Science & Education

, Volume 23, Issue 5, pp 1051–1074 | Cite as

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

  • Minsu HaEmail author
  • Ross H. Nehm


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.


Natural Selection Evolutionary Explanation Evolutionary Reasoning Reasoning Pattern Korean Sample 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



This paper is based on a presentation at the IHPST conference in Korea. We thank the organizers and speakers for providing valuable comments on our work. We also thank the editor and reviewers for providing helpful feedback on our manuscript. Lastly, we thank Deborah Lan for help with data coding, and NSF 0909999 and the Marilyn Ruth Hathaway Scholarship for financial support.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Teaching and LearningThe Ohio State UniversityColumbusUSA
  2. 2.Center for Science and Mathematics Education, Ecology and EvolutionStony Brook UniversityStony BrookUSA

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