Late last week, the Texas Board of Education failed to approve a leading high school biology textbook—whose authors include the Roman Catholic biologist Kenneth Miller of Brown University—because of its treatment of evolution. According to The New York Times, critiques from a textbook reviewer identified as a "Darwin Skeptic" were a principal cause.
Yet even as creationists keep trying to undermine modern science, modern science is beginning to explain creationism scientifically. And it looks like evolution—the scientifically uncontested explanation for the diversity and interrelatedness of life on Earth, emphatically including human life—will be a major part of the story. Our brains are a stunning product of evolution; and yet ironically, they may naturally pre-dispose us against its acceptance.
1871 satirical image depicting Charles Darwin as an ape. The Hornet/Wikimedia Commons
"I don’t think there’s any question that a variety of our mental dispositions are ones that discourage us from taking evolutionary theory as seriously as it should be taken," explains Robert N. McCauley, director of the Center for Mind, Brain, and Culture at Emory University and author of the book Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not.
So what can science tell us about our not-so-scientific minds? Here’s a list of cognitive traits, thinking styles, and psychological factors identified in recent research that seem to thwart evolution acceptance:
Biological Essentialism. First, we seem to have a deep tendency to think about biology in a way that is "essentialist"—in other words, assuming that each separate kind of animal species has a fundamental, unique nature that unites all members of that species, and that is inviolate. Fish have gills, birds have wings, fish make more fish, birds make more birds, and that’s how it all works. Essentialist thinking has been demonstrated in young children. "Little kids as young as my 2 and a half year old granddaughter are quite clear that puppies don’t have ponies for mommies and daddies," explains McCauley.
If essentialism is a default style of thinking, as much research suggests, then that puts evolution at a major disadvantage. Charles Darwin and his many scientific disciples have shown that essentialism is just plain wrong: Given enough time, biological kinds are not fixed but actually change. Species are connected through intermediate types to other species—and all are ultimately related to one another.
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