Friday, March 24, 2006

why people don't understand and/or support natural selection

Trends in Cognitive Sciences has an interesting meta-analysis of the ongoing controversy over evolutionary theory and intelligent design. Two psychologists and and a philosopher write in to take an educational-psychology and philosophy-of-science approach to the controversy. They have a couple of interesting points that I didn't know about:
Although it is tempting to think the controversy stems only from ignorance about evolution, a closer look reinforces what decades of research in cognitive and social psychology have already taught us: that the relationship between understanding a claim and believing a claim is far from simple. Research in education and psychology confirms that a majority of college students fail to understand evolutionary theory, but also finds no support for a relationship between understanding evolutionary theory and accepting it as true. We believe the intuitive appeal of Intelligent Design owes as much to misconceptions about science and morality as it does to misconceptions about evolution.
They go on to explain that most college students believe an incorrect version of how natural selection works, a more Lamarkian theory than the correct Darwinian theory. But even those who get the basics right (mutation allows variation; variation allows selective reproduction; selective reproduction allows evolution, and eventually, speciation) don't necessarily believe that the theory is true. In fact, in some cases the contrary occurs:
Brem, Ranney and Schnidel (2003) found that the overwhelming majority of their participants believed evolution to have negative social consequences, such as justifying racism and selfishness, and negative philosophical consequences, such as denying free will and a purpose to life. These views presumably stem from mistaken beliefs about biology (e.g. that race is a biologically meaningful category or that ultimate explanations reveal proximate intentions) coupled with the naturalistic fallacy (i.e. the belief that one can derive how we ought to behave from a description of how the world actually is).
They conclude with recommendations for education, suggesting "lessons from philosophy of science about what constitutes a scientific theory and an empirical test, and lessons from moral philosophy about the difference between empirical claims and moral claims."

It's interesting to consider how such a simple theory has been misunderstood for so long, and how those misunderstandings may have a basis in how we think about theories more generally, and how we view the world and morality...



At 12:39 PM, Blogger D.Rajesh said...

That’s quite correct.

More to that is most do not attempt to understand what evolution by natural selection is.
The usual rhetoric is that, it’s just a theory! Followed by a how can this happen? And so on…

Personal incredulity plays the biggest part in this followed of course by the religious view.

While a potter making a pot is quite logical the inversion of a pot making the potter does not seem get the acceptance of most of the general population. Precisely the point is that it’s not as simple as the pot making the potter in a day. Without a rudimentary understanding of geology, a grip of history, some cosmology and a general understanding about how things work, it certainly is difficult to come out of the comfortable cocoon and understand evolution. That’s why Daniel Dennet calls it as Darwin’s dangerous idea!

If this is for the general population, the scientifically inclined have got much-hardened roadblocks. The essence of evolution is being made to understand in a plane, which we really cannot experience at all. This is the time factor, the immensity of which simply doesn’t seep in to most of them.

Cognitive sciences being a bit more complicated, requires more than a simple effort to understand than the evolution of morphs. The master conjurer, the creator of self, and the ghost in the machine are certainly a product of the same evolution. If some one doesn’t understand the fundamentals and essence of Darwinian evolution, applied to physical entities in the first place, you can be assured that he or she is never ever going to understand the same if applied to evolutionary psychology.

Believe me, it takes quite some effort to push out the prism called tradition to view such things. Such a prism among other things is also a product of medieval process of solace seeking and is so very well entrenched!


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