"Where did we come from, Mommy?"
Here is an array of suggestions and raw material, selected from many sent in by Brights. Children are in need of guidance as they encounter the “big questions” of life, and the material here will hopefully provide adults with more comfort and confidence as they “how the human species got here.” Look over the possibilities and plan an approach to your liking.
Note: This toolbox question was issued in Bulletin 31, November 2005. Far more material was received than can be readily displayed, but posted here is about 15% of the total. Several items are excerpted from lengthy entries, and others are slightly edited for brevity and phraseology.
Beforehand: Variations in Advice
First, tell children the truth. They may not understand it and will ask for clarification until they're satisfied (though they obviously still won't understand it all). One day, when they do understand it, your explanation will be accepted as true and you will retain their respect.
The most positive method of responding to the "where do we come from" question may be to encourage the child to think for himself. Essentially, the idea would be to spark a conversation on the topic. Contrary to popular belief, children of young ages can hold conversations. Obviously you need to be careful and use friendly/encouraging tones, so as to not come off as "judgmental" of your child in the development of his or her own beliefs… Children should be allowed to develop their own beliefs over time, with our support.
First, ask the child, "What do you think?" The kind of answer you then give depends totally on the age and stage!
Religiously indoctrinated children have years of stories fed into their brains. You can't just feed yours with a talking point! We humans understand ourselves and our environment by telling ourselves stories. You must give your child their story. Again, this is not easy material. Like anything, a child needs to be given the words, concepts and details and practice with them. Read to your children. Talk to them about science, regularly. Watch "Prehistoric Planet" and "The Magic School Bus". And if you can't articulate your own beliefs to your children, better start reading yourself. We dedicate at least an hour every other week to provide our children with the scientific foundations of our worldview.
Some "Surface Answers"
We were really made by Nature, not by someone called God. Nature is everything we can see, and everything we can learn about. Nature made everything in the world, including us. If we want to be smart we will learn all we can about Nature, and learning about Nature is called Science.
Maybe you or one of your classmates will help solve the mystery and find the answer when you grow up! That’s why it is so important to study in school and learn all you can!” (Notice the pitch to do homework.)
Take the child outside on a clear dark night. Point to the stars and say, "We are children of the universe. The universe made us."
People will have different ideas, so don’t worry. One of the great things is that people have a right to think about such things. You do. I do. Your friends do. Some people have a god-explanation, and others choose Nature. I like the Nature explanation best. It doesn’t need any gods at all.
People believe in all kinds of strange things. We are all children of parents from very long ago.
Scientists have found that we and all other animals and all living things could have come up from nature without a God making us. More and more people are accepting this conclusion.
"Looking Back" Narratives
Every living thing on the planet, including you, had ancestors. Ancestors are those living things that gave rise to more living things before they died. Your ancestors are mommy and daddy, your grandparents (mommy's and daddy's parents), your great grandparents, your great-great grandparents...all the way back to times when your ancestors and the ancestors of your classmates were one and the same! We call those ancestors that gave rise to you and to your classmates “shared ancestors.”
Before that time, a time that is very hard to imagine because it was so long ago, the ancestors that gave rise to you, your classmates, and indeed all humans, shared ancestors with chimpanzees! And before that, those ancestors shared ancestors with other great apes like gorillas. And much, much longer ago than that, those ancestors had ancestors that they shared with living things that gave rise to other mammals like cats and dogs!
In fact, all living things on the planet shared ancestors that lived in the very distant past, close to the time when the earth formed from clouds that swirled around the young sun. These ancestors lived such a long time ago, at the very beginning of life on our planet, that they were probably just chemicals that could make more chemicals like themselves (chemicals are what things are made of).
Gradually, those chemicals that were better at being ancestors than other chemicals (because they produced more chemicals like themselves than the other chemicals did) gave rise to chemicals that were even better ancestors than before. This process continued until a bunch of chemicals worked together to produce a very, very, very good ancestor, the first cell (cells are what living things are made of).
From that day on, living cells on earth kept getting better and better at being ancestors. Fortunately for us (otherwise we would not be alive, talking about how we got here!), there are lots of different ways for living things to be good ancestors, and that is why there are so many, many different living things alive today!
We know that this is the way we got here, let’s call it “The Way of the Ancestor,” from clues, called evidence, that scientists have uncovered through lots of hard work. Next time we chat like this, we can talk about the different ways that people have of knowing things and why evidence is the best way to tell if something is true or not.
Where did we come from? I’m thinking that maybe since you and I are humans, then the question is, “How was the human race made?” That is a pretty complicated story, but since you are the person who is asking, let’s start with you. How you were made is by your father and mother. Now, step back one generation. We, your parents, were made by our fathers and mothers. It is fathers and mothers all the way back. But, if we go back, back, back, way, way back in time through many, many, many generations, we find some amazing things. Incidentally, we learn about ancient humans from fossils, mostly of fossil skulls. Our ancient ancestors- yours and mine - looked different than we do. They look more like our ape relatives, the chimps, gorillas, and bonobos. Go back further even in time, through more and more sets of parents, we find that the humans and chimps and gorillas had a common set of parents that looked even more different than us today. Scientists can actually trace our parents back to simpler and more primitive creatures. But how they can do that is another story.
We can trace where we came from and where the world came from back a long, long ways in time, but there are many things that we just can't know. I can tell you that you came from me and your mommy, and we came from our mommies and daddies, back to the beginning of the world, but then you can ask me, where did the world come from? If you asked me where the world came from, and I told you it came from something called the 'Big Bang', you could ask me what that was, and where it came from. Every answer to a “where did we come from” question can lead to still more questions. Sometimes we just have to be satisfied that we don't know the answer. Some people like the idea that God made them, and that is okay, too. To them, it seems to answer the question, even though it really doesn't. Just remember to respect that your friends can believe differently, but that you get to make up your own mind, and that no one knows everything."
There are different ways to read a child's intent (by the question, "Where did we come from?") as some comments by Brights show. Also, how do you adjust your response to the youngster's developmental level? Additional commentary sheds some light on these aspects and mentions possible resources.
Dealing with Causation and Deities
As you remember, son, a couple of Christmases ago you decided that there was no Santa Claus. We let you figure that out on your own, knowing that you could come to that conclusion without our help. Just like Santa, many people believe there are one or more kinds of super spirits who are responsible for everything. Most of your classmates are of the “one god” mind, and until they learn better, if they ever do, let them think what they will. If they or their parents want to believe in Santa Claus or supernatural supermen or any superthings, let them.
It happens that we think differently, and we know better. We don't have the impossible job of explaining how there can be a Santa Claus or some such thing. Let them try and you try not to laugh at them as they fail.
The best we can tell is that life started very simply 4 billion years ago, and changed gradually. The fossils of dinosaurs are helping us piece together this puzzle like a jigsaw - maybe someday we'll have enough pieces to see the big picture.
Ask your classmate, "Who made god?" Bet they get stuck! Saying god made us just tells us they don't know either, so they use an answer based on the ideas of some iron-age people who didn't even know the Earth was round, never mind 4 billion years old! People stick to these ideas because it gives them comfort, not because it's true. You should not be scared of the truth, in the end it is the most valuable thing we can have - even if the truth is "I don't know - but I'm looking".
Many, many years ago, before there were any scientists, people believed that the things we see around us were made by gods. The rainbow was made by a goddess named Iris. Thunder and lightning were made by the king of the gods, named Zeus. Everything in nature was produced by gods.
Over many years, scientists have learned that the things we see in nature have "natural" explanations. The rainbow is not produced by Iris. It is caused by the bending and reflection of light by raindrops. Thunder and lightning are not caused by Zeus. They are caused by a natural force called "electricity." Even things inside your body, like the way your blood circulates, are the result of completely natural causes. We no longer believe that our bodies and other living things are operated by mysterious "vital forces," and certainly not by gods.
There are some things we may never know for certain. Like for instance, “If there is a God who created everything, who made God?” Bigger powers are at work every day. The sun shines and warms the earth; the moon’s gravity causes ocean tides; the tides rise and fall everyday. Everything, even these big powers, changes or evolves over time. Our solar system has been around for thousands of millions of years. Our earliest ancestors only started to appear less than two million years ago. Dinosaurs roamed the earth long before people, and they were all extinct before we arrived.
Lots of your friends say many things that you laugh at. You have heard other kids talk of "the boogey-men in the basement" or fantastic stories you know are not true. You needn't worry too much about this, but I will tell you what I think has happened.
It has to do with little bitty differences over lots and lots of time. The term we use is evolution. You came from your mother and father. You are just a little tiny bit different from each of us, but very much like us. Well, going backwards, each mommy and daddy were just a little bit different from their sons and daughters. Well, if you go back part of the way across a huge span of time, that mommy and daddy looked a lot like monkeys or chimpanzees. If we go even farther back our ancestors looked like other animals we see today, but not exactly, because those animals look like their mommies and daddies, but a little different too. So after all this time, as they changed, they became the other animals we see today.