Creationism Feels Right, but That Doesn't Make it So
Psychological researchers suggest that evolutionary thinking is unnatural
Presently I’m attending a small symposium on “Belief and Reason” at Trinity College, Cambridge, being sponsored by the Perrott-Warrick Fund. It’s a rather intimate affair with mostly cognitive scientists discussing the latest research and theory on everything from paranormal beliefs to free will to the placebo effect. One of the standout talks Monday was by Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, who gave a presentation titled “Is Religion Natural?” He focused on the puzzling case of creationist beliefs.
As Bloom pointed out, many people believe that one’s acceptance of evolutionary theory boils down to whether that person was indoctrinated as a child by religious parents or educated by science-minded teachers. But it's not that simple. By her own accounts, even Helen Keller, who was deaf and blind from nineteen months of age*, spontaneously pondered, “Who made the sky, the sea, everything?” prior to being taught how to communicate. As a retrospective anecdote, the example should be taken with a pinch of salt, as they say—but if true, it’s quite something, since her linguistic isolation meant that Keller hadn’t a culturally transmitted concept of God to revert to but nevertheless intuited ‘someone’ had created the world.
For the past decade, University of Michigan psychologist Margaret Evans has been investigating why creationist thinking comes more easily to the human mind than does evolutionary thinking. “Persistence [of creationist beliefs] is not simply the result of fundamentalist politics and socialization,” writes Evans. “Rather, these forces themselves depend on certain propensities of the human mind.” According to Evans, the preponderance of creationist beliefs—as well as their recalcitrance in the face of logical science—is due in large part to the way our cognitive systems have (ironically enough) evolved.
As a scientist, Evans isn't so much interested in the metaphysical question of ultimate origins, but rather in the cognitive factors that influence and constrain our ability to think and reason about this existential problem. In her very important research, she's been mapping out how children’s reasoning about origins are influenced by particular developmental experiences, such as being raised by a professor of evolutionary biology versus a pastor at the local church. Or, more commonly, just by regular parents.
Evans has discovered that regardless of their parents’ beliefs or whether they attend religious or secular school, when asked where the first member of a particular animal species came from (say, a fox or a turtle), 5- to 7-year-old children give either spontaneous generationist (e.g., “it got born there”) or creationist (e.g., “God made it”) responses. By 8-10 years of age, however, children from both secular and religious backgrounds give exclusively creationist answers. Typically these answers are manifest as “God made it,” but often “Nature” is personified, seen as a deliberate agent that intentionally made the animal. It’s only among the oldest children she’s studied, the 10-12-year-olds, that Evans uncovers an effect of developmental experience, with children of evolutionary-minded parents giving evolutionary responses and those of evangelical parents giving creationist answers to the question.
In one of her writings, subtitled “Why Creationism is Here to Stay,” Evans states that “the theory of evolution is not something that arises intuitively, but rather requires a specific knowledge structure.” In other words, thinking like an evolutionist is hard work because, ironically, it works against the grain of evolved human psychology. Evolutionists will probably never outnumber creationists, Evans believes, since the latter has a paradoxical ally in the way natural selection has lent itself to our species’ ability to reason about its own origins.
Continued . . .