Of primates and parents, part two
“First, everybody was monkeys.”
My 4-year-old son’s statement was half claim, half query. Flustered, I said, “Sort of.” My son continued, “But not real monkey animals, right?” Now I was stymied. My wife chimed in: “I’ll let daddy take this one.” Thanks, dear. I mustered a feeble reply to my eager son: “Something like that.” Why couldn’t he have asked about something simple, like sex or Brexit?
Parenting often means feeling dumb or at least unprepared. I thought of comedian Jim Gaffigan’s story about a conversation with his 4-year-old son, Jack. Walking past a car, Jack pointed to the antenna and said, “Look Daddy, stick.” Feeling smart, Jim said, “Actually, that is an antenna.” Jack asked, “What’s an antenna?” Suddenly, realizing his own ignorance, Jim said, “It’s a stick. A metal stick. You nailed it, buddy.”
Being stumped by your kid often triggers a defensive impulse to fake it. The ego, for its part, does not want to appear stupid. The heart does not want to disappoint the kid. If my son thinks I have all the answers, I don’t want to let him down.
I could have pontificated on my cursory knowledge of evolution: Well, son, you’re right, we didn’t come from “real monkey animals” exactly, but humans and monkeys evolved from a common ancestor who probably lived millions of years ago. The forces of natural selection and genetic mutation resulted in the origin of new species — monkey, human and otherwise.
With respect to Mr. Darwin, I would offer one modification to his theory on the origin of species. He based his work on the principle of “survival of the fittest,” but an empirical study of current anthropological realities suggests instead a principle of “survival of the just fit enough.” As we know well in Colorado, to survive a bear attack you need not be faster than the bear — just faster than the slowest person in your group. That helps explains why, for all the elegance of the theory of evolution, a great deal of human inelegance persists. Every day people unworthy of the mantle “fittest” manage to breed. The Real Housewives have kids, and so do the Jersey Shore survivors. For goodness sake, Snooki wrote a book!
Darwinian natural selection is probably a bit much for a 4-year-old to absorb, anyway. Maybe that’s why we punt and tell kids stories — like the Bible. I could have told him that no, we did not come from monkeys; that God created all living things 6,000 years ago and that you’ll go to hell if you say otherwise.
I could take him to Ark Encounter, the new biblical theme park opening this week in Kentucky. For only $100 million, Ken Ham’s creationist organization, Answers in Genesis, built a full-size replica of Noah’s ark. According to the group, “The ark is based on the dimensions recorded in the Bible and was designed in accordance with sound, established nautical engineering practices of the biblical era.” (I thought the first rule in biblical nautical engineering was, “For the love of God, don’t sink!”)
A news story said the ark construction was done by “Amish carpenters using modern techniques and tools.” Amish and modern — now that’s a miracle! The builders may have departed slightly from Scripture’s ark parameters by including theme restaurants and a petting zoo. I wonder if they have two of every creature. My guess is you have to sign a waiver before your kid can pet the Komodo dragons and porcupines.
In fairness, I would enjoy taking my kids to a biblical theme park. I’m all for experiential learning through sacred myths brought to life. But the designers lose me when they present it as absolute historical and scientific fact. The Bible is not a transcript of history or a science textbook. (That being said, turning water into wine would hold the interest of even the dullest high school chemistry student.)
Quite frankly, being a parent has given me all the fodder I need to question creationism’s intelligent design theory. Once a child starts solid food, young parents live in daily fear of their choking. What kind of designer makes the air hole the same as the food hole? If I had been in charge of quality control for that prototype, I would have rejected it. It’s like making a combination paper shredder/copy machine and putting the document feeder slots as close together as possible. Wait, you put the breathing tube literally right next to the eating tube? You know food can get stuck in there, right? Have you noticed how fish breathe through gills and eat with their mouth? Two. Different. Holes. You did intelligently design fish, too, didn’t you? Did you lose those plans or something?
I’ve decided to fight the desire to answer each of my children’s questions definitively. Although the ego urges me to feign certainty, I will try to suppress it and instead model intellectual humility. I want to answer in a way that raises more questions and sparks the imagination.
Truth seeking, in science and in faith, requires openness, curiosity and doubt. I want my children to know that we are defined by the questions we ask, not the answers we ape. After all, that’s what makes us human.
Rabbi David Segal of the Aspen Jewish Congregation can be reached at email@example.com or 970-925-8245. His column runs the first Sunday of the month.