Monday, June 29, 2015

Evolution isn't controversial for scientific reasons, but it is controversial, in part, for psychological reasons

The theory of evolution by natural selection is among the best established in science, yet also among the most controversial for subsets of the American public.
For decades we've known that beliefs about evolution are well-predicted by demographic factors, such as religious upbringing and political affiliation. There's also enormous variation in the acceptance of evolution across different countries, all of which suggests an important role for cultural input in driving beliefs about evolution. A child raised by Buddhists in California is much more likely to accept evolution than one raised by evangelical protestants in Kansas.
But in the last 20 years or so, research in psychology and the cognitive science of religion has increasingly focused on another factor that contributes to evolutionary disbelief: the very cognitive mechanisms underlying human cognition.
Researchers have argued that a variety of basic human tendencies conspire to make natural selection especially aversive and difficult to understand, and to make creationism a compelling alternative. For instance, people tend to prefer explanations that offer certainty and a sense of purpose when it comes to their lives and the design of the natural world and they have an easier time wrapping their heads around theories that involve biological categories with clear boundaries — all of which are challenged by natural selection.
These factors are typically taken to hold for all humans, not only those who reject evolution. But this naturally raises a question about what differentiates those individuals who do accept evolution from those who do not. In other words, if the California Buddhist and the Kansas protestant share the same cognitive mechanisms, what accounts for their differing views on evolution?
In fact, there's evidence that individuals vary in the extent to which they favor purpose and exhibit other relevant cognitive tendencies, and that this variation is related to religious belief — itself a strong predictor of evolutionary belief. But there's a lot we don't know about how differences between individuals drive different beliefs about evolution, and about how these individual differences interact with cultural input.
A new paper by psychologist Will Gervais, just published in the journalCognition, sheds new light on these questions. In two surveys conducted with hundreds of undergraduates attending a large university in Kentucky, Gervais found an association between cognitive style and beliefs about evolution. Gervais used a common task to measure the extent to which people engage in a more intuitive cognitive style, which involves going with immediate, intuitive judgments, versus a more analytic cognitive style, which involves more explicit deliberation, and which can often override an intuitive response. npr

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