Why People Do Not Understand Evolution: An Analysis of the Cognitive Barriers to Fully Grasping the Unity of Life

By Shtulman, Andrew | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Why People Do Not Understand Evolution: An Analysis of the Cognitive Barriers to Fully Grasping the Unity of Life


Shtulman, Andrew, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


IN 2005, THE PARENTS OF SEVERAL STUDENTS ATTENDING Dover High School in Dover, Pennsylvania, sued the Dover Area School District over their decision to require high school biology teachers to read a statement alerting their students to the existence of "gaps" in the theory of evolution and encouraging them "to keep an open mind" regarding alternative explanations for the origins of life. The lawsuit, which the parents won, garnered national attention, as it brought to a head the controversial issue of whether Intelligent Design--the claim that complex biological systems could only have arisen through the guidance of a superior intelligence--should be taught in public schools as an alternative to evolution. In 2008, the PBS television series NOVA released a documentary on the Dover trial entitled "Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial." One of the individuals interviewed for that documentary was Bill Buckingham, a member of the school board who had advocated for the inclusion of Intelligent Design in the biology curriculum. Buckingham stated that his own views on the matter were simple: "The book of Genesis tells it like it is as to how we came into being. God didn't create monkey and then take man from a monkey. He created man."

What's interesting about this quote, from a scientific perspective, is that Buckingham attributes two positions to his opponents that none actually hold, namely, (1) humans evolved from monkeys, and (2) monkeys appeared on Earth in their current form. Evolutionary biologists actually believe (1) humans and monkeys evolved from a common ancestor, and (2) monkeys evolved from earlier forms of life. In fact, biologists believe that all organisms are linked through common ancestry and that all organisms evolved from earlier forms of life. Buckingham's conceptions of the scientific ideas he attempted to censor are thus profoundly wrong, but they are not profoundly original. Similar types of misconceptions have resounded within the public sphere since 1859, when Darwin first articulated the theory of evolution by natural selection in On the Origin of Species. Today, that theory forms the backbone of the biological sciences, yet misconceptions about evolution have not declined. If anything, they have become more frequent, as the public has become more exposed to the principles and findings of evolutionary biology.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

From where do such misconceptions arise? Perhaps the most popular explanation is that evolution is inconsistent with the teachings of most religions, so religious individuals simply reject the theory outright. While this idea certainly holds some truth, it fails to explain why individuals like Buckingham, who deny that evolution occurs, also tend to misunderstand what evolution is and how evolution works. Another popular explanation is that a poor understanding of evolution stems from a poor understanding of the nature of science in general, with skeptics of evolution failing to appreciate the vast extent to which it has been empirically validated. Again, while this idea holds some truth, it fails to explain why individuals who reject evolution tend not to understand the theory they are rejecting. Below, I outline an alternative explanation that has received increasing attention and support within the fields of cognitive and developmental psychology, an explanation grounded in the fact that humans tend to "essentialize" the biological world and that essentialist thinking is fundamentally incompatible with understanding the basic mechanisms of evolution.

Essentialist Thought in Everyday Life

Essentialism is the commonplace assumption that the obvious, observable properties of an object or organism are determined by some non-obvious, non-observable property at its core--its "essence." One of the best illustrations of essentialist thought is Hans Christian Andersen's tale of the ugly duckling. The tale begins with a mother duck sitting on a nest of eggs, waiting for her ducklings to hatch. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • A full archive of books and articles related to this one
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Why People Do Not Understand Evolution: An Analysis of the Cognitive Barriers to Fully Grasping the Unity of Life
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

    Already a member? Log in now.