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A Dog is Still a Dog

April 3, 2016

I recently read an article on the web with the title “Evolution makes scientific sense. So why do many people reject it?”.  This article explains that people have a built-in bias against the principles of evolution because of their early learning.  It claims that children have already learned two false concepts.  One is that species don’t change, an idea that is clearly in conflict with evolution.  The other is that species are designed for a purpose.  This idea too may be in conflict with evolution.

When we are young, we first build up a body of practical knowledge of the world around us.  It’s about the world we live in because that’s what is most important to us.  We don’t learn Newtonian physics, for example, where an object in motion will continue in the same direction forever.  That’s not the world we live in.  Instead, we learn that a moving object will slow down and eventually stop.  That’s how things behave in our world.  Our initial knowledge is similar to everybody else’s.  We call it common sense.

Evolution is contrary to common sense.  We know that species don’t change because we’ve never seen them change.  Evolution is logical and does make sense, but only after we have come to understand the principles that form the basis of evolutionary change.  Saying that species don’t change is actually correct most of the time.  Evolution is not a gradual change.  Instead, new species branch off the lines of decent of existing species.  The mechanism for these changes was discovered by Charles Darwin.  He called it natural selection, in analogy to the artificial selection practiced by plant and animal breeders.

The main principle behind evolution is deep time, a term I read about in one of Stephen Jay Gould‘s essays.  Deep time itself is contrary to common sense, simply because such times are outside of our experience.  Just the numbers are difficult to imagine.  Our human species originated about 200,000 years ago in Africa.  We had a common ancestor with chimpanzees and gorillas millions of years ago.  Multi-cellular life began about half a billion years ago.  People don’t think in terms of geological time, although they can learn it if it’s important to them.  Children don’t learn history that’s only a hundred years old because it’s not immediately useful to them for living in their world.  They can learn history and deep time later, but they will have to revise their common sense thinking to some extent.  This is something that everybody does as they acquire new knowledge.

Of course, children learn that animal species are immutable and distinct.  This is a correct observation in our world.  Even when its fur is dyed like a giant panda, a dog is still a dog.  Of course, dogs did evolve from ancestral species, but this happened a long time ago.  This idea is also correct, and not in conflict with the belief that species don’t change in the present time.

The other bias, mentioned in the article, is that people generally think about the function of an animal or animal part, rather than its cause.  This behavior is also quite reasonable.  Describing the function is easer, simply because it occurs in the present.  The cause is something that happened in the past, and is generally quite obscure.  Of course we think of the function first.

William Paley, who I also read about in one of Stephen Jay Gould’s essays, wrote that perfection of design in animals is a the mark of a creator, and that creator is God.  Perfection in design is actually an illusion.  Many aspects of design are imperfect.  Evolutionary theory predicts only an adequate adapation, because at that point there is no further pressure for change.  This principle is more in accord with real observations.

The article states that children give a peculiar explanation of why rocks are pointy.  Children generally don’t know about geological history, the history that explains why rocks are pointy.  They need to understand deep time before they can explain this correctly.  All they know about is function in the present time.  No wonder they say that it’s pointy to prevent animals from sitting on it.

Children also say that a giraffe has a long neck so that it can browse higher up the acadia tree.  This explanation, the only one they know, is correct, although it only describes their behavior.  No doubt there is an evolutionary explanation too, but children don’t know it.  Again, it takes and understanding of deep time to answer this question correctly.

The way that children learn now is beneficial to them, and should not be changed.  Their first body of knowledge describes how the world works in the present time.  That’s exactly what they need to know to live in this world.  Many aspects of their knowledge will need to be revised as they grow and learn.  Their world becomes more complex and more realistic as a result.  This is a normal and beneficial process.  Evolution, like many other scientific theories, is in conflict with people’s initial learning.  Their initial learning is not wrong.  It only needs to be revised to include concepts, like deep time, that they did not consider initially.


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One Comment
  1. The son was accosted in a discussion by a man touting ‘Intelligent Design.’ Son said that there were only two things wrong with it – ‘intelligent,’ and ‘design.’
    Any ‘God’ who designed us Perfect Humans should be sued and thrown out of Society of Engineers! Flat feet, vermiform appendix, baldness….the list is almost endless. 😳

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