Originally published March 31, 2016
Evolution is poorly understood by students and, disturbingly, by many of their science teachers. Although it is part of the compulsory science curriculum in most schools in the UK and the USA, more than a third of people in both countries reject the theory of evolution outright or believe that it is guided by a supreme being.
It is critical that the voting public have a clear understanding of evolution. Adaptation by natural selection, the primary mechanism of evolution, underpins a raft of current social concerns such as antibiotic resistance, the impact of climate change and the relationship between genes and environment. So why, despite formal scientific education, does intelligent design remain so intuitively plausible and evolution so intuitively opaque? And what can we do about it?
Developmental psychologists have identified two cognitive biases in very young children that help to explain the popularity of intelligent design. The first is a belief that species are defined by an internal quality that cannot be changed (psychological essentialism). The second is that all things are designed for a purpose (promiscuous teleology). These biases interact with cultural beliefs such as religion but are just as prevalent in children raised in secular societies. Importantly, these beliefs become increasingly entrenched, making formal scientific instruction more and more difficult as children get older.