I chuckled last week when I stumbled on a news story about the re-chalking of an ancient British monument, the Cerne Abbas giant. Volunteers had cleared overgrown vegetation and re-chalked the white outline of the pagan figure.
The 55m-long caricature again stands boldly against the green Dorset hillside — replete with raised club and engorged penis.
I can just imagine the conversation from across the valley where six-year-old Jimmy’s family is picnicking. “Mummy,” he asks, brow troughed, “why’s the giant’s willy all funny?”
It’s not often that a national monument gets to fast-track that awkward birds-‘n-bees conversation. But it raises questions much broader than merely where babies come from. It cuts down to the meaning of life, the universe and everything (as the late, great Douglas Adams put it).
The virile pagan caricature is a reminder that before us, with our modern cosmology, there were others who explained our origins in a different way (there’s another theory that the giant is a bit of cheeky 17th-century graffiti, but let’s not go there now).
Another story broke last week, this time in the venerable halls of London’s Royal Society, which parted company with its director of education after he said creationist ideas should be taught alongside evolution.
If you leave it out, the Reverend Professor Michael Reiss said, you’re going to alienate a lot of kids who already hold this view and possibly turn them off science for good.
It’s not clear in the post-kerfuffle post-mortem what he meant. Some thought he meant that creationism should be presented in the science class as an alternative to evolution — a scandalous idea for the society.
Clarifying himself, Reiss told the press that teachers “should take the time to explain how science works and why creationism has no scientific basis”.
Whatever the case, one thing is true: it’s a conversation we’re all going to have with our kids eventually. And, like the sex-ed talk, if we don’t tell them the facts, someone else is going to.
The difficulty is how to do it. To present the issue as though it’s a “debate” is misleading and suggests that there is an “and — or” position here, as though these are equal and opposite sides of an argument.
They are not. One is a creation myth. The other is scientific consensus. And ne’er the twain shall meet.
But since most of our kids have grown up knowing only the creation narrative, how do we present the facts of evolution without upsetting the scriptural literalists?
Here’s how I’d do it: I’d break out the crayons and draw a timeline of modern humans on the wall of the religious education classroom, going back, say, 30 000 years.
I would draw in each culture’s creation myth over time: the Mayan story about how man was built from maize by Kukulkán and Tepeu; the python story in San mythology; the Egyptian god Ra who rose from an egg; the six-day creation of earth in the Judeo-Christian and Muslim narratives; on and on. It would celebrate our common humanity — that through the ages we have struggled to understand ourselves, how we got here, our place in the universe.
Then I would pop across the hall to the science class and I’d draw a timeline going back 4,6-billion years, to when earth first came together into a spinning ball, and trace the rise and rise of life, in its many shapes and forms. I’d outline the history of science, how it has given us a more trustworthy way of understanding how the earth came to be, how old it is and how life emerged and evolved.
I’d point out that to try put the creation story across as scientific fact is missing the point. Science writer Michael Shermer puts it nicely, saying creation myths are “about the human struggle to make sense of the great passages of time and life: birth, death, marriage; the transitions from childhood, to adulthood, to old age. They meet a need in the psychological or spiritual nature of humans that has absolutely nothing to do with science.”
To pit these narratives against science as a credible alternative to the myriad facts that support our understanding of earth and the evolution of life is ludicrous. It misunderstands both the role of mythology and the nature of science. But the fact that the “debate” still rages goes to show how society’s shifting zeitgeist struggles to adapt to the growing body of empirical knowledge.
This misunderstanding is unfortunate — I’m equally edified by understanding the role and origin of creation narratives, as I am by being able to look back into deep time and know why a chimpanzee is my cousin. It would be nice to show our kids the same, without all the ugly ideological baggage.