Consider the following statement: “Trees produce oxygen so that animals can breathe.” Do you think that’s a true statement? I do. However, if they are given enough time, many scientists will tell you that the statement is false. Sure, trees produce oxygen, but they don’t do it so that animals can breathe. Such a statement implies there is a purpose behind the fact that trees produce oxygen, and most scientists would say there is are no purposes in nature. Instead, most scientists would say that trees (and other photosynthetic organisms) evolved to produce oxygen, and the availability of oxygen in the atmosphere allowed for the evolution of oxygen-breathing animals.
Statements like the one above are called teleological statements, because teleology is the idea that there are purposes in nature. Obviously, creationists think in terms of teleology. We think that God designed the world, and just as a human designer puts purposes in his design, God put purposes into nature. Thus, trees (and other photosynthetic organisms) were designed by God specifically because He wanted to produce animals and people that breathe oxygen. As a result, He knew there would need to be a mechanism by which oxygen could be replenished in the atmosphere.
It is important to note, however, that creationists are not the only ones who believe in teleology. Indeed, atheist philosopher Dr. Thomas Nagel wrote an incredibly important book two years ago entitled Mind and Cosmos:Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. In that book, he clearly rejects the notion of any kind of creator, but he argues quite convincingly that the data show there must be a teleological explanation for the natural world. He is hard pressed to give an atheistic teleological explanation; he just argues that evolutionists must develop one.
In fact, even most scientists who reject teleology think in terms of it when they are caught off guard. Research shows that if you force scientists who reject teleology to evaluate scientific statements quickly, they tend to accept the teleological ones. However, if they are allowed enough time to think through the implications of each statement, they reject the teleological ones. This implies that the natural instinct of a person, even a person who rejects teleology, is to think about nature in terms of purpose. This, of course, is a danger to naturalistic evolution, which is what the high priests of science want people to believe. Thus, such blasphemous ideas must be rooted out of the human psyche.
Boston University professor of psychology Dr. Deborah Kelemen and her colleagues think they have a solution. They say that you have to “intervene” early in a child’s development so as to root out and destroy such teleological thinking. In a paper published in the journal Psychological Science, they write:1
…children in preschool and early elementary school show teleological biases to explain the origins of natural objects’ properties by reference to functions, intentionality biases to construe events and objects as intentionally caused, and essentialist biases to view species members as sharing an invariant, inviolable essence. Children are natural explanation seekers who organize their knowledge into theoretical frameworks, and by the time children are 6 to 10 years old, these potentially independent conceptual biases show signs of integrating into intuitive causal theories that connect ideas about biological functionality in nature with notions of invariant essences and goal-directed design. (references removed for clarity)
In other words, from a very early age, we think in terms of purpose and design. This has disastrous consequences when it comes to naturalistic evolutionary thinking, so it needs to be stopped.
How do you stop this terrible tendency? You tell children stories that incorporate the idea of natural selection. For example, in their study, Kelemen and her colleagues used a colorfully-illustrated storybook (made specifically for the study) to tell children a story about fictional animals called pilosas. While the animals in the story are fictional, Pilosa is a real order of mammals that includes anteaters and sloths. In the story, climate change (of course) caused a die-off in the population of pilosas, because the insects they ate went underground into deep, narrow tunnels in order to escape the horrible heat. As a result, the thinner pilosas were the only ones who could get to their food source. This eventually led to a population of very thin pilosas.
The authors found that the story helped the children to explain things in terms of natural selection rather than design. For example, when the children were asked about a different fictional animal’s traits before hearing the story, they were most likely to suggest that the animal had those traits because of purpose and design. However, after hearing the story, they were more likely to suggest that a different fictional animal had certain traits because of some aspect of natural selection. As a result, the authors suggest that such stories should be used as an “intervention” to produce the right kind of thinking in children.
I am not very knowledgeable about psychological research, but the study looks really solid. In addition, its conclusions seem reasonable. Many educators think that natural selection needs to be taught to older children, because younger children don’t have the cognitive abilities to understand it. This study shows that’s just not the case. Even very young children are excellent thinkers, and they are able to handle difficult concepts, as long as those concepts are presented in the right way.
So I don’t have a problem with the results of the study. I do have a problem with the goal. The goal seems to be indoctrination. They want educators to use an “intervention” to get the kids thinking correctly early enough, so that later on, they will be more likely to accept naturalistic evolution. Instead of having such a purpose in mind, why not educate children about natural selection at an early age so that they can judge what it can and cannot explain? Why not encourage children to think in terms of both design and natural selection, applying each explanation where it is most appropriate? To me, that sounds more like real science education, not indoctrination.
1. Deborah Kelemen, Natalie A. Emmons, Rebecca Seston Schillaci, Patricia A. Ganea, “Young Children Can Be Taught Basic Natural Selection Using a Picture-Storybook Intervention,” Psychological Science 25(4):893-902, 2014
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