Friday, January 07, 2005

Intelligent Design Inferences in Children

Because religious cognition utilizes ordinary cognitive mechanisms, research in virtually every area of cognitive psychology and neuroscience may have implications for the study of religion. It would be difficult, then, to attempt to blog about all of the interesting findings that relate to the study of religion in cognitive science. Since the areas that are most closely related to my own study are those that concern religious concepts (e.g., God concepts) and memory for religious information, most of what I post on the topic will likely come from those areas. However, I want to touch on some other interesting lines of research as well. So, in this post, I'm going to talk about some interesting research being done on young children's tendency to ascribe teleological explanations to natural phenomena, including those for which adults would typically provide natural, non-teleological explanations (e.g., the shapes of rock formations).

Recent research has led to the Promiscuous Teleology theory1, which argues that children tend provide teleological explanations for a broader range of instances than adults, from artificacts, to biological kinds and natural, non-biological kinds such as rock formations and whether phenomena. This tendency results from a further tendency to give purposeful explanations when other types of causal explanations are not obvious, as well as a hair-triggered intentional reasoning mechanism. Researchers have shown that up until about 10 years, an age at which most U.S. children will have received a sufficient amount of science education to provide non-teleological explanations for non-biological natural phenomena, children give teleological explanations for these sorts of phenomena2. When asked what the "function," if there is one, of various properties of the properties of artificats, biological kinds, and non-biological natural kinds, U.S. children younger than ten will readily provide a functional explanation, and prefer functional to physical explanations when given a choice3. Children who are told stories about the origins of natural kinds (biological or non-biological), and later asked to recall those stories, often "reconstruct" them in order to make them fit more teleological explanations (see here). British children have also been shown to have this tendency, though it is not as strong in them as it is in U.S. children, a fact likely due to the differences in religiosity between the the U.S. and the U.K. Children in the United States are more likely to be exposed to design explanations for natural phenomena at an early age than British children are.

If children have a natural tendency to give teleological explanations for natural phenomena, they may also believe that such phenomena were intentionally created by an intelligent designer. And, in fact, U.S. children between the ages of 5 and 11, from both highly religious and non-religious households, will, if given the choice, answer that biological entities were created by God. Only after 11 do the tendencies to believe that God created animals begin to diverge for these two groups4.

In one study5, British children between the ages f 5 and 10 were presented with pictures of items of different kinds6, and asked a series of questions about their origins. The first question was open ended ("Why did the first ever X exist?”). After this question had been asked for each item, the children were asked a second question about each one. This question presented them with a choice between a physical or teleological causal explanation for the origin of the item. Finally, children were asked a design question about each item (e.g., "Did someone or something make the first ever mountain exist or did it just happen?”).

In answer to the first question, children throughout the age group tended to provive a purpose as the explanation for the origins of each type of objects, whether they were artificats, biological kinds, or non-biologicla natural kinds. When they attributed the origins of an item to a causal agent, they were likely to attribute it to a human rather than supernatural agent, for all item types. In answering the second question, children tended to provide functional explanations for each item-type, though for objects about which they may have known the physical causes (e.g., mountains), they were less likely to do so. Older children were also less likely to give functional explanations than younger children. Finally, for the third question, about intelligent design, children were likely to attribute the origns of each item type to an intelligent designer, though this tendency was stronger for artifacts than biological kinds, and biological kinds for non-biological natural kinds. Younger children were also more likely to attribute design than older children, and these British children were slightly less likely to attribute design to natural kinds (biological and non-biological) than American children.

Thus, this study again demonstrates children's tendency to produce teleological explanations for artifacts and natural kinds, though this tendency can be mitigated by knowledge of physical origins, as indicated by its decrease in older children, particularly for objects about which they had knowledge of physical origins. It also indicates that children tend to believe that both artifiacts and natural kinds were disigned by intelligent agents. This tendency was strongest when children spontaneously produced teleological answers to the first, open-ended question (correlations around .8), indicating that when children assing a purpose to something, they also tend to believe that the purpose was the result of intention. Also, as in the previous studies on teleological explanations, British children (who had various religious backgrounds, including Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and non-religious) perceived design slightly less often than U.S. children, a fact likely due to the higher level of religiosity in the United States.

These studies may provide insight into recent surveys showing that about 50% of American adults believe in some form of creationism, and another 20-25% lean that way. There are all sorts of intervening factors between childhood and adulthood that may influence these beliefs, such as increased levels of religious education and indoctrionation, and the high level of religiosity in the United States is certainly a factor. However, the studies demonstrating that children attribute teleological explanations to both artifiacts and natural kinds also show that these explanations are diminished as children get older and gain more scientific knowledge. For instance, in the study on beliefs in intelligent design, children were much more likely to choose functional explanations for the origins of rivers than mountains, when they were given the choice between a functional and physical explanation. The authors attributed this to children's knowledge of volcanoes, and the relationship between mountains and volcanoes. Children did not have similar knowledge of the physical origins of rivers, and therefore, when under uncertainty, were likely to make teleological inferences. Since design inferences seem to be closely related to teleological inferences in children, and teleological inferences are affected by science education, one explanation for the high incidence of design inferences in American adults may be a lack of quality science education. It may be that by adulthood, further scientific knowledge no longer affects firmly-entrenched beliefs in design, as it might have in childhood.

1 Kelemen, D. (1999a). The scope of teleological thinking in preschool children. Cognition, 70, 241-272. 36
36. Kelemen, D. (1999b). Beliefs about purpose: On the origins of teleological thought. In M.
Corballis, & S. Lea (Eds.), The descent of mind: Psychological perspectives on hominid
(pp. 278-294). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
2 Kellemen (1999a).
3 Kelemen, D. (1999c). Why are rocks pointy? Children’s preference for teleological explanations of the natural world. Developmental Psychology, 35, 1440-1453.
4 Evans, E. M. (2001). Cognitive and contextual factors in the emergence of diverse belief systems: Creation versus evolution. Cognitive Psychology, 42, 217-266.
5 Kelemen, D., & DiYanni, C. (In Press). Intuitions about origins: Purpose and intelligent design in children's reasoning about nature. Journal of Cognition and Development.
6 The objects were the following, always given in this order (with the artifacts last): thunderstorm, bird, river, monkey, mountain, flood, boat, hat.


Anonymous said...

That's a fascinating group of results, but it leaves me with one question:

If children "grow out" of teleological inferences as they get older/learn more, what makes the Intelligent Design case special? It seems to me that if children learn in case after case that their original theories were wrong (or perhaps merely unnecessary), that it would be a very strange sort of inductive leap to say that no individual thing was created for a particular purpose, but the totality of things was.

Of course, it could be that science education is better on volcanoes and rivers than DNA. Alternatively, maybe it's not so much the quality of the education as the difference in the probabilities involved. It's not hard to believe in plate tectonics when earthquakes occur so regularly to confirm them. It's not hard to believe that canyons are formed by erosion when you can go to the Grand Canyon and see the layers of rock. It's a lot harder to accept the version of events which starts with the Miller-Urey experiment and says it's all evolution from there. I'm not saying that means anything one way or the other about the truth of the evoluionary story, but it involves accepting a story full of low-probability events over a difficult-to-comprehend time scale. At which point other low-probability events (on a rather more comprehensible time scale) suddenly don't seem quite as difficult to believe. 

Posted by Semantic Compositions

Anonymous said...

You're probably right. If nothing else, as the number of improbably, or difficult to contemplate events increases, so does uncertainty, and under uncertainty, humans do seem to be hard-wired to infer intention. I still think that's something that better science education could alleviate. While I suspect that there are many people who don't understand the relationship between rock stratification and erosion, or even plate tectonics and earthquakes (judging by all the explanations in the papers after the tsunami, journalists don't think many people understand that either), it would be fairly easy to teach them about these things. The gists of the most general and important theories in most sciences (with the possible exception of physics) tend to be quite simple and elegant, and therefore easy to explain and understand. That so few people do understand them probably says more about the ways in which educators explain those theories than about the intelligence of the people who don't understand them. The fact that so many people still ask such silly questions ask, "if we evolved from monkeys, then why are there still monkeys," or think that rock dates are obtained using dating methods that have dated day-old chicken bones at 50,000 years old, tells me that someone at some level of the education system isn't doing his or her job.

Of course, I don't think that inadequacies in the education system are the primary reason for so many people believing in creationism in this country. I think religion is the major cause of that. Then there are the socio-political realities, such as the real-world hostility between religion and science (I know that religion and science need not be in conflict, but when the religious and the scientifically-oriented interact, the interactions are all-to-often unfriendly). However, I do believe that one of the implications of the results of developmental research on teleological reasoning and design inferences is that a little scientific knowledge goes a long way. That doesn't mean that science can convince people that God didn't ultimately create the world, nor should it, but it might change the ways in which they believe that occurred (e.g., from strict Biblical creationism to theistic evolution or something of that sort). 

Posted by Chris

Anonymous said...

"After this question had been asked for each item, the children were asked a second question about each one. This question presented them with a choice between a physical or teleological causal explanation for the origin of the item. Finally, children were asked a design question about each item (e.g., "Did someone or something make the first ever mountain exist or did it just happen?")."

Why did the authors want the children to choose between a physical and teleological causal explanation? It doesn't seem like a choice that has to be made. For example, I recently pointed out on my blog that a distinction needs to be made in how the tsunami happened and why the tsunami happened. In science explanation, there generally isn't a difference between the answers to "how" and "why" questions - there treated as the same question. But in real life, there are more types of explanations than just scientific ones.  

Posted by Macht

Anonymous said...

Macht, well, in that forced choice task, they want the children to choose between a teloeological and non-teleological explanation. a scientist might argue (in line with what SC was saying in his comment) that this glosses over the "how" and "why" distinction, but often teleological explanations, particularly in children and literal creationists, the how and the why are not separable. 

Posted by Chris

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Mark said...

Okay, this is an old post and all, but I was wondering if you can further articulate the "how and why are not separable" thing. Studies which cite children's responses to "What's a ____ for?" can be seen as very leading.

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