Mike the Mad Biologist

How Museums Teach Evolution…

…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.

Comments

  1. #1 Michael Schmidt
    June 28, 2007

    “Moreover, human evolution, in particular, challenges the intuition that humans are privileged and destined to escape the fate of other species on this planet.”

    This, I guess, is where I may depart from “human evolution.” I’m perfectly willing to believe that humans evolved from apes, that evolution doesn’t require intention or design, that natural selection works, etc. But it’s hard to believe that humans aren’t rather unique in their adaptability. To my knowledge, we’re the only large mammals that have maintained exponential population growth over many generations. We’re the only earthly species that have intentionally left the Earth’s biosphere and have survived to return. We probably inhabit more different biomes than even rats or cockroaches. I don’t know if that means we are “destined to escape the fate of other species on this planet” in the sense that we are invincible; catastrophies of sufficient magnitude could wipe us out, and “destined” is a fraught term. But I do think we have significant–scarily significant from the standpoint of the rest of the biosphere–survival advantages.

  2. #2 kemibe
    June 28, 2007

    I don’t think that the basic principles underlying evolution are difficult to understand, and people of average intelligence possessed of due curiosity should be able to create a clear picture of what it is and isn’t about. However, it is counterintuitive, it does lend itself to misunderstandings rooted in pre-existing beliefs about teleology and intentionality, and it does give strongly religious people a reflexive shudder. So what you have is a body of knowledge that requires a level of curiosity most religious people cannot or will not muster. Hence, they remain fucking mor — er, scientific illiterates who offer fucking stu — er, uninformed ideas.

  3. #3 Jessika
    June 28, 2007

    Have you seen Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus? An evolutionary biologist interviews both ID supporters and Dawinists. Right up your alley!

  4. #4 Laelaps
    June 28, 2007

    If you haven’t checked it out already, I’d highly recommend Stephen Asma’s Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads, especially the last few chapters dealing with evolution and museums in the U.S.

    Your post reminded me of my love/hate relationship with the AMNH in New York, as well. The 4th floor is supposed to be a big cladogram, little alcoves out to the sides containing representatives of the various “branches.” Most people, however, haven’t even heard the term “cladogram,” know what one is, or know they’re walking through one, so I feel that the overall evolution message is lost (plus the little branches just end; you don’t see what becomes of those lines later on).

    Museum displays are also difficult because they can become out-of-date quickly, or hard to change; some of the massive dinosaur skeletons at the AMNH are still in the same tail-dragging positions they were almost a century ago, and other little placards (like the one about whale evolution) need updating.

    In the end though, I think a big part of the problem is investment; people primarily go to museums to gawk look at exhibits, and whatever learning goes on is purely secondary. It takes an investment of brain power people aren’t willing to give up. The creation museum, however, requires no thought whatsoever; it’s entire point is to gratify those who already agree and con others into believing due to intuition and feelings rather than actual science. The same goes for evolution in general; everyone knows the word, knows the name “Darwin,” etc., but how many people (even those that regard evolution as correct) know anything about it?

  5. #5 Julie Stahlhut
    June 28, 2007

    Re the common names of flies:

    I don’t know whether the Entomological Society of America has yet standardized these common names in the U.S. (they’ve got an ongoing project along those lines, much as ornithologists have standardized the common names of birds). However, drosophilid flies are more properly given the common name “vinegar flies” or “pomace flies”, while it’s more appropriate to use “fruit flies” for the family Tephritidae (the family that contains the Mediterranean fruit fly and the apple maggot fly). Tephritids, at least the agriculturally important ones, are more likely to attack sound fruit, while the fruit-feeding drosophilids prefer the fallen, fermenting stuff.

    Then again, these are big taxa, and different species can exhibit very different feeding and oviposition behaviors. I work in a lab that does drosophilid research, and there’s only rarely a fruit-feeder like D. melanogaster to be found here. Most of our subjects lay their eggs not on fruit, but on fleshy mushrooms.

  6. #6 Charles Draeberg
    June 28, 2007

    “fucking morons” ? Excellent use of objective non-emotive language there! Very rational and scientific! I’d love to read more of your stuff… not!

  7. #7 whig
    June 28, 2007

    Keep in mind, people do not live in a vacuum, they are part of a community, and they are going to deal with many of the same people every day unless they move away from them.

    We are too prone to atomicize humans and not look at social forms as organisms with their own systems of self-regulation and competition/cooperation.

  8. #8 whig
    June 28, 2007

    When considering a large organization, a complex subdivision of organs exists, as in a government or a church. It becomes very different in talking to a member of that organism than to someone who is not.

    The individual within a structure is protected by the structure and will therefore defend the structure against harm.

  9. #9 Coin
    June 28, 2007

    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.

    Actually, that doesn’t sound like all that bad of a guess. Surely not all 800 kinds originated that way, but surely some noticeable proportion did.

    Anybody ever sat down and worked out the family tree of those 800 kinds of fruit flies?

  10. #10 Kevin
    June 28, 2007

    “Most people, however, haven’t even heard the term “cladogram,” know what one is, or know they’re walking through one, so I feel that the overall evolution message is lost ”

    so I guess neither you nor they sat throught the introductory video that EXPLAINS the whole idea of a cladogram and SHOWS how it relates to the floor plan?

    The one right next to the BATHROOMS? and the cool baby dinosaur?

    oh. I. guess. not.

  11. #11 edward
    June 29, 2007

    One thought on so many people not understanding evolution:

    Biology was NOT a required course in my HS. So where are people going to learn evolution if they don’t have to take the course?

    As the article points out, many people like to think of things as being somewhat static, and evolution challenges that.

    How many people HERE have really accepted that humans are continuing to evolve, and what that means?

  12. #12 Sanguinity
    June 29, 2007

    Coin:

    Complete tree? No. They haven’t even described all the species, let alone built an all-inclusive phylogeny for them. But a number of phylogenies have been built, and speciation within the Hawaiian archipelago is a strong theme.

    I’m not familiar with the complete body of literature on the topic, but as some examples: DeSalle and Giddings did a study in 1986 of seven Drosophila species in Hawaii. They found that the species all radiated from a founding species that lived on one of the original islands; speciation occurred when founders migrated to newer islands as the archipelago formed. DeSalle also worked on a 2005 paper where they studied nineteen species, and again saw that they all traced back to one species that lived on Kauai (one of the oldest islands in the archipelago), and that many of the subsequent speciations happened when founders migrated to a new island. (In that study, though, some of the speciation happened on Kauai, before the migrations, and some of the migration-based speciations were from younger islands backward along the chain to older islands.)

    Obviously, the species that are likely candidates for having arrived recently via humans aren’t going to be included in the within-Hawaii phylogeny studies. But if you’re asking folks how Hawaii came to have 800 species of Drosophila — especially with the hint about a founder population on one of the islands — “Dole pineapple” is still a pretty naive answer.

  13. #13 mark
    June 29, 2007

    There was an article in Science a few weeks back that said one reason for poor comprehension of science is due to an innate preference for explanations that are intuitive. I think that’s bolstered by the use of such intuitive understandings in Roadrunner and Bugs Bunny cartoons.
    Regarding the response to the question about finch beaks, the natural selection explanation does not seem very counter-intuitive. However, it is counter to the explanation offered by Creationist preachers, and therefore the evolutionary significance of the response may be denied by the responder.

  14. #14 a geologist
    June 30, 2007

    “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?”

    Unfortunate example. I very much doubt there is direct evidence that a couple of fruit flies landed on a Hawaiian island 8 million years ago. Much more likely that someone has observed the present-day diversity, assumed a (perhaps measured) rate of evolution, and estimated how long ago a single pair of ancestors existed. In this context, circular reasoning.

  15. #15 pecunium
    June 30, 2007

    I don’t know. I read a lot of evolutionary theory, and the thing is, to me it seems intuitive.

    Not patently obvious, but intuitive, once figured out (sort of like gravity, though the ^2^3 relationship is sort of hidden to the simple observer, e.g. me who got through algebra, and plays with some geometry and trig, but never studied them, much less calc; though reading books about calculus has given me some insights, time/motion interactions being things I deal with; sort of).

    And it doesn’t bother me that people are evolving. The rate is slow enough that I don’t see it, and the present configuration of “stuff” which makes up, “people” is just that, the present configuration.

  16. #16 Paul
    June 30, 2007

    Yesterday, Anderson Cooper fired some gratuitous shots at Darwin while commenting on a zebra-horse hybrid.

    [URL="http://www.cnn.com/video/#/video/bestoftv/2007/06/29/cooper.shot.friday.rtv"]http://www.cnn.com/video/#/video/bestoftv/2007/06/29/cooper.shot.friday.rtv[/URL]

    He said he didn’t know what Charles Darwin would make of that [the hybrid]—-“If he was even right, We’re not sure about that.”

    Who are we?

    This guy won an Emmy? He graduated from Yale? Obviously he never had to take a biology course there! Come to think of it, George W. Bush graduated from the same place.

    A profound ignorance of biology was exhibited during that little segment on the ‘hebra’. A real journalist would not comment on areas he/she knows nothing about.

    Actually we are not sure that Copernicus was right. His claims are controversial. We are not even sure that the earth rotates on an axis. That’s controversial too, and there are state legislators in Alabama and Texas that do not believe in these things.

  17. A geologist,

    you’re falling into the creationist trap of “you didn’t actually see it, so how do you know it’s real?” We can calibrate the molecular clock because different islands arose at different times. While there is obviously a significant variance around that estimate, the data indicate that the drosophilids did arise shortly after the first Hawaiian islands arose.

  18. #18 a geologist
    July 1, 2007

    Mike-

    I agree that “the data indicate that the drosophilids did arise shortly after the first Hawaiian islands arose.”

    My point was that _in this particular case_ the argument assumed evolution in order to suggest that evolution happened. Circular.

  19. #19 Ramona
    October 1, 2007

    Ask yourself why new antibiotics need to be created for seemingly “old” bacteria…Strep as an example. Then ask yourself why new pesticides need to be created because of the “same” “old” bugs. It’s simple, neither is the same or old…they are changing requiring changes to compete with them…and this is a problem that is only in recent history. Imagine millions and billions of years allowed for change. Evolution is fact, even if it interfers with your religion.

  20. #20 sex shop
    December 21, 2007

    The creation museum, however, requires no thought whatsoever; it’s entire point is to gratify those who already agree and con others into believing due to intuition and feelings rather than actual science

  21. #21 şişme bebek
    June 11, 2009

    you’re falling into the creationist trap of “you didn’t actually see it, so how do you know it’s real?” We can calibrate the molecular clock because different islands arose at different times. While there is obviously a significant variance around that estimate, the data indicate that the drosophilids did arise shortly after the first Hawaiian islands arose.

  22. #22 many
    September 4, 2009

    To my knowledge, we’re the only large mammals that have maintained exponential population growth over many generations. We’re the only earthly species that have intentionally left the Earth’s biosphere and have survived to return.

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