A new study in Psychological Science by Deborah Kelemen of Boston University and colleagues helps to explain why evolution is hard to grasp. It also suggests that we should teach children the theory of natural selection while they are still in kindergarten instead of waiting until they are teenagers.
Evolution by natural selection occupies a not-so-sweet spot between the intuitive and the counterintuitive. The trouble is that it is almost like Intelligent Design (ID) , and that’s confusing. Adaptation through natural selection, like Intelligent Design (or as the WSJ calls it ‘intentional design’), makes things work better according to secular scientists.
Dr. Kelemen has discovered that it’s possible with ‘Darwinian storytelling’ to suppress common sense in children of the kind that leads them to recognize artifacts of intelligent design in nature. The Journal notes that quite apart from religious instruction, kids are primed to see life as reflecting “intentional design.” It’s intuitive. The corrective is to catch them at an early age and train them to see things in a Darwinian light.
“Dr. Kelemen and her colleagues thought that they might be able to get young children to understand the mechanism of natural selection before the alternative intentional-design theory had become too entrenched. They gave 5- to 8-year-olds 10-page picture books that illustrated an example of natural selection. The “pilosas,” for example, are fictional mammals who eat insects. Some of them had thick trunks, and some had thin ones. A sudden change in the climate drove the insects into narrow underground tunnels. The thin-trunked pilosas could still eat the insects, but the ones with thick trunks died. So the next generation all had thin trunks.”
There are a number of interesting points here. First, that the example of natural selection is fictional, do they not have a REAL example out of all evolutionary theory. The mammalian order Pilosa (anteaters and sloths) is real, but “pilosas” are not. Second, it is decidedly in the micro-evolutionary realm — a kind of evolution that no one disputes, certainly not advocates of the theory of intelligent design. There’s no reason to think that the “pilosas” are on their way to true speciation, of the kind that evolutionary theory is really challenged to account for. And it would have been far more than one generation to have developed thinner trunks. It fact one might suspect that the actual thick trunked “pilosas” would have picked up sticks and placed down the insect burrow or grew strong nails and learned to dug prior to the length of time necessary for natural selection to have kept them from dying of starvation. (Oh wait, they do that, don’t they). The extrapolation from such a trivial thing into the origin of all species and all biological complexity by unguided natural processes is giant step that isn’t warranted by the facts even if they are imaginary.
“Before the children heard the story, the experimenters asked them to explain why a different group of fictional animals had a particular trait. Most of the children gave explanations based on intentional design. But after the children heard the story, they answered similar questions very differently…” Most enlightening is that Dr. Kelemen and her colleagues would seek to talk children out of their intuitive response. Among ID researchers, the approach would be to test that intuition, objectively weighing the empirical evidence without preconceptions. Dr. Kelemen would “suppress” it: her own word!
If you look at the original research, reported in the journal Psychological Science, the language is revealing (“Young Children Can Be Taught Basic Natural Selection Using a Picture-Storybook Intervention”) http://pss.sagepub.com/content/25/4/893.full. From the Abstract:
“In a novel approach, we explored 5- to 8-year-olds’ capacities to learn a basic but theoretically coherent mechanistic explanation of adaptation through a custom storybook intervention. Experiment 1 showed that children understood the population-based logic of natural selection and also generalized it. Furthermore, learning endured 3 months later. Experiment 2 replicated these results and showed that children understood and applied an even more nuanced mechanistic causal explanation. The findings demonstrate that, contrary to conventional educational wisdom, basic natural selection is teachable in early childhood. Theory-driven interventions using picture storybooks with rich explanatory structure are beneficial.”
The initiative to program children is repeatedly referred to as “intervention,” a term used in psychological counseling to refer to an attempt to thwart counterproductive, dangerous thoughts or behavior. The intuitive response of human beings, seeing design in nature normally, is implicitly compared to destructive patterns of abuse, alcoholism, drug addiction, and the like! Given that bizarre premise, suppressing design thoughts becomes the preferred solution.
More from the Abstract: ´Repeated, spaced instruction on gradually scaled-up versions of the logic of natural selection could ultimately place students in a better position to suppress competing intuitive theoretical explanations. The defense of Darwinian theory is already centered on an avoidance strategy, dodging a direct confrontation with genuinely challenging critiques, while dishonestly conflating scientific alternatives (intelligent design) with non-scientific ones (biblical creationism) to confuse people. Even adults raised from childhood to see the universe as void of purpose may have a lingering suspicion that natural selection alone can’t explain the panoply of life around us.
It becomes necessary, then, to choke off the illness of possible understanding at its origin, somewhere in early childhood. The more obvious and responsible alternative of debating the arguments for intelligent design is, of course, not thinkable in their mind.