Saturday, April 2, 2016

Indoctrinating the Young

An article in The Guardian by Nathalia Gjersoe is remarkable for what it suggests about current trends in the philosophy of education. The article points out that students, including secular students, seem intuitively resistant to Darwinian evolution and intuitively inclined toward intelligent design. This is a puzzle and one that Gjersoe and the people she writes about are resolved to correct. She writes:
Evolution is poorly understood by students and, disturbingly, by many of their science teachers. Although it is part of the compulsory science curriculum in most schools in the UK and the USA, more than a third of people in both countries reject the theory of evolution outright or believe that it is guided by a supreme being.

It is critical that the voting public have a clear understanding of evolution. Adaptation by natural selection, the primary mechanism of evolution, underpins a raft of current social concerns such as antibiotic resistance, the impact of climate change and the relationship between genes and environment. So why, despite formal scientific education, does intelligent design remain so intuitively plausible and evolution so intuitively opaque? And what can we do about it?
Unfortunately, Gjersoe's paragraph suggests that she herself may not have a very good grasp of evolutionary theory. Contemporary biologists have grown increasingly skeptical that natural selection is anything more than an ancillary mechanism driving evolutionary change, but let's set that aside. We can set aside, too, the fact that if people believe evolution is guided by a transcendent agent it's not evolution they reject but rather metaphysical naturalism.

In any case, Gjersoe goes on to assert that one reason for the resistance to evolutionary explanations of origins is that people, especially youngsters, intuitively hold to a view that she calls psychological essentialism which holds that species don't change. She asserts that this "is one of the primary reasons why the theory of evolution is so widely misunderstood by both children and adults."

I'm not convinced of that. I suspect that most people have trouble with naturalistic (i.e. Darwinian) evolution because it seems so implausible to them that blind, impersonal, unguided forces could produce something so intricate and complex as a human immune system or something so gratuitous and yet marvellous as sexual reproduction. The notion that such phenomena, as well as hundreds, if not millions, of other examples can be explained by the random activity of chance mutation and the vicissitudes of natural selection strikes many people, including many biologists, as quite nearly miraculous, and if miracles are to be part of our set of beliefs many are more inclined to think that their source is a personal agent rather than impersonal nature.

When viewers watch something like the following video, for instance, they're quite naturally stunned to think that the molecular machines discussed in it are some sort of fortuitous accident. When the examples of such amazing complexity and apparent design accumulate to a certain threshold, the fortuitous accident theory becomes literally incredible for a lot of people:
So, what to do about this very powerful inclination to see purposeful design in the world? How can it be stifled and eradicated so that people will be much more open to accepting Darwinian evolution? Gjersoe's answer is to indoctrinate children at ever younger ages:
So how do we override such widespread and tenacious cognitive biases?....

Evolution is typically taught to students at around 14- to 15-years of age as they prepare for their GCSEs. After persistent lobbying by the British Humanist Association, evolution was included in the British national primary curriculum for the first time last year. From September 2015, students will be taught about evolution from Year 6, at around 10-11 years of age.

Might this still be too late? [Deb Kelemen and colleagues at Boston University] chose 5- to 8-year-olds to test because at this age promiscuous teleology and psychological essentialism are still separate and fragmentary. She argues that by 10 years of age they have coalesced into a coherent theoretical framework that then gets in the way of contradictory scientific explanations and may remain the default, gut reaction, even in adults....If part of the reason that intelligent design is so popular is because it seems intuitively correct, might the solution be to disrupt those intuitions very early on? Should we reconsider the national curriculum (yet again) and start teaching evolution even earlier?
It's ironic that we are often told that parents and teachers should not instill their values in their children but should let them come to their own conclusions about right and wrong, religion, politics, etc. but then we read articles like this which celebrate doing that exact thing when it comes to explaining how living things came to be what they are. It seems that whether or not it's a good thing to instill one's values and beliefs in the young just depends on what one's values and beliefs are.