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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.


  1. #1 Chris
    January 16, 2007

    Yes, yes you do lack something that other people have.

    Kidding aside, though, it does appear that from a very young age, most children are intuitive theists to some extent. But as with anything, there’s a lot of variation, and it wouldn’t be surprising to find children who have no theistic intuitions whatsoever. We’ll call them intuitive Churchland’s ;).

  2. #2 Roy
    January 16, 2007

    An intuitive sense of evolution seems to me to be general to the world population. People have a sense that species are in various degrees related. If the family cat gets pregnant, who would believe the offspring would be half-cat and half-dandelion? Or half-oak? Or half-pigeon? Or half-frog?

    Now, half-lynx, or half-bobcat, maybe.

    If the family dog gets pregnant, people might worry the pups would be half-wolf, half-coyote, or half-fox, but not half-moose, half-halibut, or half-peppermint.

    We are so quick to notice relatedness (in the Linnaean sense of apparent structural relatedness) that evolution would be the only explanation for where species came from, and this was obvious even before Mendel.

  3. #3 Jon S
    January 16, 2007

    Why does evolution have such a hard time becoming widely accepted by the general public? Intuitive theism does seem plausible, especially if God does exist. Romans 1:20 makes that clear.

    Not long ago I went through the children’s section of a local bookstore and was reading through the dinosaur and evolution books. Richard Dawkins may believe that religious indoctrination can be a form of child abuse, but then again, so can evolutionary indoctrination, particularly the kind where children are told that they’re just an accident and that when they die that’s the end.

  4. #4 oscar zoalaster
    January 16, 2007

    I have never understood why someone who ‘talks to Jesus’ is someone whom we are supposed to listen to, but someone who talks to a dead Atlantean Warrior is a nutcase. Both of their conversationalists are undetectable to anyone else, and both of them dead and at least partly mythical.

  5. #5 gengar
    January 17, 2007

    I think ‘intuitive theists’ may be pushing it a bit far. Sure, humans seem very keen on assigning intention to inanimate objects and forces, but I don’t think it’s necessarily the case that they would automatically progress to assigning that intention to an overarching deity – in fact, the nature of religious belief in early cultures suggests quite the opposite.

  6. #6 Blake Stacey
    January 17, 2007

    When trying to reason about religious belief, we face a perennial problem of selection bias: when we want to explain why people are religious or figure out what religion does to people, we turn instinctively to those particular religions most familiar to us. From one standpoint, this is all well and good: we can’t find a way to teach good science to American children without knowing about the religions prevalent in America. However, if we want to look at the anthropology or the cognitive science aspects — does religious belief arise from some innate property of human brain wiring? — then we have to gather data farther afield.

    Supposing that we have innate tendencies to project and personify, for example, thereby explaining natural phenomena by attaching faces and emotions to them, it’s plausible that we will develop something like early Greek mythology. Every stream has its naiad, every mountain its oriad, and so forth. Literary religions, hierarchies of gods, monotheism and all that follows require a social organization which is not, biologically speaking, “innate”.

  7. #7 Jonathan Lubin
    January 17, 2007

    I think innumeracy has something to do with disbelief in evolution, ’cause lots of people don’t understand how really really long a million years is.

  8. #8 David D.G.
    January 17, 2007

    “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.”

    That sums up my childhood church experience perfectly. Teachers would describe something like Noah’s ark, and I would start asking questions about how all those animals could possibly be fed (especially since many feed on other animals!), or where all the water went afterwards. Long before I had even a remotely decent clue about the truly staggering logistics involved, or even a halfway decent notion of physics, I found such stories to be nice stories, but surely not anything to take as serious fact.

    I do not, in fact, believe that people are “intuitive theists.” If anything, while we may be predisposed to superstitious thinking, the specific superstition of a deity or deities is surely a meme provided by upbringing (or even just general surroundings) rather than by some internal instinct. Like most ideas, it probably would arise independently from time to time even if it were not constantly being propagated, but I see no reason to think that we are born theists; if anything, it seems that we are born atheists until indoctrinated otherwise. And some of us, apparently, are naturally resistant to the brainwashing — thank God!

    ~David D.G.

  9. #9 Vincent Kargatis
    January 17, 2007

    A separate difficulty I think is that most languages and communication are predominantly active in tense or delivery, and evolution is a very passive phenomenon. Try talking about the evolution of an adaptation without relying on active metaphors (e.g. “the population adapted…”, that sorta thing) – to be accurate, it takes a lot of words put together in a pretty clunky fashion. And using those active metaphors confuses a lot of people not fully versed in the theory, I think.

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