Chris over at Mixing Memory has this post about cognitive factors that can make it difficult for children to learn about evolution. This is from his conclusion:
So that’s my contribution. I’ve presented three factors that make the job of biology teachers more difficult when they’re trying to teach evolution, either to children or adults.
- Intuitive theism, in which our intuitions lead us to make design inferences about complex kinds or under conditions of uncertainty; intuitions that can be reinforced culturally to an extent that it may be almost impossible to overcome them by the time we reach adulthood.
- Intuitive essentialism, which causes us to believe that biological kinds have hidden internal essences which determine what they are, how they will behave, and what features they should have, and which may make us interpret evidence of adaptation in transformationalist, rather than Darwinian/modern biological varationist terms.
- The role of explanatory power in determining the value of beliefs, and the fact that we may resist explaining our most cherished beliefs in order to avoid devaluing them.
This all seems very plausible to me, and it certainly accords well with my own experiences in discussing this subject with people. I certainly know a lot of people who regard it as obvious that God exists, and yet find themselves hard-pressed to give any rational basis for that belief.
Chris’ essay is framed in the context of evolution. He is discussing reasons why many people find it difficult to accept evolution, despite the strong evidence in its favor. But I think the items he mentions also help to explain people’s general antipathy towards mathematics and science, and the difficulty of teaching people the rudiments of logical thinking. One thing you learn from teaching mathematics to college students is that logic just doesn’t come naturally to most people.
Chris puts a heavy emphasis on the nurture side of the equation. He points out that a lot of what determines the ability of a child to embrace scientific thinking later in life is the extent to which the points listed above are reinforced in the home. He writes:
The work of Kelemen and Evans helps to explain why evolution has had such a hard time becoming widely accepted by the general public. From an early age, our intuitions run counter to evolutionary science, and unless children live in homes where evolution is not seen as being counter to the belief systems of their parents, they will not let go of those intuitions, even when they are taught about evolution in school. Those children will then go on to privilege those same intuitions in their children, and so on, leading to generation after generation of individuals who, by the time they are college-aged, will find it very difficult to accept any evolutionary teachings.
The word “teachings” is poorly chosen there. I wonder, though, where these intuitions come from in the first place. I can say with some confidence that “intuitively theistic” is not a phrase that has ever described me, even as a child. I have very clear memories of attending Sunday school as a kid, and spending most of that time thinking my teachers were putting me on. Do I lack something that other people have? Are there genes that predispose people to belief or non-belief?
Essays like this also make me think again about Richard Dawkins’ charge that religious indoctrination can be a form of child abuse. When I first read that in in The God Delusion, I was inclined to think Dawkins was exaggerating a bit. I am no longer so inclined. Dawkins, mind you, was not talking about religious education. He makes it clear that he is fine with that. It is indoctrination to which heobjects, particularly the kind where children are told that something terrible will happen to them if they fall away from the parent’s religion. If it’s really true that such indoctrination early in life can make it effectively impossible for people to think clearly about scientific subjects later in life, then I think the term “abuse&rdquol; is entirely appropriate.
At any rate, I recommned the whole essay. Certainl yprovides plenty of food for thought.