Subject: In Science We Trust; Natural History; May 2009
From: Perry Bezanis
Date: Mon, 04 May 2009 22:23:03 -0700
To: Paul Bloom

Excellent article [below] in the May issue of Natural History. That said, it is also fair to say that the 'natural creationalism' in human babies you refer to is a reflection of a capability for learning that is common to essentially all vertebrates in general -the vertebrates of our origins included -what I refer to as '(merely) cerebrative capability' as opposed to 'deliberative':
   What I think really distinguishes us beyond that is our 'uniquely human _deliberative capability_' that, circumstances and education permitting, brings at least some of us (Darwin most famously :-) to observe 'various incongruities inherent of innate creationalism' and therefore conjure up 'increasingly more reasonable (science-based) explanations' (evolutionary process, natural selection and gravity, for example) for any and all of such as the limitedly creationalist phenomena and situations you identify.
   Regardless of 'innate creationism' in any case, it is easily arguable that 'genetic imperative driving the (human) life-form to live as long as possible' will ineluctably bring this human life-form to discovering that science (deliberative capability) is the _only_ agency of that end -the 'vestigialization' of creationalism and belief systems in general therein; 'democracy', for example, only an _artifact_ of thus-far human intellectual development.
   This material is the basis of a paper presented in 2007 at the ICAPE and AAAS(PD) conferences (Salt Lake City and Boise, Idaho respectively) -abstract and url below.


In Science We Trust
Beliefs about the natural world that are present in infiancy influence people's response to evolutionary theory.

A minority of Americans subscribe to an unusual theory about the origin of people and other animals. They are often adamant about the truth of this theory, and believe that it is the only one that should be taught to children. But if you press them on the theory's details, their answers are muddled. It turns out that these people understand little of what they are defending; they are just parroting back what they have heard from others. Who are they?
   They are Darwinians -people who claim to believe in evolution by natural selection.
   That may be surprising. Aren't creationists, after all, the ones who are supposed to be ignorant and irrational? The word minority was a tip-off, though. In the United States there are many more creationists than Darwinians. About half of Americans polled by Newsweek in 2007 claimed that evolution did not occur at all -that God created humans in their present form. Most of the rest conceded that evolution might occur, but guided by the hand of God. More than twice as many Americans believe in the virgin birth of Christ as in natural selection.
   Why do so many people reject evolutionary theory? Some scientists fault the educational system, and call for more and better biology classes. Others see this state of affairs as a manifestation of the powerful role of religion in American culture. But in collaboration with Deena Weisberg, a postdoctoral fellow at Rutgers Vniversitv, I have drawn upon research in cognitive science to defend a different view. We suggest that the psychology of those who reject evolutionary theory is not so different from that of people who endorse it,
   Consider first that all babies.have certain beliefs and expectations. Babies can't tell us so, but developmental psychologists have studied what surprises and what bores a baby, based on how long the baby looks at something. They conclude that babies have a foundational understanding of the physical and social worlds. By about four months, and perhaps even earlier, babies expect objects to fall if unsupported; they know that objects continue to exist when hidden; and they demonstrate surprise if one object passes through another, They know that if you put an object behind a screen and then put another object there, when the screen drops two objects should be revealed, not one or three.
   Babies can also make sense of the actions of moving social beings and respond appropriately to those actions, Yale psychology graduate student J. Kiley Hamlin, Yale psychologist Karen Wynn, and I have presented six- and ten-month-old babies with a puppet show in which one character is helpedup a hill by another and pushed down by third. When the babies are then offered the opportunity to touch the two puppets, they almost always reach for the "helper" amd not the "hinderer". And when they watch the climber puppet "make friends" with one of the others, ten-month-olds show surprise (by staring longer) if the climber befriends its enemy.
   None of this should be unexpected. Such physical and social assumptions mesh nicely with the world we live in -objects do fall down, it is better to interact with someone who is a helper- and this innate knowledge gives babies a head start in interacting with and learning about objects and people. The problem is that advanced scientific theory clashes with many of these commonsense biases. Objects may seem solid, but they are mostly empty space. It seems as if objects fall downward, but they fall toward a spherical Earth.
   This clash leads to problems. As psychologist Susan Carey of Harvard University puts it, the main difficulty with teaching science to children is "not what the student lacks. but what the student has, namely alternative conceptual frameworks for understanding the phenomena covered by the theories we are trying to teach."
   One example is the shape of the Earth. Children's belief that unsupported objects fall downward is adaptive in the world we live in, but it makes it hard for them to see the world as a sphere -if it were a sphere, they can't help thinking, the people and things on the other side would fall off.
   It is difficult for children to shake this view. It is not until the age of about twelve or thirteen that children demonstrate a coherent understanding of a spherical Earth. In some striking experiments, the psychologist Stella Vosniadou and her colleague W. F. Brewer, then of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, found that when children are taught about the Earth, they often distort the scientific understanding in systematic ways. When asked to draw the Earth or model it with clay, for instance, some children depict it as a sphere with a flattened top or as a hollow sphere that people live inside.
   Something similar happens in the domain of evolution. There is by now a large body of research suggesting that humans are natural-born creationists. When we see nonrandom structure and design, we assume that it was created by an intelligent being. George Newman, a post doctoral associate at Yale, along with Yale psychologist Frank C. Keil, showed three- to six-year-olds a picture of either a messy or a neat pile of toys, followed by a picture of either a teenage girl (identified as the toy owner's big sister) or an open window (letting in the wind) .Children as young as three said that both the sister and the wind could have caused the disorder, but that only the sister could have caused the orderly arrangement. In another experiment, Newman and colleagues found that even one-year-old babies look longer, indicating surprise, when a computer animation shows a neat pile to be caused by a rolling ball.
   This makes perfect sense; the creation of order typically requires intelligence. As the prominent Texas congressman Sam Rayburn once put it, "Any jackass can kick a barn down, but it takes a carpenter to build it." Although Darwin showed how a nonintelligent process driven by random variation and differential selection can create complex structure -design without a designer- that is an unnatural idea, and children and adults balk at it.
   Psychologist Deborah Kelemen of Boston University, for instance, finds that children insist that everything has a purpose. Educated Western adults believe that human-made artifacts have purposes (cars are to drive around in) and that body parts have purposes (eyes are for seeing), but young children take this further, saying the same for animals (lions are for being in the zoo) and for natural entities (clouds are for raining).
   And psychologist Margaret Evans of the University of Michigan found the most direct evidence for naturalborn creationism. She carried out a series of studies in which she asked children flat out where they believe animals come from. Their favorite answer is God. That is true of children whose parents are fundamentalist Christians -no surprise- but it is also true for children whose parents accept the theory of natural selection! Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins was right to complain, then, that it seems "as if the human brain were specifically designed to misunderstand Darwinism."
   Those built-in biases cannot be the whole explanation of adult resistance to science. Humans might start out as natural-born creationists, but some end up as Darwinians. Culture must play a role.
   In one recent study of the acceptance of evolutionary theory in thirty-four countries, the United States came in second to last. The only country more Darwin-resistant was Turkey [ see chart on opposite page -omitted].
   There are also differences within societies that need to be explained. What is special about the 14 percent of Americans who, in another study, asserted that natural selection is definitely true?
   Looking within the United States, the difference between Darwinians and creationists does not reduce to smarts or education: studies of college students found no difference in how well (or poorly) they understood the theory of evolution, whether they believed it was true or not and no matter how much biology they'd studied. When researchers asked the students who endorsed Darwinian beliefs to explain the theory of natural selection, their answers were on average no more accurate than those of the students that rejected evolution. Many in each group misunderstood the theory, coming up with something closer to Lamarck's view than Darwin's.
   So while an evolutionary biologist might argue that giraffes evolved long necks because the ones with longer-than-usual necks got more food from trees and hence tended to have more offspring, many students would say that it is useful to have a long neck and so (somehow) giraffes will have longer-necked children. They believe, as Lamarck did, that there is some mysterious force that causes animals to become better adapted to their environments, and they confuse this with modern evolutionary biology.
   What distinguishes, then, Darwinians and creationists? A likely answer to this question emerges from the more general question of how we come to learn about the world. Some of our beliefs emerge through personal experience, which is how a person knows the taste of an apple, the color of her house, or the sound of his child 's voice. Some beliefs emerge through conscious deliberation, which might apply to the views about evolution that a scientist or theologian might hold. But most of what a person knows is learned from other people, through hearsay or testimony.
   It is only from other people that we even know where and when we were born, and who our parents are. If you think about it, little of your knowledge of the world actually comes from your own direct experience. As the philosopher Martin Kusch of the University of Cambridge in England points out, "Our teachers, parents and friends, as well as the media of mass communication teach us close to everything we know about history, and much about the social and natural worlds we live in." Kusch notes that if you were to strip away from your mind all knowledge acquired through testimony, very little would remain.
   We are smart when it comes to social learning. Even children know enough to trust the testimony of some people more than that of others, and to trust different people on different subjects. Four- and five-year-olds, for instance, are aware that adults know things that other children do not, such as the meaning of the word hypochondriac. When given conflicting information about a word's meaning from a child and from an adult, they prefer to learn from the adult -unless the adult is proven to be unreliable. They also know that adults have varied areas of expertise, that doctors know about fixing broken arms and mechanics know about fixing flat tires. They prefer to learn from a knowledgeable speaker rather than from an ignorant one.
   There is nothing irrational about deference to authority. Some sort of "division of cognitive labor" is essential in any complex society, where any single individual lacks the resources to evaluate all the claims that he or she hears. Scientists themselves defer all the time; any researcher has to draw upon the work of others, taking certain results and ideas on faith. And certainly nonscientists defer. I know that E=mc2, and that the Earth is billions of years old, but I cannot give arguments for either of those claims. I believe them because I trust that the sources are reliable. I have faith in science.
   Not everyone shares that faith. The second reason why creationism is so popular, apart from its intuitive naturalness, is that in some societies (including the United States), religious and political authorities favor it, and some people have chosen to defer to them. It is not that most creationists have assessed the scientific arguments and found them wanting. Instead, it is a matter of trust. Some people trust their pastor over their science teacher, the Pope over Richard Dawkins.
   Deference has implications for science education. If it is important to have an educated public in domains such as evolution, stem-cell research, diet, and global warming, the goal should not necessarily be to teach citizens the specifics of the relevant scientific argument. Life is too short for nonspecialists to learn the relevant facts and theories in all of these domains.
   Rather, it is worth making the more general point, that the community of scientists really does have a legitimate claim to trustworthiness -scientific inquiry involves procedures, such as experiments and open debate, that are strikingly successful at revealing truths about the physical and biological world. The success of science is also evident from its practical applications, everything from antibiotics to airplanes.
   Further, one should emphasize that when it comes to learning about nature and the cosmos, a scientific consensus, because it has been rigorously tested and questioned, carries more weight than a political or religious one. Anyone interested in diminishing the resistance to science in the United States should focus on convincing people that this characterization is true by teaching children how science works, and why.
~~~~~~~~~~~~
PAUL BLOOM is a professor of psychology at Yale University. Bloom has writtenfor scientific journals such as Nature and S'cience, and for popular outlets such as the New York Times, the Guardian, and the Atlantic. He is the author or editor of four books ! including How Children Learn the Meanings of Words (The MIT Press, 2000) and, most recently, Descartes' Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human (Basic Books, 2004).


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