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Show an 8 year old how Africans evolved into Asians over time
February 22, 2011 6:42 AM   Subscribe

Evolution: What would be a simple and clear way of explaining to an 8 year old how African people with dark skin, big eyes and curly hair turn into Japanese people with lighter skin, smaller eyes and straighter hair over X amount of years?

...hopefully without getting too much into the details of natural selection, DNA, weather/climate conditioning, adaptation, etc.
posted by querty to Science & Nature (28 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Well, you kind of have to talk about natural selection and environmental adaptation. However, why not point out that the differences are only skin deep, so to speak, and that as humans there are more similarities between Africans and Asians?
posted by KokuRyu at 6:49 AM on February 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Human life originated in Africa. Dark skin, big eyes and curly hair was advantageous because of xyz. Eventually people migrated in search of resources. As their climates changed, these traits were no longer useful because instead of xyz there was abc.; people with different characteristics survived specific to the abc climate. After a long time, only people with the new set of characteristics were in that area.
posted by pintapicasso at 6:49 AM on February 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

You could try the Peppered Moth story.
posted by vacapinta at 6:52 AM on February 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

My schnoz is so big because my northern European ancestors lived in a cold environment and needed to warm a lot of air before breathing it in.

Your explanation might hold your kid's attention a little more if you can relate traits that your family has to your family's ancestors and how they might have lived.

Fun fact: my brother can fit a quarter into his nostril. Yay, genetics!
posted by phunniemee at 6:56 AM on February 22, 2011

Well, you could start out by showing him/her pictures of lots of different types of African people - Africans are incredibly diverse. Some of them look more Japanesey, some of them look more like the type of person you are describing.

Point out that some of the people who left Africa were lighter skinned and/or straighter-haired than others; for whatever reason, their children and grandchildren thrived in Japan and other parts of East Asia, while people with darker skin and curlier hair thrived in other parts of the world.

I don't think the reasons why lighter or darker skin were an advantage are really important to the story here (even if you knew why they were, and it's pretty complicated). Talk about variation within the population, how some people, even within the same family, are lighter- or darker-skinned or haired, and how in some circumstances these difference can be a benefit or a hindrance.
posted by mskyle at 6:57 AM on February 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

I would focus on the parts of these humans that are alike. Skin color is pretty changeable - look at other mammals, and look at the range of colors in humans. Same with hair characteristics, etc. What is the same is the way the entire system functions, the blood, liver, heart, brain. The way humans walk, run, polevault, sing and use our nifty opposable thumbs. Organs from someone of Asian descent can be transplanted into someone of African descent.

I noticed early on that my dog had elbows and ankles that were analogous to mine, and to horses, etc. When I learned about evolution, it made perfect sense to me. I think 8 is old enough to learn about adaptation and natural selection.
posted by theora55 at 6:59 AM on February 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Well, they didn't, so that's going to be a very difficult discussion.

I think you're trying to describe the "Recent African origin of modern humans" theory of human evolution, so it might be more functional to try to describe early human migration to your 8-year-old. That is, that we all shared a common ancestor, who we believe was from Africa, we don't know what he or she looked like, but that the descendants of this common ancestor went all over the world and changed a little bit in every generation to adapt to their surroundings. Asking pointed questions like "What protects us from the sun?" and showing the connection between skin pigmentation and proximity to the equator was what made it click for me as a child.

Your kid may enjoy these three books, which you can find at your local library:
How Whales Walked into the Sea
The Tree of Life: Charles Darwin
Darwin and Evolution for Kids: His Life and Ideas with 21 Activities

Your child might also benefit from being aware that some people don't believe this stuff, even though you do. I remember being absolutely mortified when I met a friend whose family taught her that evolution wasn't true. It's worth bringing up that while you believe it is right, not everyone does - and bring up a couple of other examples of things other families teach their children that we don't agree with, but that we respect nonetheless.
posted by juniperesque at 6:59 AM on February 22, 2011 [12 favorites]

...hopefully without getting too much into the details of natural selection, DNA, weather/climate conditioning, adaptation, etc.

Why not? I seriously have no idea how to explain evolution without talking about natural selection and environmental pressures. That's the entire point of it.
posted by DU at 7:02 AM on February 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

If you end up talking about natural selection, you might want to consider to what degree you'll discuss how difficult it is to not only survive, but to take care of children and keep them safe.
posted by amtho at 7:03 AM on February 22, 2011

This one is easy.

Get 9 kids. Group them into threes.

Do Chinese whispers.

The "DNA" of the story will mutate. You can show this by asking the final person in each group of three what they heard.

You can then explain how the process of mutation is a bit like that, but takes longer, and accounts for things like how hot it is.
posted by MuffinMan at 7:04 AM on February 22, 2011

I distinctly remember reading about how most such traits aren't actually environmental adaptations, but are rather just due to sexual selection. So it might be a good way to discuss how people get married and their baby is some combination of the traits of the two parents; and how in different cultures and places and times, different things were considered beautiful so that people with those traits tended to get married more than other people. It never hurts to impress upon a kid that local, modern beauty standards aren't universal. Maybe talk about examples around the world today, or throughout the history of western civilization.
posted by you're a kitty! at 7:09 AM on February 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

Humanity originated in Africa and that's where most of our genetic diversity still is. Over tens of thousands of years, small tribes of people left Africa; they settled in civilizations all over the world. Then, in the last 500 years almost all of those civilizations died out when colonialism brought huge wars and new diseases. The people we see today are the ones who happened to survive all that stuff. So some of the variation that you see in daily life is due to evolution, but a lot is just due to random chance.
posted by miyabo at 7:26 AM on February 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

You might also stress that all the differences between ethnic groups that some people dwell on are in fact biologically quite superficial and transient, and that nearly all bodies' structures and processes work the same way in all humans no matter the color of skin, shape of eye or nose, or color of hair -- we have so much more in common with folks of other races than differs between us that it's silly to talk about these ethnic/racial differences as something that should shape our opinions of others.
posted by aught at 8:11 AM on February 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

As you talk about the points above, you can use examples from your own family to show how some traits carry from one generation to the next. Does the 8-year-old (or other family member) have any features that look like their grandparents/aunts/uncles/parents/cousins? Probably, but notice also some things that don't look the same. If everyone who ever got married chose someone with a really big nose, eventually there would be no such thing as a small nose.

And I think you need to emphasize what juniperesque pointed out: current Asians did not evolve from people who looked like current Africans (losing their dominant dark coloring along the way) - they both evolved from the same common ancestor that we all evolved from and we don't know exactly what that ancestor looked like.
posted by CathyG at 8:25 AM on February 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Hey, if you could figure this out, it would be awesome, because it's still basically an open question in anthropology and human evolution. Most of what we have are just-so stories like "My schnoz is so big because my northern European ancestors lived in a cold environment", which are of no explanatory value, and are ascientific (or pseudoscientific).
posted by mr_roboto at 9:04 AM on February 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

How about you start with showing how dinosaurs become birds, how prehistoric fish become lizards, etc ? I mean, if things can change that MUCH body shape and size, and go from water to land to air, people changing color and hair types is actually pretty easy to accept at that point.
posted by yeloson at 9:07 AM on February 22, 2011

National Geographic did a documentary called The Human Family Tree that a child curious on this topic might find interesting.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 9:10 AM on February 22, 2011

Maybe draw an line on a big world map from Africa to Japan and along the way post a picture of the native people there.

It'll help demonstrate the evolution of the faces and characteristics and with the map it'll be easier to how mountians, trade routes, other mirgatory factors changed the features on peoples faces.

Also use examples like

Who's Dad has curly hair?
Who's Mum has red hair?
Who can roll there tongue?

Compare that to the kids themselves

Let them see that when 2 people (Parents) have children (them) how some features continue on and some others are diluted
posted by MarvinJ at 9:14 AM on February 22, 2011

dammit Nat Geo, the map was MY idea!
posted by MarvinJ at 9:16 AM on February 22, 2011

There's a game that would be a GREAT starting place for discussion. It's called Seed: you crossbreed flowers, and see how they change over many generations.
posted by ourobouros at 10:03 AM on February 22, 2011

I fully support teaching kids how awesome and cool evolution is, but before you do that make sure you've got it straight yourself. I realize that you are probably simplifying for the sake of the question but the way you've framed this narrative of evolution borders on inaccurate. As others have pointed out, it is important to emphasize that Africans did not "turn in" to Japanese people, but rather that they share a common ancestor. Even more importantly, be sure to emphasize that modern day African people have continued to evolve over time. The idea that Africans are somehow farther back on the timescale in terms of evolution is pretty much the basis for scientific racism and for at least a century's worth of primitivizing African peoples (and others).

Anthropologist rant over
posted by Polyhymnia at 11:43 AM on February 22, 2011 [5 favorites]

There's recent evidence that non-African populations interbred with or assimilated Neanderthals, and that the ancestors of what are now the Japanese, Han, Melanesians etc. also interbred with or assimilated a newly discovered group called the Denisovans. Neanderthals, Denisovans and sapiens have a last common ancestor about a million years ago, well before the most recent out-of-Africa event. There is to my knowledge no research into what impact this has had on physical characteristics, but this is hardly surprising given that the first decent genomes only appeared last year. Note that we're talking about quite low levels of admixture, in the single digits, but that doesn't mean some non-sapiens characteristics couldn't have become more prevalent until everyone in a population had them.

So as well as explaining how populations change over time, you could cover how when populations merge, the merged population inherits from both 'parent' populations, just like a kid looks like its father and mother.
posted by topynate at 12:39 PM on February 22, 2011

Not directly relevant to your question but I thought this was very cool and it really does make a great point about how there really isn't such a thing as "macro evolution". And I found it on a Christian forum, too! :-)
posted by Decani at 12:49 PM on February 22, 2011

My schnoz is so big because my northern European ancestors lived in a cold environment and needed to warm a lot of air before breathing it in.

This is not proven, and in fact, there's evidence for just the opposite. Not to call you a Neanderthal, but... "the maxillary sinus undergo[es] a significant reduction in volume in extreme cold, in both wild and laboratory conditions."
posted by coolguymichael at 12:51 PM on February 22, 2011

Yeah, as has kind of been pointed out in a few responses, I think it should be noted that this is probably/maybe not even true. In fact the assumption is kind of racist (not doing any name calling here, just think about it). Do some googling, you'll find stuff about how dark skin probably evolved at the same time (relative to the vast time periods under discussion) that the traits of other races evolved.

So the basic idea is that the earliest "humans" didn't look like Africans, so Asians almost definitely didn't "evolve" from the dark skinned africans we have today. Just sticking with the skin thing, it makes sense if you imagine our ancestors as very hairy, so things like the pigment of the skin being suited for a particular level of UV exposure wouldn't be quite as advantageous.
posted by Patbon at 1:57 PM on February 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

The straight answer is that we don't really know how modern day racial/ethnic phenotypes correspond to the phenotypes of our evolutionary forebears.

This is way outside the purview of a grade school kid learning to understand evolution - I got the "here are some possible theories, but honestly we just don't know" answer as an undergrad taking college courses on human evolution in order to get a degree in anthropology.

It also slippery-slopes itself into racism, or at the very least biological determinism, very quickly. Especially in the mind of a young kid who doesn't have the necessary scientific background to understand anything beyond broad strokes.

The only safe answer beyond "we don't really know" would be to say that many scientists think that it's ultimately based on what people in a particular culture find attractive, and probably isn't an adaptive trait sort of thing.
posted by Sara C. at 2:38 PM on February 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

"None of us know exactly what the people who lived in Africa 250,000 years ago looked like. As people moved around the world over thousands and thousands of years, their appearances changed in many ways because of both environmental pressure and cultural pressure.

One example of the former is that people who live in less sunny climates tend to have paler skin. Scientists hypothesize that this is because people with paler skin have an easier time absorbing vitamin D from the sun; therefore, among the people who migrated from Africa to, say, Scandinavia--which gets very little sun--the people with paler skin tended to live longer and have more children.

But changes like this happen over the course of tens of thousands of years, and there is still a lot of scientific work to be done before we know what our ancestors from a quarter of a million years ago looked like. They certainly didn't look exactly like the people of any of the many different nations and cultures who live in Africa today, because all of those people--just like the people of all the other continents--have been evolving for 250,000 years."
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:37 PM on February 22, 2011

it is important to emphasize that Africans did not "turn in" to Japanese people, but rather that they share a common ancestor.

I just want to endorse the importance of this. Getting this straight early on will help prevent a lot of very common types of confusion in the future (i.e. 'humans evolved from chimps', 'mammals evolved from flatworms', etc.)
posted by primer_dimer at 2:45 AM on February 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

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