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Understanding of Evolution May Be Improved by Thinking about People

Lookup NU author(s): Professor Daniel Nettle


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The theory of evolution is poorly understood in the population at large, even by those with some science education. The recurrent misunderstandings can be partly attributed to failure to distinguish between processes which individual organisms undergo and those which populations undergo. They may be so pervasive because we usually explain evolutionary ideas with examples from non-human animals, and our everyday cognition about animals does not track individuals as distinct from the species to which they belong. By contrast, everyday cognition about other people tracks unique individuals as well as general properties of humans. In Study 1, I present experimental evidence that categorization by species occurs more strongly for non-human animals than for other people in 50 British university students. In Study 2, I show, in the same population, that framing evolutionary scenarios in terms of people produces fewer conceptual errors than when logically identical scenarios are framed terms of non-human animals. I conclude that public understanding of evolution might be improved if we began instruction by considering the organisms which are most familiar to us.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Nettle D

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Evolutionary Psychology

Year: 2010

Volume: 8

Issue: 2

Pages: 205-228

Print publication date: 01/01/2010

ISSN (print):

ISSN (electronic): 1474-7049

Publisher: Evolutionary Psychology