…and the psychological brickwalls they run into. With all of the talk about the Creationist Museum, I thought it would be worth discussing a museum that is trying to teach evolution. In the June 2007 issue of Evolution*, Diamond and Evans describe some of the responses to a revamped evolution exhibit, “Explore Evolution“, at the Nebraska State Museum.
The authors conducted a survey of visitors to the Nebraska State Museum, asking them seven questions about the exhibit, with the goal of determining what cognitive biases existed among museumgoers (note: I’ve snipped the references):
Considerable research on everyday explanations for natural phenomena reveals a set of cognitive biases that would appear to make evolutionary explanations particularly counterintuitive. Though these biases emerge in childhood, they are manifested in all age groups. Evolutionary ideas challenge the everyday intuition that the world is stable and unchanging (essentialism), and that animate behavior is purposeful (teleology) and intentional. Moreover, human evolution, in particular, challenges the intuition that humans are privileged and destined to escape the fate of other species on this planet.
In our research, visitors who exhibited one or more of these cognitive biases when explaining an evolutionary problem were categorized as using novice naturalistic reasoning. Visitors who had a basic grasp of Darwinian evolutionary explanations, though they were not experts, were categorized as using informed naturalistic reasoning. Visitors that invoked supernatural explanations used creationist reasoning.
Personally, I prefer the term fucking moron, instead of creationist reasoning, but, granted, it’s not very professional (although accurate). Onto the questions. One was about fruit flies**:
Scientists think that about eight million years ago a couple of fruit flies managed to land on an Hawaiian island. Before that time, there were no fruit flies in Hawaii (show map). Now scientists have found that there are 800 different kinds of fruit flies in Hawaii. How do you explain this?
The answers (italics mine):
An example of informed naturalistic reasoning by a museum visitor:
Well, the process of evolution. So, at certain points there were, uh, mutations that just naturally occurred. Um, . . . reproduction. And then, those mutations, if they were adapted to that environment, they were further reproduced, and if they were not adapted, the mutations just ceased – those fruit flies died off. So that would explain the variety.
This visitor invoked several evolutionary concepts, though the visitor was clearly not an expert.
An example of novice naturalistic reasoning by a museum visitor:
Obviously people have brought the fruit flies in. And Dole probably, Dole pineapple people probably brought them in.
In this example, intuitive modes of reasoning are invoked, which indicate that the visitor is not conceptualizing this problem as one of evolutionary change.
A fucking moronAn example of creationist reasoning by a museum visitor:
Um, first of all I have a problem with your eight million years. I believe in creation in the biblical account, so that pretty well defines how I believe things. God created them and due to the great flood, that is how the diversity came and that would be my explanation … Ok, I believe um, God created a pair, a male and female of everything with the ability to diversify. So I guess what I meant at the time of the flood, I believe that’s when the continents broke apart and so even though only a few of each things were saved in the flood, they had the genetic background to be able to diversify into all of the, like for instance, dogs, and all the different kinds that we have. And so um, does that help? Just a creationistic view.
This visitor invoked supernatural rather than natural explanations, in particular, God’s direct role in the origin of species.
The responses to this next question about Galapagos finches were quite astonishing:
During one year, scientists measured the beaks of one kind of finch on a remote island. They found that most of these finch beaks were small. In the following year, a drought wiped out almost all the plants that produce small seeds. Only the plants that make large tough seeds remained. A few years later, the scientists returned to the island and measured finch beaks again. This time they found that more of the finches had bigger beaks. How would you explain why more of the finches had bigger beaks?
Many of the respsondents gave a Lamarckian response: individual finches grew different sized beaks in response to the environment.*** However, this
fucking moroniccreationist response made my jaw hit the floor (italics mine):
But like I said, I don’t believe in evolution. So I don’t believe that they evolved because it takes too long. There are too many failures before they evolve into something that finally works, so I just reject that view. Um, my guess would be that there probably were larger beaked finches but there weren’t as many of them and the small beaked ones would have died out because they couldn’t get the food.
Erm, you…just…described…natural selection….brain…freezes….up….
But wait! There’s more disturbing news (italics mine):
Not surprisingly, in comparison with national samples, U.S. natural history museum visitors are much less likely to endorse creationism. However, even for a group that is more highly educated and probably more interested in natural history than the general public, only about a third demonstrate a basic grasp of Darwinian evolutionary principles. Not one visitor offered informed naturalistic responses to all seven questions. Interestingly, museum visitor research in other English-speaking countries demonstrates a similar lack of understanding. Using different measures, Silver and Kisiel (2006) found that only about 30% of visitors to selected natural history museums in Australia, Canada, and the United States exhibited a basic understanding of natural selection; this despite the fact that creationist ideas were less likely to be endorsed in the other countries than in the United States.
These findings offer support for the thesis that many people find evolutionary ideas counterintuitive. Given their educational levels, museum visitors are likely to have been introduced to Darwinian evolution at school, but these principles do not appear to be retained. Visitors seem to revert to their more compelling intuitive explanations of evolutionary change.
Well, the good news is that Americans are as likely to be fucking morons as other English-speakers.**** In a future post, I’ll talk about evolution, creationism, and child development.
*It is outrageous that these general interest articles are behind a private publisher’s paywall and not available to the public. As a member of the Society for the Study of Evolution, this appears to be in opposition to the mission to “promote the study of organic evolution.”
**I could be wrong, but aren’t the Hawaiian drosophilids fruit flies, but just flies? I seem to remember more than one drosophilist getting really cranky when I referred to drosophilids as fruit flies.
***In fairness, people often become confused by phenotypic plasticity–identical genotypes don’t appear identical because of environmental perturbation (e.g., starvation). However, the absence of thinking about the change in beak size as a population level response is disturbing.
****In light of the immigration kerfuffle, I wonder how ‘Mexican’ speakers do.