In another post, I describe research by Deborah Kelemen showing that even young children could grasp counterintuitive evolutionary concepts—a finding that suggests that evolution should be taught long before high school. Kelemen’s work suggests that evolution’s counterintuitive nature is one reason people may find it difficult to accept, but that introducing children to evolutionary concepts early is successful in countering their natural tendency to assume that animals and plants have been purposefully designed to thrive in their particular environments. Teach evolution early, then, and eventually we will no longer see 40% of adults rejecting one of the most exhaustively substantiated theories in all of science—right?

Not so fast. Another researcher, Will Gervais, has found that it’s easier for some people to accept counterintuitive ideas than others. It turns out that there is an association between cognitive style and beliefs about evolution. Cognitive style refers to the balance between two distinct mental systems that everyone uses for processing information: one system provides quick and effortless intuitive responses, whereas the other relies on more strenuous and analytical processing.

In an experiment with hundreds of Kentucky undergraduates, Gervais presented participants with a common task to measure the extent to which they would engage in immediate, intuitive judgments or more explicit, analytical deliberations (which can sometimes override the initial intuitive response). He found a significant relationship between the degree to which individuals would engage in more analytical styles of thinking and their endorsement of evolution. These results remained significant even after controlling for religious beliefs and political conservatism.

Gervais’ research presents two possibilities: (1) The more an individual engages in reflective, analytical thinking, the more likely it is that they will essentially “override” their natural intuitive responses when presented with evidence, thus making concepts like evolution easier to grasp; or  (2) Some individuals may naturally have stronger intuitive responses than others, which, though beneficial in some situations, may make it particularly challenging to successfully override their gut instincts. (Of course, for individuals who grow up in an environment where intelligent design and creationism are widely accepted, even those with a highly analytical cognitive style must override the norms of their community and upbringing to accept evolution.)  

This research helps to explain why counterintuitive concepts like evolution are not rejected only for ideological reasons, but also for cognitive ones. It also helps us understand  Gallup poll results, which found that nearly half of the U.S. population rejects evolution, a result that has remained stable for the past thirty years. Kelemen and Gervais’ research suggests that to change that percentage, educators and parents must introduce evolutionary thinking to children when they are young, rather than waiting until high school, and that educators should be mindful that accepting counterintuitive ideas may be more difficult for some people than others. Keleman has shown that children as young as five can grasp these concepts (and retain the information); they just need to be taught through innovative ways like storytelling. Over the past few years some excellent evolutionary children’s books have been published, such as Great AdaptationsGrandmother Fish, and Our Family Tree to name a few. These can be excellent tools for teaching evolutionary concepts, second only to applying some imagination and having children create their own species and animals like Dr. Keleman’s “pilosas.” Reinforcing the concepts each year should help even those with more intuitive cognitive styles to grasp the basics of evolutionary theory.

Counterintuitive concepts like evolution can be challenging for anyone to grasp. By taking a deeper look at the underlying cognitive hurdles, we can improve our future approaches to science education and policy, and do a better job helping students understand the elegant, if not at all obvious, theory that underlies all of biology.


Published On: July 23, 2021

Ashle Bailey-Gilreath

Ashle Bailey-Gilreath

Ashle has served as EI’s Operations Manager since 2016 and has worked in the non-profit sector both in the US and UK for 10 years, in addition to her past roles as research assistant for the University of Oxford and Queen’s University Belfast. She holds an MA in Cognition and Culture and an MA in nonprofit management, with an emphasis on cultural institutions. 

One Comment

  • Thank you, Ashle, for these two clear summaries of current research directions in Evolution Education. I would agree that you have accurately summarized the current discussion but you leave out a critically important point, which is that the field of evolution education research (of which I am a part) is woefully on the wrong track, climbing the wrong mountain as we describe, because of deeply unreflected “gene-centric bias”. That is, overwhelmingly, evo ed research is conducting inquiry with a singular and highly narrow conception of evolution as ONLY a change in gene frequency (often abstracting out the causal role or the organism and environment). So in this way, evolution education research has not even begun to explore the educational potential and cognitive hurdles of actually teaching evolution science as it is practiced by scientists in the 21st century, that is, teaching evolution as the interdisciplinary science that it is. I encourage discussion of the current literature, but it should always be contextualized by the embarrassing lack of scientific context that the evolution education research community (again, of which I am a part) tends to bring to the table. Our project, OpenEvo ( is working to fix that, but first we need more evolution educators and researchers to recognize this foundational problem for our field.

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