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Influences on Understanding and Belief About the Origin of Species in Chinese and American Adolescents

  • Author(s): Smith, Erin Irene
  • Advisor(s): Richert, Rebekah A.
  • et al.
Abstract

Although beliefs about origins and evolutionary knowledge have been considered independent, research has suggested that both are influenced by cognitive constraints of psychological essentialism and teleology. Most research supporting these claims has been conducted with children from Western cultures; little is known about the psychological processes underpinning beliefs and knowledge about the natural world outside Western contexts or during adolescence. Claims about the universality of beliefs, knowledge, and the possible relationship between should be made after examining samples that differ in theoretically relevant ways from a typical Western sample, such as a Chinese sample in which religious explanations are rare or an adolescent sample in which brain development promotes the coordination of conflicting information.

To examine how belief and knowledge are related in Western- and non-Western samples, as well as the factors that predict both independently, 238 Chinese (M = 15.85 years old, SD = .85 years; 36.6% male) and 277 American adolescents (M = 15.80 years, SD = 1.34 years; 51.6% male) were recruited from their high schools to participate. Adolescents completed a survey measuring beliefs about the origin of living and non-living exemplars, evolutionary knowledge, and variables that were likely to influence belief and knowledge such as science preference, epistemology, psychological essentialism, teleological reasoning, and religious beliefs.

American adolescents were more creationist than Chinese adolescents. Chinese adolescents displayed more sophisticated evolutionary knowledge than American adolescents although overall performance was low. Finally, there was no relationship between belief and knowledge for American adolescents yet there was a small, positive relationship for Chinese adolescents such that adolescents who believed in creation also tended to demonstrate more evolutionary knowledge. Additional analyses employed mediation techniques to explain why cultural differences in creation belief and evolutionary knowledge exist. Age was unrelated to belief and to knowledge.

The discussion focuses on the aspects of cultural membership that contribute to belief and evolutionary knowledge. Additional discussion highlights the role of classroom curriculum, curriculum testing, and focusing on uncovering variables and techniques that promote evolutionary learning.

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