This paper reports data from a study aiming to explore secondary students’ preconceptions and explanations about evolutionary processes. Students may exhibit both alternative and scientifically acceptable conceptions and bring different ones into play in response to different problem contexts. Hence, the examination of their explanations before instruction within different problem contexts is expected to highlight the concepts that instruction should put more emphasis on. To achieve this, an open-ended questionnaire in conjunction with semi-structured interviews was used to allow students to express their own views on issues related to evolution. Students’ explanations highlighted their lack of knowledge of important evolutionary concepts such as common descent and natural selection. In addition, many students explained the origin of traits as the result of evolution through need via purposeful change or as carefully designed adaptations. Rather than evolutionary, final causes formed the basis for the majority of students’ explanations. In many cases students provided different explanations for the same process to tasks with different content. It seems that the structure and the content of the task may have an effect on the explanations that students provide. Implications for evolution education are discussed and a minimal explanatory framework for evolution is suggested.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant unlimited access to the full article PDF.
Price includes VAT for USA
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.
Abrams E, Southerland S, Cummins C (2001) The How’s and Why’s of biological change: how learners neglect physical mechanisms in their search for meaning. Int J Sci Educ 23:1271–1281
Alters B (2005) Teaching biological evolution in higher education: Methodological, religious and nonreligious issues. Jones and Bartlett Publishers, Sudbury, MA
Ariew A (1998) Are probabilities necessary for evolutionary explanations? Biol Philos 13:245–253
Ariew A (2002) Platonic and Aristotelian roots of teleological arguments in cosmology and biology. In: Ariew A, Cummins R, Perlman M (eds) Functions: New essays in the philosophy of psychology and biology. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp 7–32
Ariew A (2003) Ernst Mayr’s ‘Ultimate/Proximate’ distinction reconsidered and reconstructed. Biol Philos 18:553–565
Balashov Y, Rosenberg A (eds) (2002) Philosophy of science: Contemporary readings. Routledge, London and New York
Banet E, Ayuso GE (2003) Teaching of biological inheritance and evolution of living beings in secondary school. Int J Sci Educ 25(3):373–407
Beatty J (1994) The proximate/ultimate distinction in the multiple careers of Ernst Mayr. Biol Philos 9:333–356
Beatty J (1995) The evolutionary contingency thesis. In: Wolters G, Lennox JG (eds) Concepts, theories, and rationality in the biological sciences, the second Pittsburgh–Konstanz colloquium in the philosophy of science, University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, 45–81
Beckner M (1969) Function and teleology. J Hist Biol 2(1):151–164
Bishop BA, Anderson CW (1990) Student conceptions of natural selection and its role in evolution. J Res Sci Teach 27:415–427
Brandon RN (1981) Biological teleology: questions and explanations. Stud Hist Philos Sci 12(2):91–105
Clough EE, Wood-Robinson C (1985) How secondary students interpret instances of biological adaptation. J Biol Education 19:125–130
Darwin C (1859) On the origin of species by means of natural selection, 1st edn. John Murray, London
Demastes SS, Good RG, Peebles P (1996) Patterns of conceptual change in evolution. J Res Sci Teaching 33(4):407–431
Evans EM (2001) Cognitive and contextual factors in the emergence of diverse belief systems: creation versus evolution. Cognitive Psychol 42:217–266
Forber P (2005) On the explanatory roles of natural selection. Biol Philos 20:329–342
Friedman M (1974) Explanation and scientific understanding. J Philos 71(1):5–19. Reprinted in Pitt (1988),188–198
Godfrey-Smith P (2003) Theory and reality: An introduction to the philosophy of science. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago
Gould SJ (2000)  Wonderful life: the Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, Vintage, London
Gould SJ (2002) The structure of evolutionary theory. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachussetts and London, England
Hempel C, Oppenheim P (1948) Studies in the logic of explanation. Philos Sci 15:135–175. Reprinted in Pitt (1988), 9–50
Inagaki K, Hatano G (2004) Vitalistic causality in young children’s naive biology. Trends Cognit Sci 8(8):356–362
Jensen MS, Finley FN (1996) ‘Changes in Students’ understanding of evolution resulting from different curricular and instructional strategies. J Res Sci Teaching 33(8):879–900
Jimenez-Aleixandre MP (1992) Thinking about theories or thinking with theories: a classroom study with natural selection. Int J Sci Educ 14(1):51–61
Kampourakis K, Zogza V (2006) ‘Students’ preconceptions about evolution: How accurate is the characterization as “Lamarckian” when considering the history of evolutionary thought? Sci & Educ (online first article)
Kampourakis K (2006) ‘The Finches’ beaks: introducing evolutionary concepts. Sci Scope 29(6):14–17
Keil, FC (1992) The origins of an autonomous biology. In: Gunnar MR, Maratsos M (eds) Modularity and constraints in language and cognition. Minnesota Symposium on Child Psychology, vol. 25. Erlbaum, pp 103–138
Kelemen D, DiYanni C (2005) Intuitions about origins: purpose and intelligent design in children’s reasoning about nature. J Cognition Develop 6(1):3–31
Kelemen D (1999) The scope of teleological thinking in pre-school children. Cognition 70:241–272
Kelemen D (2004a) Function, goals and intentions: children’s teleological reasoning about objects. Trends Cogn Sci 3(12):461–468
Kelemen D (2004b) Are children ‘‘Intuitive Theists’’?: reasoning about purpose and design in nature. Psychol Sci 15(5):295–301
Kitcher P (1981) Explanatory unification. Philos Sci 48(4):507–531. Reprinted in Pitt (1988), 167–187
Kitcher P (1989) Explanatory unification and the causal structure of the world. In: Kitcher P, Salmon WC (eds) Scientific explanation. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, pp 410–505. Reprinted in Balashov, Rosenberg, (2002), 71–91
Lennox JG (1992a) Philosophy of biology. In: Salmon M, Earman J, Glymour C, Lennox J, Machamer P, McGuire J, Norton J, Salmon W, and K Schaffner, KF (eds) Introduction to the philosophy of science. Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, pp 269–309
Lennox JG (1992b) Teleology. In: Keller EF, Lloyd EA (eds) Keywords in evolutionary biology. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachussetts and London, England, pp 324–333
Lennox JG (1993) Darwin was a teleologist. Biol & Philos 8:409–421
Lennox JG (2001) Aristotle’s philosophy of biology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
Lewis D (1986) Causal explanation. In: Lewis D (ed) Philosophical papers, vol. 2. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp 214–240
Lewontin RC (1969) The bases of conflict in biological explanation. J Hist Biol 2(1):35–45
Lombrozo T, Carey S (2006) Functional explanation and the function of explanation. Cognition 99:167–204
Mayr E (1961) Cause and effect in biology. Science 134:1501–1506
Okasha S (2002) Philosophy of science: A very short introduction. Oxford University Press, Oxford
Palmer DH (1999) Exploring the link between students’ scientific and nonscientific conceptions. Sci Educ 83(6):639–653
Passmore C, Stewart J (2002) A modeling approach to teaching evolutionary biology in high schools. J Res Sci Teaching 39(3):185–204
Pitt J (ed) (1988) Theories of explanation. Oxford University Press, New York
Rosenberg A (2005) Philosophy of science: A contemporary introduction, 2nd edn. Routledge, London
Salmon WC (1984) Scientific explanation and the causal structure of the world. Princeton University Press. Chapters 5 and 6 reprinted in Pitt (1988), pp 79–118
Salmon WC (1990) Scientific explanation: causation and unification. Critica. Revista Hispanoamericana de Filosofía 22(66):3–21. Reprinted in Balashov & Rosenberg (2002), pp 92–105
Samarapungavan A, Wiers RW (1997) Children’s thoughts on the origin of species: a study of explanatory coherence. Cogn Sci 21(2):147–177
Scriven M (1959) Explanation and prediction in evolutionary theory. Science 130:477–482
Scriven M (1962) Explanations, predictions, and laws. In: Feigl H, Maxwell G (eds) Scientific explanation, space, and time, Minnesota studies in the philosophy of science, vol 3. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, pp 170–230. Reprinted in Pitt (1988), 51–74
Scriven M (1969) Explanation in biological sciences. J Hist Biol 2(1):187–198
Settlage J (1994) Conceptions of natural selection: a snapshot of the sense-making process. J Res Sci Teaching 31(5):449–457
Strevens M (2004) The causal and unification accounts of explanation unified—causally. Noûs 38:154–176
Strevens M (2005) ‘Scientific Explanation’, in Macmillan Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (2nd ed.)
Waters KC (2003) The arguments in the origin of species. In: Hodge J, Radick G (eds) Cambridge companion to Darwin. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 116–139
Woodward J (2003) Scientific Explanation. In Zalta EN (ed) The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy
Wright L (1973) Functions. Philos Rev 82(2):139–168
The open-ended questionnaire included the following five tasks.
We know that the wolves, the dogs and the foxes are different species with their own special features. However, these species exhibit many morphological and physiological similarities. How could these be explained?
The giraffe, as we now know it, is an animal with a remarkably long neck. This feature allows the giraffe to browse on the leaves from the trees, when there is no adequate food on the ground. Nowadays we know that giraffes did not always possess this feature but used to have a shorter neck. Can you explain how the neck of the giraffe was lengthened?
Many animals exhibit the same color with their environment (e.g. the white polar bear) or look alike different species (e.g. leaf-like insects) that distracts their predators or preys. Can you explain how these particular animals have developed these features?
Beetles may live on trees and feed on their leaves. Several years ago, both green and brown beetles could be found in equal proportions a forest. However, birds could spot the green beetles more easily than the brown ones on the ground or on the trunks. Nowadays, if we attempt to estimate the proportions of green and brown beetles, we will mostly find brown ones. Can you explain how the proportion of the beetles living in the forest has changed?
So far you have studied bacteria, protists, fungi, plants and animals in the cellular level. Despite several differences, you have seen that all organisms exhibit some major features: (a) all organisms are built up by cells, and (b) all cells contain DNA, ribosomes and cellular membrane. Can you provide an explanation for the origin of these similarities?
About this article
Cite this article
Kampourakis, K., Zogza, V. Students’ intuitive explanations of the causes of homologies and adaptations. Sci & Educ 17, 27–47 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11191-007-9075-9
- Evolutionary explanations
- Intuitive explanations
- Teleological explanations