Once upon a time, there was an animal called a pilosa that caught insects with its trunk. Some pilosas had wide trunks. Others had skinny trunks. When habitat changes caused their dinners to tunnel underground, pilosas with wide trunks began to starve and die. The pilosas with thin trunks could still reach the bugs. So they stayed healthy and had babies that also had thin trunks. Eventually, all pilosas had skinny trunks and they lived happily ever after. Or they might have, if they were real.
Pilosas were made up by researchers who were exploring whether kids could grasp the concept of natural selection. They found that parables like the plight of the pilosa enabled even kindergartners to get evolution. The study is in the journal Psychological Science. [Deborah Kelemen et al, Young Children Can Be Taught Basic Natural Selection Using a Picture-Storybook Intervention]
Children enjoy explanations, so much so they often invent their own—like, giraffes must grow long necks so they can reach high branches. But after reading about the pilosa, all of the seven- and eight-year olds in the study could correctly explain that the species changed over time because the better-adapted creatures outreproduced those that were less fit.
Maybe early exposure to such complex concepts could help science literacy evolve.
[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]