Students’ intuitive explanations of the causes of homologies and adaptations


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.

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Correspondence to Kostas Kampourakis.



The open-ended questionnaire included the following five tasks.

Task 1

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?

Task 2

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?

Task 3

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?

Task 4

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?

Task 5

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?

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Kampourakis, K., Zogza, V. Students’ intuitive explanations of the causes of homologies and adaptations. Sci & Educ 17, 27–47 (2008).

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  • Evolutionary explanations
  • Intuitive explanations
  • Teleological explanations
  • Causes
  • Homologies
  • Adaptations