Starting Early: The Benefits of Teaching Evolution in Early Childhood, Part 2

In my previous post, I described research by Deborah Kelemen showing that even young children could grasp counterintuitive evolutionary concepts—a finding that suggests that evolution should be taught long before high school. Kelemen’s work suggests that evolution’s counterintuitive nature is one reason people may find it difficult to accept, but that introducing children to evolutionary concepts early is successful in countering their natural tendency to assume that animals and plants have been purposefully designed to thrive in their particular environments. Teach evolution early, then, and eventually we will no longer see 40% of adults rejecting one of the most exhaustively substantiated theories in all of science—right?

Not so fast. Another researcher, Will Gervais, has found that it’s easier for some people to accept counterintuitive ideas than others. It turns out that there is an association between cognitive style and beliefs about evolution. Cognitive style refers to the balance between two distinct mental systems that everyone uses for processing information: one system provides quick and effortless intuitive responses, whereas the other relies on more strenuous and analytical processing.

In an experiment with hundreds of Kentucky undergraduates, Gervais presented participants with a common task to measure the extent to which they would engage in immediate, intuitive judgments or more explicit, analytical deliberations (which can sometimes override the initial intuitive response). He found a significant relationship between the degree to which individuals would engage in more analytical styles of thinking and their endorsement of evolution. These results remained significant even after controlling for religious beliefs and political conservatism.

Gervais’ research presents two possibilities: (1) The more an individual engages in reflective, analytical thinking, the more likely it is that they will essentially “override” their natural intuitive responses when presented with evidence, thus making concepts like evolution easier to grasp; or  (2) Some individuals may naturally have stronger intuitive responses than others, which, though beneficial in some situations, may make it particularly challenging to successfully override their gut instincts. (Of course, for individuals who grow up in an environment where intelligent design and creationism are widely accepted, even those with a highly analytical cognitive style must override the norms of their community and upbringing to accept evolution.)  

This research helps to explain why counterintuitive concepts like evolution are not rejected only for ideological reasons, but also for cognitive ones. It also helps us understand the most recent Gallup poll results, which found that nearly half of the U.S. population rejects evolution, a result that has remained stable for the past thirty years. Kelemen and Gervais’ research suggests that to change that percentage, educators and parents must introduce evolutionary thinking to children when they are young, rather than waiting until high school, and that educators should be mindful that accepting counterintuitive ideas may be more difficult for some people than others. Keleman has shown that children as young as five can grasp these concepts (and retain the information); they just need to be taught through innovative ways like storytelling. Over the past few years some excellent evolutionary children’s books have been published, such as Great Adaptations, Grandmother Fish (see Stephanie Keep’s review and Q&A with the author here), and Our Family Tree to name a few. These can be excellent tools for teaching evolutionary concepts, second only to applying some imagination and having children create their own species and animals like Dr. Keleman’s “pilosas.” Reinforcing the concepts each year should help even those with more intuitive cognitive styles to grasp the basics of evolutionary theory.

Counterintuitive concepts like evolution can be challenging for anyone to grasp. By taking a deeper look at the underlying cognitive hurdles, we can improve our future approaches to science education and policy, and do a better job helping students understand the elegant, if not at all obvious, theory that underlies all of biology.

Ashle Bailey-Gilreath holds a Master’s degree in Cognition and Culture from the Institute of Cognition and Culture at Queen’s University Belfast. She currently works as a Research Assistant for both the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Oxford and also the Institute of Cognition and Culture. She is also the Web and Social Media Coordinator for the Evolution Institute and This View of Life Magazine. This piece was adapted from an earlier version written for Learning & the Brain.

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