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Story Time: Psychologists Show How to "Suppress" Children’s Intuition of Design in Nature

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I don’t know whether this is outrageous, hilarious or simply very telling. Probably all three. The Wall Street Journal salutes the research of Boston University psychologist Deborah Kelemen. She has discovered that it’s possible with Darwinian storytelling to suppress common sense in children of the kind that leads them to recognize artifacts of intelligent design in nature.

The Journal notes that quite apart from religious instruction, kids are primed to see life as reflecting "intentional design." It’s intuitive. The corrective is to catch them at an early age and train them to see things in a Darwinian light.

By elementary-school age, children start to invoke an ultimate God-like designer to explain the complexity of the world around them — even children brought up as atheists. Kids aged 6 to 10 have developed their own coherent "folk biological" theories. …

Dr. Kelemen and her colleagues thought that they might be able to get young children to understand the mechanism of natural selection before the alternative intentional-design theory had become too entrenched. They gave 5- to 8-year-olds 10-page picture books that illustrated an example of natural selection. The "pilosas," for example, are fictional mammals who eat insects. Some of them had thick trunks, and some had thin ones. A sudden change in the climate drove the insects into narrow underground tunnels. The thin-trunked pilosas could still eat the insects, but the ones with thick trunks died. So the next generation all had thin trunks.

Before the children heard the story, the experimenters asked them to explain why a different group of fictional animals had a particular trait. Most of the children gave explanations based on intentional design. But after the children heard the story, they answered similar questions very differently: They had genuinely begun to understand evolution by natural selection. That understanding persisted when the experimenters went back three months later.

One picture book, of course, won’t solve all the problems of science education. But these results do suggest that simple story books like these could be powerful intellectual tools. The secret may be to reach children with the right theory before the wrong one is too firmly in place.

There are a number of interesting points here. First, that the example of natural selection is fictional. The mammalian order Pilosa (anteaters and sloths) is real, but "pilosas" are not. Second, it is decidedly in the micro-evolutionary realm — a kind of evolution that no one disputes, certainly not advocates of the theory of intelligent design. There’s no reason to think that the "pilosas" are on their way to true speciation, of the kind that evolutionary theory is really challenged to account for, any more than Darwin’s finches. The extrapolation from such a trivial thing into the origin of all species and all biological complexity by unguided natural processes is a cheat.

Most enlightening is that Dr. Kelemen and her colleagues would, to begin with, seek to talk children out of their intuitive response. Among ID researchers, the approach would be to test that intuition, objectively weighing the empirical evidence without preconceptions. Dr. Kelemen would "suppress" it: her own word!

If you look at the original research, reported in the journal Psychological Science, the language is revealing ("Young Children Can Be Taught Basic Natural Selection Using a Picture-Storybook Intervention"). From the Abstract:

In a novel approach, we explored 5- to 8-year-olds’ capacities to learn a basic but theoretically coherent mechanistic explanation of adaptation through a custom storybook intervention. Experiment 1 showed that children understood the population-based logic of natural selection and also generalized it. Furthermore, learning endured 3 months later. Experiment 2 replicated these results and showed that children understood and applied an even more nuanced mechanistic causal explanation. The findings demonstrate that, contrary to conventional educational wisdom, basic natural selection is teachable in early childhood. Theory-driven interventions using picture storybooks with rich explanatory structure are beneficial. [Emphasis added.]

The initiative to program children is repeatedly referred to as "intervention," a term used in psychological counseling to refer to an attempt to thwart counterproductive, dangerous thoughts or behavior. The intuitive response of human beings, seeing design in nature, is implicitly compared to destructive patterns of abuse, alcoholism, drug addiction, and the like!

Given that bizarre premise, suppressing design thoughts becomes the preferred solution. It worked better with slightly older kids, as Kelemen and her colleagues are remarkably candid in saying:

Both age groups learned a great deal, but as might be expected given their enhanced linguistic and processing capacities, 7- to 8-year-olds showed especially robust abilities to suppress any emergent competing commonsense ideas and master task demands, such that they could abstract and transfer the mechanism to markedly different species.


Repeated, spaced instruction on gradually scaled-up versions of the logic of natural selection could ultimately place students in a better position to suppress competing intuitive theoretical explanations.

"Suppressing common sense," "intervening" to throttle natural intuitions — I could hardly have put it any more directly myself.

The defense of Darwinian theory already centered on an avoidance strategy, dodging a direct confrontation with genuinely challenging critiques, while dishonestly conflating scientific alternatives (intelligent design) with non-scientific ones (creationism) to confuse people. That wasn’t good enough, evidently. Even adults raised from childhood to see the universe as void of purpose may have a lingering suspicion that natural selection alone can’t explain the panoply of life around us.

It becomes necessary, then, to choke off the illness at its origin, somewhere in early childhood. The more obvious and responsible alternative of answering arguments for intelligent design is, of course, not thinkable.

Image source: Davie County Public Library/Flickr.

David Klinghoffer

Senior Fellow and Editor, Evolution News
David Klinghoffer is a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute and the editor of Evolution News & Science Today, the daily voice of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, reporting on intelligent design, evolution, and the intersection of science and culture. Klinghoffer is also the author of six books, a former senior editor and literary editor at National Review magazine, and has written for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Seattle Times, Commentary, and other publications. Born in Santa Monica, California, he graduated from Brown University in 1987 with an A.B. magna cum laude in comparative literature and religious studies. David lives near Seattle, Washington, with his wife and children.