless material. The former mind is often associated with the religious mind which accepts unquestioningly what elders have said about life and reality; the latter mind is often associated with the scientific mind. How to think! What a wonderful goal if at all possible! In reality though the concept of “how to think” reflects an ideal and nothing more, for if we knew how to think that would be identical to being the optimally creative being…The fact is assuming we know how to think is as dangerous and limited as being told what to think.

    Let me give three examples of what I call thinking and let people decide whether or not I know how to think. I should state at the outset that I have arrived at these three pieces of thinking by no technique I have consciously applied–I just read and thoughts come to me. The first example is that I have concluded that it would be best if mathematicians and physicists precisely because they rarely do fundamental work after the age of forty to take cocaine as Sherlock Holmes did even if it has deleterious effects–better to fulfill one’s capacities even if it compromises one’s life. Now how did I arrive at this thought? The best I can tell is that it was a synthesis between reading Holmes and facts about mathematicians and physicists. I suppose logic was applied, but people would probably say logic dictates one live a long healthy life and that drugs are bad for a person…

    My next example seems to be a piece of synthesis as well. Flipping through books on massage it becomes apparent that massage books make a clear separation between massage techniques and sexual stimulation–which is to say private parts are not inclu

  • daniel12

    Part two:

    My last example seems again a piece of synthesis–this time between music and the science of human language development. Reflecting on the extraordinary range of an instrument such as a harp or piano in comparison to the human voice, I wonder what would occur in language development of humans if every child prior to being able to speak were to have an operation (probably necessitating the insertion of an “instrument” in the throat) which results in ease of range–every human capable of going beyond the extremes of bass and soprano…My belief is language would take a gigantic leap forward…Most people would call this child abuse, illogical in the extreme, science-fiction…

    In none of these cases did I proceed by any method of thinking–I did not learn how to think then apply methods of thinking. I just read books and the thoughts came to me. I am not sure a person can be taught how to think. The best I can say about learning how to think is to compile reports on how thinkers BELIEVE they arrived their thoughts and then try to imitate these supposed processes…But for all learning how to think, I have no idea how I will arrive at my next thought.

  • cmccanncmccann

    How we think, using evidence, logic, ethics, is important.

  • Rongoklunk

    Excellent review Susan. I’ll be sure to get copies for my grandaughters.

    I’d like to recommend a wonderful little book called “Introducing Darwin and Evolution” by Jonathan Miller, with delightful illustrations by someone named Borin Van Loon. It’s 175 pages long, with illustrations on every page, and is a “Science and Study Guides” published by Totem Books.

    Dawkins is set on making sure that children get real information about the world they find themselves in – to set against the god myths they’re deluged with in todays America and much of the rest of the world. A typically brave thing to do, for he’s already seen as the anti-christ by the religious world.

    I was reading somewhere that as children under the age of nine or ten haven’t yet developed critical abilities, that religion shouldn’t be “taught” them until they’re old enough to assess it’s relationship with reality and truth. I guess it just isn’t possible to keep religion away from kids, or kids away from religion for their whole childhood. So Dawkin’s book is surely the only way to go; just get it out there. I hope it will be followed by other writers. The more sense is out there – the more likely it might be picked up by some poor confused kid whose religious knowledge has him in a tangle – not knowing what to believe, not knowing what makes sense.

  • quiensabe

    Susan, I’m acquainted with a particularly good book about science for children. It’s called the Bible. When you were talking with your niece, you could have shown her the part when Jesus was addressing the man blind from birth. You could have asked her what if the child was afflicted so that the works of God could be made known? Science may at some point fix DNA’s mixed up instructions, but until it does, a child, especially the afflicted one, has the hope of Heaven where Jesus has said he will wipe away every tear.

    Can atheism offer that? Since you don’t believe in lying to a child, tell her that.

  • top5pin

    What science offers is the truth as far as we are capable of currently knowing it, nothing more and nothing less.

    The Bible is not a good science book, it is a good story book. Often it is easier to believe in stories than face the harsh realities of our existence because, hey why not. We don’t (and probably never will) know everything about the nature of reality so why not make a story up to fill in the gaps, especially if that story helps to soothe the greatest fear about our existence, death.

    Science offers the best answers to the problems that we face in this world, this point is beyond dispute, look at your computer, car, medicine cabinet, house. All of this things (and countless others) were created through the scientific process of evidence and logic.

    If you feel that you must create stories to fill in the gaps, do so. Often I will be unable to refute your story because logic dictates that it is almost impossible to completely disprove the existence of anything. Instead I will make up my own story and allow you to try and disprove. Then I will continue to make up stories each as disprovable as the last until you decide that maybe making up stories isn’t the best way to get things done. At this point we can both got on with living in the world the way it is, not the way we want it to be.

  • top5pin

    Line 23, word 3.

    I meant un-disprovable.

  • quiensabe

    Yes, top5pin, we live in a natural world where science appears to be true. When one considers evolution, for example, that there are similarities in vertebrates but actually no proof that any one of them evolved from another. It just seems that way. Or is it just a story to fill in the gaps? Since you obviously believe in evolution (can’t imagine you might believe in Creative Design) this particular science is, as you say, just a story. And what about the science that teaches matter had no beginning? Is finite? Even Einstein came to realize the universe had a beginning and is expanding. So, any scientific theory about how the world came into existence is as non refutable as any story you or I either one could come up with.

    My post was not to refute science. Your response, however, was to refute a hope that transcends the “harsh realities of our existence” as you put it. If you only took one idea, scientific or not, from the Bible that would be helpful to a child, it would be “let hope have its full work.”

    So far you have not made up any stories. Your tone, though, is one of hopelessness. Rather than teach our children hopelessness, what harm does it cause them if they are told the “story” of the Gospel? As you have said yourself, you can’t disprove it, can you? And what if it turns out to be true?

  • persiflage

    Fairy tales for children are entertaining, even inspiring. I kind of remember enjoying a wide assortment of make-believe stuff around the age of 5 or 6, including various biblical myths from the old and new testament. Even then, they appeared to be made-up stories full of magical, if imaginative. fiction.

    What’s tragic is conflating mythical legends and religious hyperbole into adulthood. Developing new fact-based knowledge and understanding the world that surrounds us is what science is for. Science builds on itself, unlilke religion.

    If religion continues to provide entertainment value, so be it. Let’s just not confuse the two with regard to function, purpose, and outcome.

  • persiflage

    should have read:

    “What’s tragic is conflating mythical legends and religious hyperbole with factual truth into adulthood.’

  • Rongoklunk

    You average christian doesn’t know the difference between science and ancient mythology. The holy bible is wholly babble, without an ounce of truth in it.
    It’s an ancient book written by umteen writers and translated a million times to please ignorant and illiterate goat-herders. It’s also obscene and disgusting, and belongs on the dusty shelves of ancient museums – where one day it will finally end up.

  • WmarkW

    This is an exaggeration. The history from Judges onward has a good outline of genuine secular history of the Hebrew kingdoms if you treat the obvious theism with appropriate skepticism.

    If the Muslim peoples studied their holy text from a similarly skiptical perspective, I believe they would find that the later Medina verses (the violent and intolerant ones) were written at a wholly different time from a wholly different perspective from the Mecca verses, and that they aren’t about Muhammad at all. A conquering nation simply re-wrote their tales of conquest making Muhammed the central character of them. The real Muhammed probably died after the Mecca or early Medina period.

  • Catken1

    “When one considers evolution, for example, that there are similarities in vertebrates but actually no proof that any one of them evolved from another. It just seems that way”

    What would you accept as proof? We have fossil evidence of transitional forms, confirmed by obvious morphological family trees of organisms (established before Darwin), confirmed by DNA evidence, confirmed by ancestral-but-no-longer-used appendages (like the human coccyx), etc.
    What proof do you have for your God, who injures children to “make his works known”? What evidence do you have that any god exists, or that your god is the one who does?

    Saying that your faith offers the “hope of Heaven” does not make it true. I can promise you all sorts of pie in the sky after you’re dead, if you only believe X or Y – the fact that you want the pie and would be really sad to find out it does not exist does nothing whatsoever to establish the truth of assertions X or Y. Nor does saying that “believing X and Y are necessary to control human morality” – it is entirely possible that morality is a human construct (or a sentient-being construct, if there are intelligent aliens elsewhere, or a reasonably-intelligent-animal construct, if we allow for the evidence of moral choices among apes and possibly other bright social species), and that the natural world is indifferent thereto.

    As for hope, given history, she’d have far better luck putting her hope in science. Science has cured a lot more illnesses, and saved a lot more little children’s lives, than religion has. And science doesn’t send people out to slaughter whole populations – men, women, children, babies – because they worship a different god, or worship the same god in a slightly different way.

  • Catken1

    “Liberal totalitarians have been behind movements to ban books like Huckleberry Finn from libraries”

    Those who seek to ban Huckleberry Finn on the grounds of racism have either never read it, or have not done adequate study of the history of the times. It is a passionately _anti-racist_, _anti-slavery_ book.

    Protest of speech, I think, is counterproductive at best, whether it’s Israeli, Palestinian, or even Westboro Baptist. If the speaker is an idiot, wrong, or cruel, that will come out in their speech, and they will do more to hurt their own cause than the protesters ever could. Indeed, the protesters risk sabotaging their own point by making it seem as though they are afraid of having their ideas compete. I do think it is reasonable to protest one’s own university giving a venue for speech to someone whose speech is appallingly immoral – but protest in a way that communicates your own views without interfering with the rights of the speaker, however appalling. Pickets, perhaps, or a speech in response, but not disrupting the actual speech. Practically and ethically, that tends to be the most effective solution. Speech is best answered by more speech.

    Protest of the naming of a library, though, is not a ban on free speech – it is the exercise thereof. No one is suggesting burning Friedman’s works or forbidding them to be read, just arguing that he should not be given special honor.

  • quiensabe

    That settles the argument, Catken1. Because it looks like I might have had a tail at one time, there must be no God. That, combined with belief in one who hurts children, is proof positive. Case closed.

  • persiflage

    Not to wax philosophical, but practicing a lack of belief is a worthy meditation, considering that most of the avoidable trouble in the world is generated by mutually driven beliefs and values of one kind or another e.g. cognitive and emotional components to behavior. At least we can all probably all agree on that basic terminology.

    ‘Conditional’ belief seems to be a reasonable state of preparedness for changes that always manage to appear – It seems pretty clear that permanently held beliefs rarely reflect actual, established truths about the world or even accurate, fact-based information about human relations. How many of us have accurate insights into our own feelings and motives from one minute to the next?

    By extension, the whole idea of free will probably needs to be re-evaluated as well. Conditioned response is how most of us live – and that is not even close to free will.

    As savant George Gurdjeiff was noted for observing, there are few indeed that have attained a state of clarity where behavior is exactly appropriate to the conditions at hand – and those conditions change from moment to moment.

    Beliefs are an indispensible convenience that get us through the day……but not something to base on lifetime on. This is why conventional religion holds little sway with people that live in the moment.

  • Catken1

    “Because it looks like I might have had a tail at one time, there must be no God. That, combined with belief in one who hurts children, is proof positive.”

    No, it’s the fact that you have no actual rational evidence for your god, and that you claim self-contradictory things for your god (that he is good and kind, and that he causes children to be injured for his own self-aggrandizement), suggests that your god is not likely to exist.
    Or if he does, he’s not worth worshipping.