Science & Education

, Volume 23, Issue 5, pp 1051-1074

First online:

Darwin’s Difficulties and Students’ Struggles with Trait Loss: Cognitive-Historical Parallelisms in Evolutionary Explanation

  • Minsu HaAffiliated withDepartment of Teaching and Learning, The Ohio State University Email author 
  • , Ross H. NehmAffiliated withCenter for Science and Mathematics Education, Ecology and Evolution, Stony Brook University

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Although historical changes in scientific ideas sometimes display striking similarities with students’ conceptual progressions, some scholars have cautioned that such similarities lack meaningful commonalities. In the history of evolution, while Darwin and his contemporaries often used natural selection to explain evolutionary trait gain or increase, they struggled to use it to convincingly account for cases of trait loss or decrease. This study examines Darwin’s evolutionary writings about trait gain and loss in the Origin of Species (On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. D. Appleton, New York, 1859) and compares them to written evolutionary explanations for trait gain and loss in a large (n > 500), cross-cultural and cross-sectional sample (novices and experts from the USA and Korea). Findings indicate that significantly more students and experts applied natural selection to cases of trait gain, but like Darwin and his contemporaries, they more often applied ‘use and disuse’ and ‘inheritance of acquired characteristics’ to episodes of trait loss. Although the parallelism between Darwin’s difficulties and students’ struggles with trait loss are striking, significant differences also characterize explanatory model structure. Overall, however, students and scientists struggles to explain trait loss—which is a very common phenomenon in the history of life—appear to transcend time, place, and level of biological expertise. The significance of these findings for evolution education are discussed; in particular, the situated nature of biological reasoning, and the important role that the history of science can play in understanding cognitive constraints on science learning.