Letters to My Daughters #4: “The Beauty and Value of Critical Thinking”

Letters to My Daughters #4: “The Beauty and Value of Critical Thinking” September 10, 2013

kids-tee-minecraft-evolution-black_designNot too long ago, I started a conversation with you girls that we didn’t really get to finish. I stopped because it seemed to be making one or two of you very uncomfortable. I brought up the subject of evolution because one of you indicated you didn’t approve of the idea, and I felt like we should discuss it for a minute. I suppose the subject was a little intimidating, and I think I understand why. The idea that humans developed from other species over such long periods of time (millions of years) goes against what many people believe, and wrestling with those differences of opinion can be a bit scary and overwhelming. It’s hard to know what to think when the people you trust don’t agree with each other about really important things. I wish for your sakes that tension weren’t there, but it is. What’s more, I suspect you typically hear from only one side of this controversy (even at school), and it’s past time for you to hear from the other side.

This is an excellent opportunity for you girls to develop your excellent critical thinking skills (more on that in a minute). You’ll have to weigh two very different options to determine for yourselves which way of thinking makes the most sense. It seems to me that if there is an intelligent Being behind everything, he/she/it should be pleased to see us using our brains to figure things out for ourselves. But not everyone seems to think this way. Some even appear to believe that it’s bad to think for yourself. As crazy as that sounds to me personally, they have their reasons for thinking the way they do…about thinking. I just happen to disagree with them.

The way I see it, a biology topic like the origin of our species is a question for science, not for religion. Some people feel you shouldn’t say things like that, but I know quite a few Christians and people of faith who agree with me on this. If you don’t ever distinguish between matters of science and matters of faith you can end up embarrassing yourself like the people who told Galileo he was wrong about the Earth going around the Sun (instead of vice versa). The motion of the planets should have been a question for science, but some well-meaning people objected because in several places the Bible seems to say something different on the matter. But the Bible wasn’t written to be a science textbook, and we shouldn’t treat it like it was. I’m convinced that questions about the biological origins of the human race fall into that same category. I know the writers of the Bible give a different version of how it all went down, but they couldn’t possibly have known the kinds of scientific details we know today. That would be an unreasonable expectation on our part.

Sometimes people make a religious issue out things that shouldn’t be religious issues at all. I remember back when I was in high school Jim Henson died of a strep infection because he refused to get treated for it. He was raised in a version of the Christian religion which teaches you should avoid medicines and hospitals and just pray your illnesses away. Because he refused to get treatment, he died way too young. The world was deprived of his creative genius too soon, all because someone decided to make a religious issue out of seeking medical treatment when it shouldn’t have been a matter of religious belief at all. Another version of the Christian religion teaches that you shouldn’t receive blood transfusions, and countless people have died for that reason as well. Blood transfusions are a useful and pretty necessary part of modern surgery, but somebody decided to make a religious issue out of it and it has cost many lives.

Modern science has pretty much settled the question of evolution (believe it or not), but people have decided to make a religious issue out of that now as well…and it shouldn’t be. Understanding more about evolution and how other animals are related to us has already led to countless advances in science and medicine, and there’s still so much we have yet to discover. Our understanding of evolution has helped us better understand how diseases change and spread, and it has even begun to help us develop ways to prevent future birth defects and inborn diseases before they can be passed down from parent to child. I worry sometimes that people who are afraid of the concept of evolution will oppose these advances and hold us back from discovering new ways to make life better for all of us.

In case you girls didn’t know, you’re all really smart, and this makes me immensely proud. Of course, I can’t take full credit for that myself since half of your genes came from your mother, and certainly those of you who make the highest grades didn’t get that from me :) Then again, there are many different kinds of intelligence, and no one method or test could account for every one of them. But each of you has that sharpness of mind and that curiosity which come with high intelligence and little would please me more than to see each of you develop that in whichever direction your hearts take you. You girls know how to think for yourselves, and I don’t see you following a crowd without first asking if they’re headed in the right direction. It matters a great deal to me that each of you continues to value and nurture these critical thinking skills which enable you to be independent thinkers.

That’s also why I love to see how each of you at different times has taken an interest in some aspect of science or technology. Both of those things are driven by that hunger to understand more about the world around us and they both help us make the most of what’s possible in the world. I don’t ever want to see anything dampen that interest or that scientific curiosity which seeks to understand the natural world. For me, learning something new makes me happy, gives me joy, and makes me only want to learn even more. It reminds me that there’s always more to learn, so that a person need never become bored with life. There’s always some new discovery to look forward to, and you’ll never know how much the next new discovery will improve the quality of your lives and of everyone else’s you know.

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