Crowdsourcing answers to an important question from a child

A reader whose name I want to withhold (for obvious reasons) asked me this question. I answered the person, but I also asked if I could put the question up, as one might get better advice from a panoply of answers from readers. The parent said “sure”.  So if you have time, please give your answer, and I’ll alert this concerned parent.

Lo, the question (main one in bold below):

I’m long time reader of your website, and this is my first email to you.  First let me say that I greatly enjoy your content, especially the science posts!

I’ve been motivated to write this email because of a question my 7-year-old daughter recently asked me.  She loves to read, particularly about nature, and is a lover of big cats (especially cheetahs!)

Also, like many children her age, my daughter believes in God.  She clearly sees God in a functional role as a designer.  When I asked her if she could imagine a Universe without God, she answered, “but then how did everything get made?”

Neither my wife and I are religious, and we are not forcing her into atheism.  Rather, we help her think through her questions and arrive at her own answers.  Recently, one her questions provided us with a very good learning opportunity.

After learning more and more about a cheetah makes her living, and the tough life of a predators (and prey) in general, she was very upset.  She asked me the following question:

“Dad, why did God make life such a challenge?”

When I asked her what she meant by this, she elaborated.  She knew that cheetahs have to work very hard to get their prey.  She knew that if the mother cheetah couldn’t catch enough food, her cubs might die.  She knew that the cheetah’s prey must constantly be on the watch in order to survive.  She knows about droughts and floods, and parasites and sickness, and that most baby animals don’t survive.  Why, she asked, did God make it so tough?

If I was still a religious person, I might have given some vapid answer about God’s mysterious ways, or perhaps a horrid explanation about how the sin of Adam is responsible for all of this!  But as a reasonably informed layperson, I think I know the answer to my daughter’s question, and it has a lot more to do with Darwin than God.

So Jerry, can I ask you a favor?  Do you think that you can provide, in a concise form that is understandable to a 7-year-old, science’s answer to why life is such a challenge?  I would greatly appreciate this opportunity to give my daughter a far better answer to this question than what a child typically gets.

111 Comments

  1. BobTerrace
    Posted March 13, 2020 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    Sub

    • Mark R.
      Posted March 13, 2020 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

      I don’t have children, but am interested in what parents’ answers might be.

      sub.

  2. Posted March 13, 2020 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    Hume said it best … ‘what ought to be’ just isn’t. Also ‘yes, Virginia, there really is a Santa’

  3. Janos Simon
    Posted March 13, 2020 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    Here’s a proposed simple answer.

    We get pleasure from our accomplishments. We get more pleasure from accomplishments we have to work for.

    I will not try to do the next paragraph, explaining how evolution works, and trying perhaps to claim that risk-taking has evolutionary advantages, which would explain the above. I am not a biologist, and I’m sure you guys can do a better job of it.

  4. GBJames
    Posted March 13, 2020 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    How about:

    “God didn’t. It is just the way the universe is. We’re lucky that we can learn about it and do things to make life better. We all do better when we bravely confront this fact.”

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted March 13, 2020 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

      I like this answer. A lot.

  5. Randall Schenck
    Posted March 13, 2020 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    Maybe the answer is not thinking of life as a challenge but a natural behavior.

  6. Mike Anderson
    Posted March 13, 2020 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    These are common questions for little children. In responding to these kinds of questions, first I like to present the child with a good explanation of causal determinism, then a short lecture on the inevitability and finality of death.

    Then I hand the child a copy of Kafka’s “The Trial” and say “here, read this, kid.”

    This usually satisfies the child, and they never ask me anything again. Ever.

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted March 13, 2020 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

      Kafka to a 7 year old? No surprise there, I guess. 🙂

  7. FloM
    Posted March 13, 2020 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    Compare the cheetah and the antelope she chases. Now imagine, if the cheetah gets the antelope, the cheetah gets a meal, but for the antelope it is the end of everything. But if the cheetah misses a meal, another sentient being gets to live. If you see the cheetah chase the antelope, whom are you rooting for?

    • EdwardM
      Posted March 13, 2020 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

      For my part, definitely the cheetah. Their lives are much more precarious than an antelope’s.

    • Posted March 14, 2020 at 8:04 am | Permalink

      The cheetah can miss this meal, but there’s a limit to the meals she can miss, or her cubs die.
      Suppose it’s the case this is one meal she can’t miss. Now, who do you root for, the antelope or the cheetah’s cubs?

      If you ask me, that’s one question I can’t and won’t answer. And one I’ll never make.

  8. Greg Geisler
    Posted March 13, 2020 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    I’m curious as to why this child believes in God if she lives in a secular household? She must have gleaned that info from school or friends. Personally, I have no issue with saying “we don’t have any evidence for a God”. We raised our sons in a secular home and there was a circumstance when one of my son’s friends (from a Christian household)put the god idea in my son’s head. I had no problem telling him “there are no gods”.

    I’d also give her a copy of Dawkins’ book Outgrowing God.

    • Posted March 13, 2020 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

      Hi, this is the Dad here.

      Kids are sponges, and although she lives in a secular household, it is not an isolation chamber. It is quite amazing how much kids pick up from school, friends, media, and what not.

      As for giving her a copy of Dawkins’ book, my daughter is only 7. I think that this book is probably targeted to older kids (similar to his Magic of Reality book, which I have tried to read with her), and would be a great thing to give her in a few years.

      • EdwardM
        Posted March 13, 2020 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

        Another dad here. When my sons asked me similar questions I could only say that life is hard and sometimes scary but it is also beautiful and wondrous and aren’t we lucky to be alive? I left the god part unanswered.

        I wish you and your daughter the very best.

      • Alexander
        Posted March 13, 2020 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

        “It is quite amazing how much kids pick up from school,”

        What is the school your kid goes to? If it is a religious school, they will do everything to brainwash the child. I was sent to a Catholic school. My father was a Catholic (later in his life he admitted that religion was the biggest mistake of his life), but my mother was an atheist, but I didn’t know this. My mother did not go to Sunday mass, and as a 6-year old I was horrified because I was told that missing mass on Sundays, and not confessing this, was a capital sin, punishable by eternal fire in hell.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted March 13, 2020 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

          Peers have a large amount of influence on one another. Anything religious I learned as a child from peers.

          • rickflick
            Posted March 13, 2020 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

            Just so. I raised my daughter without religion, although for quite a while my then Catholic wife had hopes, and sent her to first communion in a white dress. At the age of about 12, she said she wished she could believe in God like the other kids. I knew that she had osmotically taken on my world view. I think she felt excluded from the groups she ran with, and I felt quite sorry about that. Now that she’s grown, I don’t have any concerns about her philosophical health.

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted March 13, 2020 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

              I felt like that as a kid too. It was a good dress rehearsal to feeling like that as an adult.

              • rickflick
                Posted March 13, 2020 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

                See? Now you’ve got it all under control. 😎

      • Greg Geisler
        Posted March 13, 2020 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

        You’re a very thoughtful father. Most people don’t have the humility to reach out.

        I gave the Magic of Reality to my grandkids when they were approx 14 and 6 years old and while they may not have completely absorbed the contents it did inform them. Also, as parents, I feel it is our duty to correct the misinformation that kids receive outside the home. So, if my child had come home from school and said “today we were taught that America is a Christain nation” I would waste no time telling him that was false and why. Same goes for gods.

        I’d suggest David McAfee’s books like The Belief Book and the Book of Gods. I think those would be a good fit for your children.

        Keep up the great work!

        • boudiccadylis
          Posted March 13, 2020 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

          America is called “a Christian nation ” by all and sundry.

          • Greg Geisler
            Posted March 13, 2020 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

            But it’s false. Call it out.

      • StardustyPsyche
        Posted March 13, 2020 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

        I think its ok to say to a 7 year old that nobody has figured out why of how nature got started the way it did.

        But the fun is in the journey of learning so keep asking questions and as you grow up you will find your own answers.

        We can say maybe there is a god who made things the way they are, but then we need to ask who or what made that god, so we don’t really answer your question by saying god made nature the way it is.

        There are some things I will tell you right from wrong and expect you to follow certain rules, but you are free to think and believe in your own thoughts whatever you think makes the most sense about questions like god and what you want to do with your life when you grow up.

    • Posted March 13, 2020 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

      I expect the slant of her questions came from her friends. As Mister Rogers might say, children have full lives and thoughts and experiences that parents know nothing about.

      • Kelly Delaney
        Posted March 13, 2020 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

        This is my favorite answer on this thread. Thanks Mark! Mister Rogers often has the insight we parents need.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted March 13, 2020 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

          Yeah, Fred Rogers really respected kids and he didn’t condescend them or humour them. It’s why we all loved him.

          • EdwardM
            Posted March 13, 2020 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

            A colleague of mine grew up knowing Fred Rogers; her father was one of the producers of his show. She always said that his show was no act. That’s how he really was. So I guess we all grew up knowing him. The world really lost something when he died.

            • rickflick
              Posted March 13, 2020 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

              I’ve seen him in several interviews and heard accounts of people who met him. The guy was a genuine saint (if I may appropriate a term).

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted March 13, 2020 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

              Yeah I think we all felt that authenticity about him.

    • Posted March 13, 2020 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

      I was going to suggest Dawkins’ book as well, although i don’t know what it says on this matter.

      • EdwardM
        Posted March 13, 2020 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

        Isn’t Dr Coyne writing a children’s book? I thought I saw reference to that, but I don’t know if it’s about evolution (I suspect it is). Maybe his book will get into this question.

        • rickflick
          Posted March 13, 2020 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

          Evolution and theodicy are rather separate issues.

        • rickflick
          Posted March 13, 2020 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

          I didn’t know! 😮

    • Posted March 14, 2020 at 3:27 am | Permalink

      I don’t think it’s necessary to have other people tell you to believe in god to “infer” its existence. It must be a fairly easy mistake to make given how many societies have god myths.

    • Posted March 14, 2020 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

      I’m quite impressed with how things with my kids worked out.

      My ex was raised Catholic, and is “spiritual, but not religious”, and keeps dragging the kids to non-denominational churches on her weekends.

      Unfortunately for her, I innoculated the kids against religiosity, by discussing some of the more famous Bible stories (eg. Adam & Eve, Abraham, Noah’s Ark) asking them questions about whether they made sense, and the morality of the stories.

      To make a long story short, atheism won out, but they still have to endure being dragged to church.

  9. Posted March 13, 2020 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    Every animal must do what it can to survive until it can’t anymore.

    • Posted March 13, 2020 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

      Sorry, I dodged the question. I meant to finish with, “That’s just the way it is.”

  10. Posted March 13, 2020 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    It’s the child’s perception that life is a challenge. I’d give her examples:

    1. My life has no purpose unless I push myself very hard. Without adversity I am not sure I would enjoy life.

    2. My cats, like chetahs, are adventurous and this get’s them very close to losing their lives many time (maybe nine time?). Why would they do this? Life is fullest when it’s an adventure. Tell her about Bilbo: he could have just stayed in the Shire, but he didn’t. Or Harry Potter; he could have just run away, but he didn’t.

    3. Point her towards athletes. They do not get purpose from sitting on a couch. They live and breath challenges on purpose.

  11. Posted March 13, 2020 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    I would not- did not – try to give an answer. A seven year old has s limited understanding. one way to avoid answering is to say that is you can understand when you are older. Another is to say that no one really knows. A third way to avoid those questions is to divert the attention to something else. My opinion is that seven us too young to try yo go too deed into this subject matter. Let them deal with the questions as they get older and discuss it with them as they mature snd on their level of understanding. Children develop ideas and understanding on their own at different ages, depending on their intelligence and ither dactors.

    • GBJames
      Posted March 13, 2020 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

      That’s not a good reason to not answer, IMO. The child is asking now and even young people deserve their questions to be addressed even if the answer is “I don’t know”.

      • Simon Hayward
        Posted March 13, 2020 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

        I agree, an honest answer to a question is important, and learning that adults don’t know everything is also a part of life. We always tried to give our kids straightforward answers that they should understand, or that perhaps stretched them slightly. My wife is a biology teacher, so she’s much better at this than I am. My son recently said something to the effect that he usually ended up with a lot more information than he needed, but that it sort of sunk in over the years.

        I find it interesting that the existence of god never really came up with either of our kids despite their living in the south from elementary school through college. Perhaps we were less sparing on our comments in that area. They did develop a scathing analysis of “conspicuous christianity” as they went through middle and high school. My son, although fine with the no god concept, was concerned at the age of 8 that Santa might not be real.

        The teaching role changes with time – I’m now getting tumor immunology and coronavirus info from my immunologist daughter and virologist son-in-law.

        • Posted March 13, 2020 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

          I fully concur that when children ask questions, the adults should do their best to answer. We always told our children from an early age that they could ask us anything. If we knew the answer, we would share it with them. If we didn’t know the answer, we would do our best to find the answer for them.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted March 13, 2020 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

        And kids are smarter than a lot of people give them credit for. How do I know? I remember being a kid, feeling condescended and consciously remembering to bring this with me to adulthood.

        • ThyroidPlanet
          Posted March 13, 2020 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

          Right

          It’s not that kids are unintelligent – they are very intelligent at very young ages. The problem is they don’t_ know_ a lot – certainly not as much as an adult. That doesn’t factor into their high intelligence very well…. I think, anyway…

  12. Jon Gallant
    Posted March 13, 2020 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    The 7-year old asks a very good question. In medieval Provence, the Christians known as Albigeois or Cathars arrived at a logical answer. God, they believed, is concerned only with the spiritual not the material realm. In the latter, meaning here on earth, it is Satan who is in charge of things. As if to confirm this insight, in the 13th century the Catholic Church, the King of France, and the nobility of northern France swept into Provence with fire and sword and all but exterminated the Albigeois.

  13. Mark Perew
    Posted March 13, 2020 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    Simplistic response:

    If life was easy and all the baby animals survived, then they would quickly grow up to adult animals would have even more babies who would grow up to be adults. The environment can’t support all those animals, so a lot of them have to die. It’s not pretty and it can make us sad, but it is how nature works.

    Bonus Question: If you were God, would you create the world that way?

    • Posted March 14, 2020 at 6:22 am | Permalink

      Finally, an answer that sounds like one.

  14. Max Blancke
    Posted March 13, 2020 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    I cannot add any evolutionary insight here, obviously.
    But I have to think that active and intelligent sorts of creatures need challenges to overcome in order to be happy. I certainly do. My puppy doesn’t want the ball handed to him. He wants to chase it. A jigsaw puzzle is more fun than a printed picture.

    I also think that rural kids, who see a somewhat less sanitized version of “the circle of life”, find these issues easier to come to terms with.

  15. Frank Bath
    Posted March 13, 2020 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    A layman I would try something like this.
    Life is a challenge for all living things because they are competing for a limited amount of the necessities of life. The reason the necessities are limited is because all living things try to reproduce themselves as much as they can because they are driven to have successors.

    • phar84
      Posted March 13, 2020 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

      Making sure the wife is nearby to explain the birds and the bees.

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted March 13, 2020 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

      If you answer that way (which is basically correct, of course), I’d stress that one of the best ways of competing for “the limited amount of the necessities of life” is cooperation (we have enough trumpists as is).

      • JezGrove
        Posted March 13, 2020 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

        Indeed – as Kropotkin pointed out in Mutual Aid, nature does its best to avoid competition, hence species’ adaptation to find an ecological niche.

        • EdwardM
          Posted March 13, 2020 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

          I read that and always thought that assertion isn’t much different than a puddle being impressed that the hole it is in fits it exactly.

          • Elizabeth
            Posted March 13, 2020 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

            Thank you for that image – spot on!

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted March 13, 2020 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

      Probably the best succinct answer yet.

      cr

  16. Posted March 13, 2020 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    Tough question and frustrated me as a kid. I will attempt an answer.
    Nature is not a god, life on this earth is a part of nature and all life on earth has energy needs. A cheetahs’ prey takes its energy from plants, the sun provides the energy for plants and unfortunately cheetahs do not eat plants,
    In this way one life is taken to meet the needs of another, energy is passed from one life to the other.
    This is just one of the rules of life, of nature and it works together creating the many wonderful forms of life we see in the wild.

  17. Steve Cameron
    Posted March 13, 2020 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    If life were too easy, it’d fill up all the space on the planet and that would create a whole bunch of new problems. You could argue that we humans have used our intelligence to make life too easy for ourselves, especially for people in the developed world, and that’s why there are so many of us, and not that many cheetahs. Because there are so many people, we’ve brought a whole bunch of new problems to all the other living things we share the world with, such as taking away land that other animals need to live (which makes life harder for them!), and changing the climate so that the whole planet is warming up (and that makes it even harder)!

    It’s a very wise question to ask, and we humans would be wise if we recognized that life should be hard. And that sometimes it’s worth doing things that are hard, especially if they help the planet and the rest of the things, the plants and the animals like the cheetah, that live on the planet with us, to make their lives a little easier.

  18. Posted March 13, 2020 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    I would respond by saying that I believe that the concept of a “god” is not believed by all people, including myself, and that my view of life being a challenge, or struggle, is that “it just is what it is”, with no reason behind it.

    • enl
      Posted March 13, 2020 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

      I was leaning to an answer like this, but might go a bit further, and maybe a bit gentler, with “exploring these questions is part of why many people think that god is a story, rather than truth”. I do not have the gift of the Blarney, so I can not word it better.

  19. Posted March 13, 2020 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    The fastest cheetahs are more likely to catch their prey, so their cubs are more likely to survive. In turn those cubs are more likely to be faster, and when they grow up their cubs will survive.
    The same happens to the prey. The ones that are better at getting away, survive, and have kids that are better at getting away.
    In this way, the challenges of life make both populations of animals improve.

    How is god needed for any of this?

    • EdwardM
      Posted March 13, 2020 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

      Actually, it’s more complicated than that. The antelope doesn’t have to run faster than the cheetah, it just needs to run faster than other antelopes. Just so, the cheetah doesn’t have to run faster than the fastest antelope, just faster than the young, old, sick or injured. Many predators are adapted to be good at identifying those among a group of prey.

      And, of course, ambush is an important strategy for many predators (including cheetahs) which doesn’t necessarily put a premium on speed (though it is critical), but on stealth, on the part of predators and situational awareness, on the part of the prey.

      • Posted March 14, 2020 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

        For the prey I said better at getting away, rather than faster. I was trying to answer it for a 7 year old, so just keeping it simple.

  20. Posted March 13, 2020 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    Well, the reason life is tough is because life evolved.

    Cheetahs evolved to run fast to catch those antelope, and those antelope evolved defenses against those cheetahs.

    If the antelope didn’t have those defenses, the cheetahs would make them extinct, which would mean no more food for the cheetahs or any of the other predators.

    Now why God made it all this way – well, that’s not really for me to answer is it? I mean, if I asked someone else why you did something, they would give their best guess, but only you could tell me the real why of it.

    And well, I don’t know that there even is a God to start off with, so I can’t guess the mind of a being I don’t even know exists. If there is a God, this sounds like the sort of question for him to answer.

  21. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted March 13, 2020 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    Important topic – but, this is very confusing to me because the question in bold is only part of it. An entire other dimension inevitably crosses through parenting – and there’s bound to be … conflict?.. there, or at least tight restrictions on what I would write out. Are we supposed to answer this as if in dialogue with another person – 7 years old or any age? Should it matter?

    Nonetheless, I will attempt to make a clear cut comment.

    There is no answer because it is an incoherent question, and only raises more questions. This is a great start to a dialogue. So I think a discussion about formulation of precise questions is good. I don’t think that’s too advanced for kids, but perhaps taken a bit at a time.

    perhaps the question is why life is perceived as easy for us in the civilized world, with grocery stores and laundry, but red in tooth and claw in the wild. that’s a whole interesting range to cover.

    But still, a problem that won’t go away is this notion of god at the bottom of it all. this cannot be ignored. One question in reply would have to be “which god?” and so on. Remember “atheism” is a word that should not exist. Thus, there should be no inhibitions to confront such questions in a straight-ahead fashion. Atheism need not enter the conversation at all.

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted March 13, 2020 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

      Instead of “conflict”, what I was trying to articulate is parenting styles. This factor makes this topic bewildering because perhaps the questions and discussion itself is subject to this variability. So what seems a good reply to one reader here (me) could have an … unforeseen reaction.

  22. ED HESSLER
    Posted March 13, 2020 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    To Dad:

    You’ve been presented with a lot of grist to grind. I add another kernel for you to consider in your conversation.

    Some day you will learn about Charles Darwin, a scientist who was one of the first to help us understand how nature works. He talked about your question by calling it the struggle for life. He said that many of us do not see, or we forget, that the birds which are idly singing round us mostly live on insects and seeds, and are constantly destroying life.

    This is the way nature works.

  23. Posted March 13, 2020 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    Great letter and question from the clever young girl. I’ll come back with my answer (as a parent).

  24. Posted March 13, 2020 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    Ha. For once I have a relevant qualification for commenting here! (I’m trained as a primary school teacher specialising in early childhood education.)

    The goal of helping a child to figure out this stuff slowly for themselves is of course the best. I would also suggest allowing various ideas to come in from other directions at other times too.

    On one track, you can simply get a nice book showing how various animals evolved, showing how they changed over time (whales might be a good, or cheetahs if you can find good drawings, or the wonderful way that marsupials got to Australia via Antarctica — as covered in Jerry’s book!). No need to talk much about the mechanisms — just simply present the facts as facts, and no need to associate it with God. Keep it separate. And include humans. Adults only get shocked by human evolution if they haven’t already encountered it as a normal (if perhaps surprising) idea as children.

    Direct questions about God from children are trickier….aren’t they.

    Hitchens said his kids didn’t know anything about his atheism until in their late teens they read about it in hysterical press coverage. (He also sent them to a Quaker school, as he felt that was the best option.) It sounds like the parents have a similarly admirable approach.

    To “Why did God make it so tough?”…. Hmmm… maybe I’d avoid the question and just agree that life is tough, and talk about that — and how we eat animals too.

    It sounds like this child doesn’t shy away from thinking about difficult topics (unlike which ever adults have told her about God!), so I’d suggest letting these questions develop, and letting them sit there unresolved.

    No doubt the parents here will also be discussing other religious traditions and ideas about God or the gods.

    It sounds like at some point this child will wind up asking a religious adult “WTF are you talking about?”, and it might be worth already discussing how some adults react poorly when they hear ideas they don’t understand.

    (Come to think of it, I wrote a blogpost about presenting ideas about religion in schools, and the difference between ‘religious instruction’ and education about religion. Here’s a link in case anyone’s interested.)

    • Posted March 14, 2020 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

      “The goal of helping a child to figure out this stuff slowly for themselves is of course the best.”

      Hear hear! It’s a great question – encourage the kid to keep asking it.

  25. rickflick
    Posted March 13, 2020 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    I might answer – Yes, nature is very challenging for many animals. I don’t know if any God designed it that way, but it seems to me it’s just the way things are.

    I’m thinking that would probably be enough for a 7 year old to handle. She might not understand or fully accept the answer right away, but it will hold her ’till she gets a little older and asks the next question.

  26. Posted March 13, 2020 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    It’s probably not the best idea to explain death, suffering, the problem of evil and evolution all at once. I would explain evolution better with wolves and dogs and artificial explanation as a start.

    Every animal is quite similar to its parents, like you have your dad’s nose. And the parents are quite similar to their parents. Your mom’s hair is curly like that of your grandmother (you get the idea here, making it relatable).

    But when you go back long enough, generation after generation each similar as their parents, they begin to look quite different to us now. Do you know that the grand-grand-grand… parents of pugs were wolves? A few hundred years ago, they were no pugs or beagles or collies. They were all more like German shepherd dogs, somewhat wolf-like. Thousands of years earlier, there were no dogs. Only wolves.

    Early humans long ago chose a wolf pup that was tamer than the others and when it was old enough to have children, they again picked the tamest pup. They did this for thousands of generations, selecting pups with traits they liked. If they wanted to breed a dog with short legs, they would always pick the pups with shortest legs until they had a breed of dog that looks very different to other dogs. We can compare some dogs…

    Nature works in a similar way. It does not hand pick animals of course. It is often harsh and not all survive and leave children behind. Only those who make it leave children who have traits and abilities similar as those of their parents, or even more so. Traits and abilities that help them survive. Like the legs get shorter and shorter with every generation, when that’s what it helps the animal. Take weasels…

    Over time, these animals have their special ways to get by. Like the cheetah, who evolved into animals that have to hunt fast, or the antelopes who evolved to outrun cheetahs to see another day and leave children of their own.

  27. Reggie Cormack
    Posted March 13, 2020 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    Well, my dear, the reason god makes life such a challenge is that he/she is a proper arsehole* and seems to revel in the horrors he/she daily inflicts on the planet. Or maybe he/she doesn’t exist and it’s just how life is.
    * I had written something rather ruder, but then I remembered you’re still a child.

  28. Posted March 13, 2020 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    The reason why there are impalas and baby warthogs and the other animals that cheetahs eat is because their are cheetahs to eat them.

    What I mean by that is that these animals would soon grow out of control and eat all of their food for themselves and other animals. And then they would starve and die. If there weren’t cheetahs and other predators to keep populations in check, then no more impalas or baby warthogs either.

    • Posted March 13, 2020 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

      To my comment above, I do very strongly recommend that you see this documentary called The Serengeti Rules.

      https://www.pbs.org/video/the-serengeti-rules-41dfru/

      It is a breathtakingly beautiful and an amazing demonstration that ecosystems are often maintained ‘from the top’. Meaning it is the predators, especially “keystone predators”, that ensure that ecosystems thrive with diverse numbers of species. Without such predators the whole structure of ecosystems can collapse.
      This may be too long and too advanced for your daughter, but you can try to show her a sample of it and ask her what she thinks. The first demonstration near the beginning might just do it. Its about starfish, and they were the first keystone species that were discovered.

      • Steve Gerrard
        Posted March 14, 2020 at 12:56 am | Permalink

        Or maybe “How Wolves Change Rivers”, that video on wolves reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park and the big change in the environment that followed. I think it is considered a bit over-simplified, but it illustrates the concept well.

  29. Anthony
    Posted March 13, 2020 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    Two cents from a developmental scientist.

    The world is made a particular way so that animals and plants could live in it. Animals and plants live in the same world but have different needs, and they live in a world with limited resources for those needs. So it is a bit like a competition, and sometimes the needs of plants and animals in the world are opposites. A cheetah needs to feed her babies. A buffalo needs to feed hers. But only one can win. If the cheetah eats the buffalo, the buffalo loses. If the buffalo eats the grass, the grass loses. If animals and plants are interacting with each other, somebody wins and somebody loses. So it is a little like a race. Both animals run on the same track, and each is trying to run faster than the other. Even though a race is fun, because it is a competition, it is also hard. Any time there is a competition, both sides have to work hard to win. But a race is just a game–you can just stop running at the end of the race. In life, you can’t stop running, so it is very, very hard. Sure, sometimes the game pauses, because all animals need to rest and sleep. But at some point the cheetah has to get up again and chase the buffalo, and the buffalo has to try to run faster than the cheetah. So they always need to keep playing, and that means it is a huge challenge. That’s why life is such a challenge, because it is like a race that keeps going.

    • EdwardM
      Posted March 13, 2020 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

      “If the buffalo eats the grass, the grass loses.” Actually it doesn’t, at least for many grasses. They evolved to be cropped by grazing animals. A more accurate phrasing would be; “if the cheetahs fails to eat enough buffalo, the grass loses.”

      • Anthony
        Posted March 13, 2020 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

        I agree, and its a good point. It’s maybe too complicated for a seven year old. I was trying to provide an answer that has enough info to be meaningful but not so much to lose the child.

  30. Nicolaas Stempels
    Posted March 13, 2020 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    All my children believed in God (school, pals, etc) when young, the ones that are older do not anymore.
    I would not go into the God question, unless she really insists in follow-up questions, which children of that age rarely do.
    [If they know about Noa’s Ark, I’d ask who would have fed them, and who would have been able to clean up all the shit.]
    My modest ‘advice’ is something like: yes, a good question. Daddy doesn’t really know, but think about it, the Cheetahs need to eat if they want to survive, but the antelope does not want to be eaten, it dies if it does. That is why both of them can run fast. There are some questions, my dear, that have no ready and happy answers. Do you think antelopes were created just to serve as food for cheetahs? I think the antelopes would disagree. Life is indeed a challenge, you got that perfectly right. Do you think God roots for the Cheetahs or for the Antelopes?

  31. phoffman56
    Posted March 13, 2020 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    There is a related but different question, namely about the inevitability of human death. I know of very sensitive, very young children to whom this came as a sudden and devastating revelation, not necessarily raised explicitly by someone else.

    The best answers I know include acknowledging its truth and emphasizing how it almost always happens after you have lived a long life. And further, though not universal, most elderly feel quite comfortable with it being something likely soon happening to them. You feel somewhat differently than you did as a 4 year old. Furthermore, because of modern scientific knowledge, especially medicine, it is usually not a physically agonizing occurrence for humans.

    To shift gears:

    You do NOT mention that in the near future many people will die from the new virus. Though you don’t wish for anyone in particular to be struck this way, no one actually deserves it, of those to whom it happens, Drumpf, his present senior cabinet, and, next in line, those who voted him in 3+ years ago do deserve it far more than just about anyone else in the world upon whom this misfortune falls.

  32. Roger
    Posted March 13, 2020 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    Cheetahs are jerks. If you don’t thinks so, try walking into a room full of cheetahs. Jerks never think they are jerks. And the biggest jerk is God.

    • Posted March 13, 2020 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

      Not jerks. But they steal other peoples’ work and use it as their own. They are…
      Cheetahs.

      • phoffman56
        Posted March 13, 2020 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

        Did I ever tell you about the exam cheetah I caught who had a metal pencil case with a little glass piece on top, ostensibly to make the case look nice. Turned out the glass was a strong magnifier. And he’d made these tiny cheat-notes, all placed inside it. The case just needed a bit of discrete shuffling to get the relevant one underneath the magnifier each time. He got A+ for inventiveness and F- for all else.

        • EdwardM
          Posted March 13, 2020 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

          How in the world did you catch him? They’re REALLY fast.

          • phoffman56
            Posted March 13, 2020 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

            I was on my racing skis, and the temperature was right at freezing, so my glide was great and his footsies were slipping.

        • phoffman56
          Posted March 13, 2020 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

          ‘Discreet’ not “discrete”; sorry.

        • Mark Perew
          Posted March 13, 2020 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

          I am surprised that a cheetah could afford such paraphernalia. Cheetahs are usually too poor to afford such things. Everyone knows that cheetahs never prosper.

          • EdwardM
            Posted March 13, 2020 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

            **golf clap** well done, sir.

          • phoffman56
            Posted March 13, 2020 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

            But they do prospah sometimes, don’t they?

            Anyway. I think the paraphernalia came from China, so maybe the price was good back around 1985.

    • Roger
      Posted March 14, 2020 at 12:18 am | Permalink

      So apparently everyone is from Boston or related to Vinnie Barbarino.

  33. Chris S
    Posted March 13, 2020 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    With regard to the first questions, I would assume that Jerry has a sufficient answer. Although as a non biologist I would probably explain it in relation to homeostatic systems; that if one organism had it easy, the other would have it very hard.

    As to the second question, I had my two children (9 and 7) ask me a similar question a few years ago. My response would be (and was) what evidence do you have that a god played any role in it. They will likely come back with something about complexity and design, you can them ask them why complexity must be the result of design. Children are eager to learn, and it is never too early to teach them to have a skeptical approach.

    P.S. I hope that Jerry will post his response.

  34. Posted March 13, 2020 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    The Heaven of Animals
    BY JAMES L. DICKEY

    Here they are. The soft eyes open.
    If they have lived in a wood
    It is a wood.
    If they have lived on plains
    It is grass rolling
    Under their feet forever.

    Having no souls, they have come,
    Anyway, beyond their knowing.
    Their instincts wholly bloom
    And they rise.
    The soft eyes open.

    To match them, the landscape flowers,
    Outdoing, desperately
    Outdoing what is required:
    The richest wood,
    The deepest field.

    For some of these,
    It could not be the place
    It is, without blood.
    These hunt, as they have done,
    But with claws and teeth grown perfect,

    More deadly than they can believe.
    They stalk more silently,
    And crouch on the limbs of trees,
    And their descent
    Upon the bright backs of their prey

    May take years
    In a sovereign floating of joy.
    And those that are hunted
    Know this as their life,
    Their reward: to walk

    Under such trees in full knowledge
    Of what is in glory above them,
    And to feel no fear,
    But acceptance, compliance.
    Fulfilling themselves without pain

    At the cycle’s center,
    They tremble, they walk
    Under the tree,
    They fall, they are torn,
    They rise, they walk again.

    I don’t know that this poem can help, but it is one that impressed me a long time ago about the possibility for God-believers to
    believe this about animals, their roles in life, and their suffering.

  35. Diana MacPherson
    Posted March 13, 2020 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    I’m not going to say how to say this but I’d honestly explain the facts. How it’s all about getting your genes to survive into the next generation and that evolution doesn’t care if you are happy because it’s not about that. To get your genes passed on, some animals evolved to require meet for food – how that evolution would have come about. What evolution is as in selecting out the best adapted to that particular environment at that particular time and why it might have come to pass that eating meet was advantageous and how those that could catch other animals had traits that got passed on that were advantageous and how animals evolved, who were prey and didn’t eat meat, to evade those meat eaters. Really, just explain the Selfish Gene in simplistic terms.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted March 13, 2020 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

      meet = meat. Ugh.

  36. Posted March 13, 2020 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

    Dear Dad, please read the following on entropy and condense/simplify it for your child. In a nutshell, ‘It is the natural tendency of things to lose order.’:
    https://jamesclear.com/entropy

    It’s truly a challenge to survive and live out our natural years, with all the hazards out there in the world and competition for resources to help along our individual survival. Another equally important challenge is to balance our needs with the needs of others so we can co-exist peacefully with each other and with the natural world. This is the challenge of cooperation for the greater good.

    God has nothing to do with it, as there is no God. (IF there *were* a god, then it surely is a dickhead.)

  37. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted March 13, 2020 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

    That’s surprisingly hard to answer, particularly briefly.

    ‘That’s just the way it is’ is the most accurate answer but it sounds like a non-answer.

    The actual answer: God didn’t do it since God doesn’t exist. Life is a competition for resources and it’s painful for most living things because Nature (or Ecology or Evolution or whatever you want to call it) doesn’t give a sh*t about anyone’s welfare.

    I’m not sure that’s suitable for most 7-year-olds though.

    Many of the suggested answers are along the lines of ‘because living things need a challenge’ which is more inspirational than accurate, and frequently human-centric.

    How about ‘Because living things just keep increasing until they run up against something to stop them – whether using up all the food or getting eaten by other living things.’

    cr

  38. eric
    Posted March 13, 2020 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

    science’s answer to why life is such a challenge?

    I’ll give it a go. Since tomorrow’s Pi day, I will start with the two sentence version:

    Because every animal wants more pie than there is to go around. “Pie” here not meaning just food, but also babies, also territory, also social status or position, and things like that.

    Now the longer answer:

    First, does it makes sense if I tell you that animals that try to do the best they can (eat lots of food, have lots of kids, be the leader of the pack etc.) tend to be more successful (have more kids that live to have more kids etc.) than the animals that just do enough to get by (eat just enough to not be hungry at the moment; not bother to try and be a leader etc.).

    Second, does it make sense to realize that there isn’t enough food, enough potential mates, and so on for every animal to get all they want if they’re all trying to do the best they can. And in many cases of animal social structures, there can only be one leader! So everyone else trying to be leader is bound to be disappointed.

    Now, if you add those two things together, you understand why life is so hard: because the amount of food and babies and leadership that animals want is much more than the amount of food and babies and leadership that is available. And this causes fighting and strife.

  39. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted March 13, 2020 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

    “Dad, why did God make life such a challenge?”

    It is nature that makes life and its challenges. That part of nature we call evolution. And that is a natural process – something law bound – that acts on individuals of species over many generations. The basic game here is to be fit enough to survive, even if the place were you live changes over those many generations. And those who survive will have their fit genes replicated in the next generation.

    So here is the first challenge: an individual that could live forever cannot change. It has more or less the genes it is born with. That situation is self defeating if the circumstances change so the individual becomes unfit. In other words, species with such individuals will go extinct. In reality, it would be very hard to evolve “forever” individuals when the process works on “not forever” individuals.

    Individuals must eventually die so different individuals, with different genes, can live and hopefully be fit when the circumstances changes. Different genes can arise through mutations, say. That is the second challenge: some individuals will randomly be less fit. In reality, it would be very hard to evolve “no change” genomes when the process works on “some random change”. (And there are other reasons of chemistry and physics why we think it is impossible anyway.)

    The third and final challenge is this: there is nothing that prevent changing species from evolving to rely on others for food, if it makes them fitter. Plants evolved, but so did animals that eat plants, or eat other animals.

  40. P. Puk
    Posted March 13, 2020 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

    The answer is as simple as it is obvious:

    Entropy.

    But how to explain the Second Law to a child?

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted March 15, 2020 at 10:10 am | Permalink

      I would call that simplistic though, since entropy export is why machines like cells can work and why refrigerators, like cells are analogous to, can work. Something that works is perhaps not what the child worried about.

      Mainly, increasing entropy does not equal disorder – if that was what you were thinking about – though they are correlated in many cases. So it is somewhat wrong or facile*, and that is maybe not good lessons for kids. It can take years to discover the facts and it removes trust (or at least I experience it thusly).

      *) This may depend on your definition of entropy. The impossibility of exact replicates may be said to be a sign of failure to keep (“freeze in place”) order. But it is usually described as error rates.

  41. Posted March 14, 2020 at 1:48 am | Permalink

    My first, and probably only response is that this is obviously bullshit

    No atheist that I have ever known or heard of would allow their children to be indoctrinated into any religion and we would take immediate steps to make sure whomever is filling their heads with religion is stopped.

    We do not indulge fantastical thinking, especially when it comes to nature, so again, I call bullshit

    • Posted March 14, 2020 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

      Call it what you want but that is exactly what happened in my household. Both my children were altar assistants and I took to to minister at nursing homes as well as to church every Sunday. I’m as atheist as they come but my wife is not (in fact she is more woo inclined than I can stand) but I love her enough to let her have her way on these things and let my children decide for themselves.

      One for sure is a committed atheist (they go to the Church of Costco on Sundays and have so named it) and my son is probably one as well. He never goes to church that’s for sure.

      Call bullshit if you like, but it’s an entirely believable story to me.

      • GBJames
        Posted March 14, 2020 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

        Similar story here. Our two kids both spent some time at religious (Catholic) schools. Both are atheists, and were at the time. My wife and I are both atheists. School choices were made, mostly, by my wife who had Catholic school background herself. It all was driven by a sense of public school quality, not by desire for religion.

        One excellent memory I treasure is having my son’s 8th grade homeroom teacher (also science teacher and religion teacher!) gently break it to me that Will had been challenging him in religion class. The teacher was afraid we would be upset that our son was straying from the faith. I nearly burst out laughing at the time.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted March 14, 2020 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

          I think catholic schools tend to produce atheists somehow. Two if my religious catholic friends had kids who are open atheists.

          • GBJames
            Posted March 14, 2020 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

            Maybe, although in our case the kids grew up without any religion at home.

            (Except for my mom who lived upstairs and followed a weird Hindu sort of lifestyle. She was a woo-ish person… raised Lutheran, became Christian Scientist and then the Hindu/Ayurvedic thing. The kids got to eat a lot of good rice and dal with her, though.)

  42. Rawandi
    Posted March 14, 2020 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    You have two possibilities, darling:

    1st Perhaps God does not exist.
    2nd Perhaps God exists but he is not good.

  43. Rawandi
    Posted March 14, 2020 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    Sweetheart, over two millennia ago a wise man taught us the truth. He said that there are no immaterial spirits and no divine plan. Nature is made up of nothing but vacuum and particles that by chance collisions reach adequate dispositions to temporarily survive in the perpetual dance of matter. That wise man was a Roman named Titus Lucretius Carus.

  44. Robert Volkmann
    Posted March 14, 2020 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

    Christopher Hitchens said, We are all born into a losing struggle.

  45. ladyatheist
    Posted March 15, 2020 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    All species do best when life is in balance. If there are too many predators, they will deplete the species they prey on and then they’ll both die. If there are too many prey animals, they will deplete the plants they live on, and then they’ll both die.

    (Current example? People buying too much toilet paper)

    In the words of Spock, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

    Or something.


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