From Ends to Causes (and Back Again) by Metaphor: The Paradox of Natural Selection
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- Blancke, S., Schellens, T., Soetaert, R. et al. Sci & Educ (2014) 23: 793. doi:10.1007/s11191-013-9648-8
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Natural selection is one of the most famous metaphors in the history of science. Charles Darwin used the metaphor and the underlying analogy to frame his ideas about evolution and its main driving mechanism into a full-fledged theory. Because the metaphor turned out to be such a powerful epistemic tool, Darwin naturally assumed that he could also employ it as an educational tool to inform his contemporaries about his findings. Moreover, by using the metaphor Darwin was able to bring his theory in accordance with both the dominant philosophy of science in his time and the respected tradition of natural theology. However, as he introduced his theory of evolution by natural selection in On the origin of species in 1859, the metaphor also turned out to have a serious downside. Because of its intentional overtones, his contemporaries systematically misunderstood his metaphor not as a natural mechanism causing evolution to occur but as an agent who works towards particular ends. The difference in success between natural selection as an epistemic tool and its failure as an educational tool is labelled as a paradox. We explain the paradox from a cognitive perspective and discuss the implications for teaching evolution.